Leveraging the Media for COVID-19 Fund Accountability
Several articles and publications have tried to juxtapose the Media’s role in amplifying the need for effective resource management regarding COVID-19 with the current level of accountability in the Nigerian economy. This is primarily due to the general belief that the media is strategic in shaping public opinions and debunking misinformation about the COVID-19 response and related expenses, and rightly so. It is also no gainsaying that people often rely on the media to guide their perceptions of resource allocation and governance. As such, more responsibility is placed on media organisations to not only gather credible information but also report these data with fairness and objectivity. This makes it paramount for media organisations to invest in resource gathering to ensure that reports are backed by credible data and not merely based on hearsay and emotions.
As we all know, COVID-19 did hamper not only Nigeria’s socio-economic stability but also revealed our frail health system, inadequate health sector funding and other deeply rooted systemic issues. To an extent, the media has played an active role in ensuring that the public stays up to date with information regarding some of these adverse effects. However, as the pandemic progressed, their role moved beyond creating awareness into spotlighting some of these systemic issues as far as COVID-19 response, palliative distribution, vaccine administration, and health sector funding are concerned. Likewise, collaborations with the civil society as well as other stakeholders helped to catalyse civic actions towards ensuring a responsible and accountable government in the times of COVID. A report released by CIVICUS, “Solidarity in the Time of COVID”, succinctly highlights the irreplaceable role of activists, the media and CSOs during the pandemic, especially concerning churning out accurate information to local communities using creative channels. This has invariably influenced actions from the citizens as well as policy responses and actions from state actors cum the government.
The truth remains that for any country to make headway in championing civic actions on issues bothering COVID-19 transparency and accountability, its media needs to be equipped with the necessary tools and freehand to execute its duties. Such media must also be open and have editorial independence to stay fair and objectives
Is Press Freedom a Farce in Nigeria?
There is no doubt that COVID-19 was and still is a global concern. Issues bothering health and survival attract attention and interest from citizens and stakeholders; thus, reportages on matters like this are often regarded as powerful tools in shaping opinions and responses from the citizens. While the consequences of Covid-19 severely limited media practices and undertakings of press freedom, the government’s hostile activities to silence media criticism against its responses in handling the pandemic were pervasive. This has seriously hampered the media’s ability to demand accountability from the government.
Undoubtedly, there are some noticeable barriers to media engagement in COVID times.
Limited press freedom: Media freedom is crucial to a democratic society. During the pandemic, media organisations and personnel were restricted from freely publishing government activities across platforms. This invariably resulted in restricted access to first-hand information while government officials responsible for providing relevant information to the media were uncooperative to avoid scrutiny over governments’ actions. During the pandemic, particularly the lockdown, the media were increasingly harassed and threatened by government security agents. These arrests, harassments, and forced detention of the information gatekeepers in Nigeria were no new trends. Instead, they further amplified the toxicity in the environment journalists have worked in over the years.
At some point, during one of the daily briefings of the country’s Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, Information minister Lai Mohammed announced an exemption for journalists to work without any threats from the security agents, but the harassment continued. Lack of Tracking Mechanism: The media were posed with the challenge of monitoring the government expenditure as there was no tracking mechanism in place. This would have been a credible source for ensuring accountability was proper monitoring of the government activities and expenditure; however, the media was limited to the daily updates issued by the Covid-19 Presidential Taskforce. In most cases, this only covered the infection rate of the virus and procurement made. There was no established platform for the media or public to monitor the emergency funds being expended by the government.
Combating Fake News and its Infodemic: Misinformation about Covid-19 was a common problem for the media. The misinformation gained popularity through various platforms, particularly on social media. There were shared concerns in the media that false information about the pandemic could lead to health concerns, panic and civic disorder. As part of its obligation, the media were faced with the challenge of combating misinformation while taking all opportunities available to push out correct information to the public.
Information Accessibility: The government’s opaque level of transparency regarding specific data during the pandemic was a fighting force against the media.
Data in the government documents were not made available to the public. Without a verified document or data, the authenticity of data reported to hold the government to account is questioned. The government could have denied the reports at any time.
Zero cooperation from the government: Apart from the issue of misinformation and lack of transparency, the media also had to battle zero cooperation from the government. Regarding funds generated, policy dialogues, expenditures, vaccine distribution, and social data, there were no open channels of discourse nor a comprehensive database for information sourcing.
What are the stakeholders saying?
The media is often characterised as stakeholders in many spheres of society. Still, it is necessary to note who the stakeholders in the media industry are and how they play critical roles in ensuring the media’s ability to hold the government accountable. These include but are not limited to Media Unions, Citizens, Strategic partners and Civil Society organisations.
