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In Sub-Saharan Africa, many local journalists suffer attacks, imprisonment or even death for reporting on corruption, public spending or the mismanagement of natural resources. In Africa, at least 41 journalists are spending this World Press Freedom Day behind bars.
While there is a clear recognition by international institutions that corruption and good governance are key to poverty alleviation, there seems to be much less understanding of the importance of an enabling environment, as a complement to training and capacity building, in order for the press to meaningfully contribute to greater accountability and transparency, such as natural resources exploitation.
For example, new oil discoveries in East Africa have the potential to lift millions out of poverty if the profits actually benefit the citizens in that region. The optimism is dashed by the proverbial “resource curse,” that’s plagued the likes of Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea, where poor governance, wealth disparity and poverty persist. The fog of secrecy and opacity surrounding oil exploitation deals has also caused concern.
There are some outliers. In Uganda, for instance, where there is a vibrant, pluralistic press and some space for the open dispensation of ideas, journalists have led and inspired an entire society in refusing to accept the inevitability of the oil curse.
But taking on hidden aspects of oil exploitation, including details of revenue-sharing, raising questions about resource allocation, the security arrangements between governments and multinationals, land rights and environmental degradation is fraught with political pressure, obstacles, and dangers. Based on the findings of a new CPJ report on the challenges and repression faced by journalists reporting on oil in the region, CPJ hosted on April 18, 2013 a panel discussion during the Civil Society Policy Forum of the IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings.
The discussion, moderated by Steve LeVine, Washington Correspondent for Quartz, and Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, featured Peter Wandera, Executive Director of Transparency International Uganda, World Bank Africa Region Senior Communications Officer Herbert Boh, and myself.
In my talk, I highlighted the travails of some of the best journalists in Africa, such as Angelo Izama of The Monitor of Uganda, and Pulitzer-prize laureate Dele Olojede in Nigeria with [the now-defunct] Next234. Both struggled with political pressure and harassment despite having the resources of some of the continent’s most robust news organizations behind them. Peter Wandera spoke about how Ugandan civil society mobilized after the journalists took action. Representing the World Bank, Herbert Boh reiterated the Bank’s commitment to promoting better management of natural resources through programs such as the E.I.T.I initiative, and to supporting the media in Africa.
Ethical reporting and professionalization is not in and of itself a guarantee of safety or freedom. Beyond training and capacity support, the World Bank and other donors could usefully amplify the importance of a free and independent media in their frequent discussions with African governments. It’s a key intervention the World Bank could make to support good governance and anti-corruption as key drivers of profoundly less poverty and more opportunities for all Africans.