Across West Africa, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened pre-pandemic problems of poverty, inequality, and lack of access to basic public goods and services among the majority of people.
Apart from the loss of several lives to the pandemic, the collapse of businesses has devastated many. These effects of the pandemic are certainly not unique to West Africa. But giving pre-pandemic economic, humanitarian, and security fragilities in the region, the case of West African is somewhat unique.
There is no doubt that, as is the case around the world, economies in West Africa have been profoundly impacted. But at the same time, the pandemic brought about unprecedented funding inflows from aid agencies and donors to nations in the region. Besides, all countries responded with more borrowing and the use of national reserves in unprecedented ways.
In April 2020 for example, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved $1billion to Ghana; $3.4billion to Nigeria; $886million to Cote d’Ivoire, and $442million to Senegal to support COVID-19 efforts in the countries. Nearly all countries in the region received similar significant support from the IMF alongside other substantial support from the World Bank and other institutions.
There were also significant aid and credit facilities from wealthy nations and their institutions. Corporate organisations and wealthy individuals chipped in to support countries in the region to help deal with the pandemic and its effects on lives and livelihoods.
Despite these inflows and the net effect of astronomical national debts and increased burden on future generations, the monies are gone, the problems have stayed and the masses remain helpless.
The question to ask is: how have countries utilised their COVID-19 aid and loan funds to the benefit of their people? How are governments in the region going to make sure the vast natural resource endowment of their nations will be managed to benefit all in the post-COVID recovery process? So far, these questions are not being posed forcefully and, expectedly, no answers are being provided.
Despite the lack of accountability for COVID-related aid and loans, governments have begun blaming literally every problem including the impacts of Pre-COVID economic mismanagement and corruption on COVID-19. New harsh measures including fresh taxes are being imposed in the name of post-COVID rebuilding and reconstruction. In Ghana, for example, the government has announced a 1% Covid-19 health levy on VAT and a 1% increase in the country’s health insurance levy. These measures will further worsen the plight of the poor masses.
There certainly cannot be a better time to demand and insist on transparency and accountability on the part of governments. It is time for governments in West Africa to let their people know how they spent and will spend monies contracted or received through loans and aid. And how they have used and will exploit resources generated through taxes and public resources before, during, and after the pandemic.
A major tool that can be utilised to ensure increased transparency and accountability among governments is Right to Information (RTI) Laws. Fortunately, more than half of the countries in the region (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Niger, Guinea, Ghana, and Burkina Faso) have RTI laws, which are intended to enhance transparency and accountability in governance.
These laws present a great opportunity for effective investigative journalism and accountability reporting. However, due to a number of constrictions, journalists in the region have largely been unable to effectively utilise the laws for the type of critical reporting that enhances transparency and advances accountability in governance.
The factors that limit the use of RTI laws for investigative journalism in the region have mainly included limited understanding of the laws and how to utilise them on the part of journalists. There is also the problem of frequent arbitrary refusal by public institutions to grant access to information requests by journalists. When such refusals occur, journalists are often left helpless as they and their organisations are usually unable to afford the costs of pursuing legal challenges and litigation.
The Media Foundation for West Africa is responding to the challenge. We are responding with three interlinked critical actions – Empowerment, Support, and Defence – for journalists.
Empowerment: To be effective in utilising RTI Laws for accountability reporting, journalists must have a better understanding of the RTI laws of their respective countries. Beyond understanding the laws, journalists need to have the skills and understanding of how to use the laws to do the kind of reporting that advances transparency and accountability. Thus, the empowerment component of our initiative involves a number of knowledge-sharing and capacity-building interventions. First, we are producing simplified, plain-language manuals (guide books) on the various RTI laws such as this guide on Ghana’s RTI law, that can be quickly read and easily understood by journalists. Then we are having in-depth, hands-on capacity development workshops for investigative journalists led by legal experts and experienced investigative journalists.
Support: It takes resources to do great journalism. The majority of newsrooms in the region are often unable to find the resources to cover basic costs for data, travel expenses, research among others that are often associated with doing great investigative reporting. To help deal with this challenge, we are offering funding support to cover the costs associated with the production of accountability stories. Besides, we also engage experienced investigative journalists who serve as mentors to beneficiaries of our investigative reporting micro-grants throughout the development of their stories.
Defend: We anticipate challenges with arbitrary denial or refusal to grant access to information requests filed by journalists. We are offering the necessary support including support for litigation that helps journalists enforce their rights of access to public information. Also, a major emerging threat to critical journalism in West Africa is the resort to physical attacks, harassment, and legal threats and suits (SLAPP) to censor and deter reporting that often exposes corruption and other wrongdoings. Journalists are often left defenceless and vulnerable. Under our initiative, we are, through the support of public-interest lawyers and with our network of international partners, offering legal defence to journalists in the region. We particularly support those who are targeted because of their critical reporting online or offline, that exposes corruption and advances accountability.
Besides all these, we have ramped up our press freedom monitoring, reporting, and advocacy across the region. And have set up an internal accountability journalism project that will be unveiled in the coming weeks.
We look forward to making journalism impact the lives of the people of West Africa positively as we empower, support, and defend journalists across the region.