Not for Profit Organizations: Non Governmental Organizations such as BudgIT have organised training for media practitioners to empower them with the relevant tools to demand accountability and good governance in Nigeria. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it became imperative for the media to build capacity and demand accountability from the government through data-driven reports. Through the COVID-19 Transparency and Accountability Project, BudgIT has been instrumental in strengthening COVID-19 fund accountability frameworks and devising strategies that enhance citizen-led advocacy for reforms. BudgIT has tracked resources from the public sector, private, multilateral, and bilateral donors committed to the COVID-19 pandemic. These resources are then made available to the media as mechanisms that support the transparency and accountability of funds.
In November 2021, BudgIT, in collaboration with Connected Development, organised a coalition meeting with the media, CSOs and stakeholders on fund management regarding the Covid-19 response in Africa. Through this forum, BudgIT shared its findings on its research on COVID-19 response accountability mechanisms in focus countries, challenges with budgeting and procurement processes, government fiscal capacity and options for future emergency fund management. Likewise, in December 2021, BudgIT engaged journalists in a capacity-building session to upskill, educate and enlighten journalists on ways to contextualise Covid-19 information using data, to induce improved policy reforms and ensure accountability in government.
Civil Society Organisations: Civil Society Organizations are integral in enhancing transparency and good governance in the nation by contributing to the increased public debate on issues surrounding the formulation and implementation of government budgets and supporting greater openness of public revenues. As essential stakeholders, civil society groups can critique the government’s policy, improve advocacy on strategic issues and build the capacity of media organisations to enable them to engage in informed debates. The Covid-19 pandemic established the Civil Society Organisation CSO Situation rooms, a coalition of CSOs and other state and non-state actors to ensure accountability mechanisms during the pandemic. The Situation Room improved awareness among media professionals on framing COVID 19 information to resonate with the public and the need to strengthen the reporting of COVID 19 response in the state.
Media Unions: Media associations such as the Nigerian Union of Journalists rendered tremendous support to various media organisations during the pandemic. In such instances, the NUJ were relentless in supporting and fighting for media rights. Despite the media’s challenges in the period under review, the National Broadcasting Commission frustrated the media industry with stiff regulations and sanctions.
Cultural Influencers: Cultural leaders are significant stakeholders in information dissemination. During the outbreak, these cultural leaders had a significant impact on public opinion, thus serving as a tool to bring the correct information to the trend of widespread dissemination. Opinion leaders greatly influenced the attitudes and behaviours of the public, resulting in thousands of users’ participation in disseminating the right information. With the participation of opinion leaders, the media managed the issue of misinformation, making the round on various platforms.
Pressure Groups: Common pressure groups such as the National Union of Road Transport Workers – NURTW – demonstrated social responsibility in collaboration with the media during the pandemic to ensure adequate public education to its members. The media also accessed first-hand information on the plight of the members of the various stakeholder groups; in turn, pressure groups successfully utilised the media in enhancing the public understanding of the Covid-19 outbreak and the importance of holding the government accountable. Minority and Pressure Groups: No society can function on its own. For a nation to prosper, there needs to be stability between the majority and the minority groups.
While the pandemic was in full gear, leaders of the minority sect, particularly disabled women, strengthened their engagement with the media through accountability meetings to provide data, social register and information to ensure inclusivity. For instance, according to a publication by UN Women in 2021, women with disabilities in Nigeria faced challenges meeting their basic needs during the pandemic. Many women explained that they had not been on the list of people due to receiving support. Due to engagements with the media, a better understanding of the experiences of a diverse group of women during the Covid-19 crisis in Nigeria was captured and recommendations relevant for the ongoing response and recovery to promote the inclusion of women with disabilities were made. As a result, the media had access to the needed materials to raise awareness in the advocacy for equal distribution of emergency relief funds and materials.
Both the media and CSOs share a similar purpose of promoting effective allocation of resources and good governance across all levels of government. Thus, there should be more collaborative efforts between both parties on how to consolidate resources to demand accountability on COVID-19 fund management. The relationship between both parties should be interdependent by co-creating strategies for fostering improved accountability systems in the country.
Speaking of the government, the relationship it has with the media goes a long way in redefining its willingness to build an environment that allows the media to thrive. Among other things, the government must be willing to engage in issues that threaten such an environment. A media-friendly environment should not be characterised by the issues of limited press freedom, minimal access to information, encroachment on media freedom and fake news infodemic. Rather, the media should have the utmost confidence in the backing of its government to amplify issues that directly affect the citizens as far as the COVID-19 fund accountability is concerned.
One of the most valuable stakeholder groups that can demand accountability in governance is the Media. The media provides information to citizens through its reporting of and commentary on the operations of the Government policies amongst others, thus, the media has been considered one of the most powerful agents of democratic accountability. Strong accountability at the centre of governance matters and when it works, it benefits everyone. It not only keeps citizens informed on the Government’s activities and how to gain redress when things go wrong but ensures officials are acting in the interests of the people that they serve.
