“[Journalism is] the only profession paid to tell the truth”
-David Kaplan, Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN)
By monitoring both public and private sector accountability, journalists play a critical natural resource governance role. Media are often well-placed to investigate industry ills, from mine rehabilitation funds being withheld in South Africa to illegal gold mining in Peru financed by companies from the U.S., the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland.
But media covering oil, gas and mining face specific obstacles. Journalists who cover the sector can be threatened for their work and governments and the private companies remain opaque in their management of natural resources. Participants at the 2017 Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Johannesburg actively grappled with these issues.
“Few governments are willing to advocate for journalists,” one attendee said.
NRGI is responding to challenges cited in South Africa through the next phase of NRGI’s media capacity building. NRGI is growing and improving its data outreach by supporting data fellows and "infomediaries" to help link journalists to industry data, such as BudgIT in Nigeria, and more closely monitoring civic space developments.
Nongovernmental organizations can facilitate access to information
Journalists confront informal and regulatory obstacles. In many cases, private companies and the government prevent media from accessing existing sources of free information. This may take the form of lengthy response times, publicly exposing information requests and managing the approval of how information is presented publically.
As more and more reporters train on data journalism, there is a growing ability to tell quality, local stories with complex data from leaks, company accounts, stock exchange filings and government disclosures. Investigative reporters at GIJC recounted personal experiences of investigations and shared methods needed to extract information from withholding bodies, such as stock exchanges, ministries or regional cooperation bodies like the European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office. In a session on covering corruption and financial crime, journalists identified open data portals such as zefix.ch, which has publically listed information on companies domiciled in Switzerland, adjoining NRGI’s work on disseminating contract disclosures.
To investigate gold traders in Peru, Fabiola López and her team at OjoPublico used official reports of tax authorities and academic reports.
Journalists also shared barriers to their investigations and learned about tactics to bypass them. In one case, the solution was simply identifying former employees of targeted companies on LinkedIn for comment. In another case, this one in Uganda, banks were found to withhold data that might compromise businesses. The journalist working on that story could use the uniform commercial code to access public information, or review IMF reports to find bank names and explore non-performing loan data.
Data journalism benefits from collaboration. In South Africa, reporters got data and then cleaned it with Code for Africa’s Open Africa Platform during an investigation into illegal mine closures, according to Tholakele Nene of Oxpeckers.
For investigations to work, media governance domestically and internationally must be more robust at an institutional, legal, and regulatory level. Advocating for access to information laws with more proactive disclosure categories, reducing response time for claims, and preserving the independence of oversight committees are ways the development community can support journalistic practice.
Some countries also struggle with ensuring journalists can safely do their jobs.
“Mexico has good legislation, but institutions aren’t working—there is no political will to protect journalists,” said Christophe Deloire of Reporters Without Borders.
NRGI collects and distributes data on revenue management and contract transparency, while also training oversight actors and parliamentarians on how to access and use this information. It supports journalists in countries where natural resources are an important source of development. It manages fellowships for investigative reporting, partnering with media houses in order to grow a command of natural resource issues, and invests in local organizations to train and mentor on these issues over time. NRGI databases such as resourceprojects.org, resourcecontracts.org and the 2017 Resource Governance Index are data sources designed to be used by journalists to spur investigations and grow public awareness of corrupt and illicit practices.
Partnerships benefit long-term investigative reporting
Partnerships are vital to investigative reporting. GIJC showcased groups such as the Paradise Papers team, which exposed corruption at a global and local level through its partnerships with news organizations. Continued exposure of important stories brings a higher likelihood of popular support and response from the state.
NRGI supports journalists by advocating open data policies through global governance partnerships and by facilitating data access for oversight actors. NRGI’s ongoing media capacity building program is also increasingly registering regressions in civic space and monitoring the impact this has on journalists’ freedom to report.
In the face of threats and declining trust in journalists worldwide, the fourth estate remains critical to the functioning of democracy, informing public debate and holding governments and the private sector to account.
Ryan Powell is a media development consultant with the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).