In a country where accountability and transparency are a challenge, it goes without saying that there is a need for civil society, government and citizens to partner with key stakeholders in the media to demand not just Covid-19 fund accountability, but also the general fiscal matters of the government.
In the coming days, it is important to steer actions from the government and CSOs towards the enhancement of approaches that make it easy for the media to collaborate with other stakeholders and demand accountability from the government.
Institute accountability mechanisms that make it easy for the media to track its spending: Governments should commit to publishing all public contracts, names and beneficial ownership information of citizens who received emergency relief funds during the COVID-19 pandemic. Emergency programs and expenditures should be published on open government websites to signal its continued commitment to good governance. A case of this is the launch of the Open Treasury Portal by the federal government of Nigeria, a portal that captures daily treasury statements on the government’s real-time expenditure related to financial matters and improved transparency and accountability in government spending.
Publication and Auditing of all COVID-19 related spendings: Governments should commit to making all information on how emergency relief funds are spent available to internal auditors and, when practicable, to independent auditors. Priority should be given to critical areas such as primary health care and infrastructure development.
Open Communications Channel with the government: The government should create and sustain an open communications channel with the media. However, having a mere channel with the media is not enough because, more often than not, requests through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are not always granted. Thus, there should be regular coordination and communication with responsible government departments and agencies to ensure the timely release of information necessary for citizen education and participation in governance. Accessing the right data keeps the media’s focus on the real issues and helps sustain conversations with relevant stakeholders.
Transparency is a vital ingredient for accountability.
Capacity Building for Journalists and Media Organisations: Recognizing the key role of the media in fostering community dialogue and disseminating potentially divisive information should propel the government, CSOs and other key stakeholders to strengthen journalists’ capacity for efficient reporting. Training sessions focused on reporting techniques, data storytelling, data sourcing, and strategic communication, among others, can be effective means of catalysing consolidated actions and demand improved resource governance from all stakeholders. At BudgIT, we prioritise capacity building as it concerns COVID-19 fund tracking, and we have successfully held three capacity building sessions and media engagements to foster better reportage and guide the media’s focus on salient issues like vaccine distribution, health sector management, epidemic preparedness and information gathering concerning COVID-19 resource management.
Supporting Access to Data and Information: The media require credible data to build conversations around fund accountability issues. Simply put, the inability to access credible data hampers the authenticity of information released to the public by the media. This does not only aim for misinformation, it also sets the wrong pace when demanding accountability from the government. Free access to information is important; thus, the government should be questioned whenever the media is denied access to information. In 2020, International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) Executive Director Dayo Aiyetan while responding to the GIJN’s Africa Editor Benon Herbert Oluka, in an interview, lamented how the government had refused to give exact figures about the number of households and many people including journalists were quoting all kinds of figures that could not be verified.
Engaging Media Stakeholders in Policy Dialogue: The Civil Society Organizations may use their convening power to create space for the media to engage or monitor government expenditure processes, as overseers and participants. This is a way to incorporate the voices of traditionally excluded populations into policy decisions and hold governments accountable. However, merely creating the space does not necessarily result in meaningful participation from the media. The efforts must extend far beyond. If these dialogues must be effective, the government must be an equal stakeholder in these dialogues. Not only that, the dialogue must not be based on mere words of assurances; it must include a deliberate overseeing of processes that effectuate policy options till the end.
Social Accountability and Citizen Empowerment: As Citizens, the public are crucial stakeholders whose influence can help the media ensure accountability from the government. The social accountability approach involves actions other than voting for citizens. These actions enable individuals and communities to collectively assert their political powers and hold representatives to account. In this case, citizens hold equal stakes just like the Civil Society Organizations. To this end, citizens must be able to access data, information and stakeholders’ meetings that give opportunities for questions to be asked. This invariably achieves some of the objectives for which the media is created.
Creating Enabling Environment and Engaging in Policy Regulations: While the media can be strengthened via the Civil Society Organizations, their degree of influence is mediated by the surrounding context, including laws, policies, and regulations that determine the ability of the media to engage in development. In Nigeria today, the media do not have access to certain information and data for inquiry. There should be a review of policies which often lag behind the rhetoric of open government. Laws, policies and regulations that tend to stiffen the power of the media should be reviewed by the government. Suffice it to say that one of the ways by which the government can stand as a media ally is to ensure the implementation of policies that create an enabling environment for them.
CSOs should Increase Monitoring and Evaluation: The media alone cannot hold the government accountable. Most traditional media in Nigeria do not have the resources to ensure accountability from the government; they need support from Civil Society Organizations. With their manpower and resources, the civil society organisations can track and raise the alarm over the financial expenditure of the government, alert the media to their findings and collaborate on means to address the identified issues. To support accountability, CSOs can provide independent monitoring of the government processes such as assessing the Covid-19 data portal for loopholes and raising the alarm, after which the media amplifies and leverages such findings for transparency and accountability.