Let begin by expressing my sincere appreciation to the organizers of this event for finding me worthy to share my thoughts on journalism and the practice of lawmaking. There may be no better time to discuss this salient topic than now when democracy in our dear country is becoming more and more consolidated. Therefore, with democratic consolidation we will naturally expect strengthening of its key institutions. I also believe that this type of discussion needs to be expanded considering the manner in which the legislature is being misrepresented in our polity. Lack of adequate knowledge of parliamentary etiquette has led many to pass negative judgments on lawmakers’ activities.
While the legislature forms an arm of the tripod that is democratic governance and known for its checks and balances, media, on the other hand is the voice of the civil society. It aggregates the condition, feelings, yearnings and aspirations of the people to the System, ditto programmes, initiatives, policies and pronouncements of the institutions of power to the people.
The brand of democracy we practice is also called representative democracy because of the existence of the Legislature. Legislature is the most expressive reason why democracy is considered government of the people and by the people, because there are direct representations from everywhere. In the Legislative chambers everybody has a voice and everyone represents the needs and idiosyncrasies of his or her people. Collectively, as an institution, the Legislature is an ombudsman within the government. It moderates excesses and ensures justice. In this the Legislature shares the fundamental traits of journalism.
I therefore once again commend the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly and especially its Speaker, Rt. Hon Onofiok Luke, for the thoughtfulness of bringing people with diverse experiences here to brainstorm on these two key institutions with a lot of similarities.
The invitation to give this talk gave the topic for my speech as “Data and Interpretative Reporting for Assembly Reporters”. However, I took the liberty of altering it with the thought that data and interpretation could fall within the larger realm of investigative journalism which, as we all know, is couched on the need for reporters to go beyond the surface to unearth data, facts and figures. And it is in investigative journalism that I see journalists working in sync with the Legislature. It is here that the two have overlapping responsibilities to the public and could leverage on each other to advance national interest.
The Place of the Legislature
Primers of our constitution have recognized the essence of the Legislature as a more direct involvement of the people in governance as some sort or provost for the Executive arm; hence it is given certain precedence over the two other arms. In fact, as a symbolism of such powers, even in the order of treatment in our Constitution; the Legislature is dealt with first before the other organs of government. Thus while section 4 of our constitution deals with Legislative powers, section 5 enumerated the powers of the Executive and section 6 dealt with powers of the judiciary.
In fact, respected constitutional lawyer, Professor Itse Sagay is of the belief that the Legislature is “the number one arm of government in any democratic State”. Aside Chapter 5 of Section 4 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which stipulates powers of the Legislature, the Second Schedule to the Constitution equally enunciates the functions of the lawmaking arm of the government.
However, broadly and simply, we can say that the Legislature performs these three functions, namely:
- Enactment of laws
- Appropriation of funds, and
iii. Oversight on implementation
In his famous work, Considerations on Representative Government, English political theorist and thinker, John Stuart Mill, posits that:
The proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the Government; to throw the light of publicity on its acts ; to compel a full exposition and justification of all of them which any one considers questionable; to censure them if found condemnable, and, if the men who compose the Government abuse their trust, or fulfill it in a manner which conflicts with the deliberate sense of the nation, to expel them from office, and either expressly or virtually appoint their successors.
This passage further shows us powers and responsibilities the Legislature has in its kitty under democracy. And, for me, it is not much about powers but indeed the responsibility of making our democracy a true representative government where “we the people” have a voice that is dutifully amplified by our lawmakers. For this reason, the general idea that let there be no conflict between the arms of government is just an illusion. It is not always good for the people for all the arms of government to be in sync. When there is conflict, which is an ingredient of co-habitation, there is likely more value for the people. An ombudsman ought not to have it all roses all the time with he who the ombudsman oversights.
Now, in all these things said about functions and roles of the Legislature, there is also need for a third eye, a fourth estate of the realm for proper rolling of the system. It is here that journalism comes in –the need to reinforce the work of the Legislature and also, where need to, watch over the ombudsman as well.
Why Investigative Reporting?
In this age of sweeping media revolution, media profession is faced with threats and opportunities. These days anybody with access to a phone with Internet is already a reporter. Blogs cost barely nothing to maintain. On the other hand, preponderance of online mediums has put the conventional media on the edge. The solution is to be more creative and go extra mile by investigating stories beyond the mundane.
There is no gainsaying that investigative reporting has the potential to assist in building a national culture of transparency, good governance and openness which can make government officials to be more responsible in the management of public trust. It can also play a critical role in bringing to the front burner ills bedeviling the society for the attention of those concerned to make amends.
Over the years in the country, the media has undoubtedly played this role of unearthing series of scandals, sustain it in the public consciousness and push for proper resolution of such matters. Indeed, the media has embarrassed the crudest of dictators and forced government to take action or even reverse a cause of action. This has not changed that much under the present civilian dispensation.
Through your work with lawmakers you have a golden opportunity for quality investigative reporting based on resources at your disposal. Daily, issues crop up in the chambers that often don’t get to be dug further in the media beyond breaking the news. However, away from the news of proceedings there are salient documents laid before the Assemblies daily whether at plenary or at committee hearings, that you can study further to enhance the stories you are writing. Ask yourself, how many of those documents have you taken up to interrogate and read thoroughly?
Now, let us show in specifics, how you can turn the Constitutional roles of the Legislature into a jackpot for investigative reporting, as a journalist.
- Lawmaking: Lawmaking is an exclusive legislative duty albeit it could be initiated by the Executive or shaped by the public (on the request of the Legislature). Fresh bills and amendments abound in our parliamentary chambers seeking for the nod to create or alter existing laws or institutions.
There are however missing links that the media can explore to better inform citizens and indeed guide lawmakers and the government in taking action on such bills. Often times, no one is clear about tangible and intangible implications of certain legislations. If Bill A is passed into law, in what ways is it going to affect the man on the street or even existing laws, policies or institutions? We all deserve to know and this is something that you rarely find in the media. Extra work has to be done.
- Appropriation: The thinking of many civil society proponents is that less than 2 percent of Nigerians participate in our budget process; from its conception to legislative rigors and eventual signing. What this mean is that only a handful of people decide the priorities of a vast majority. However, the media can have a huge role in filling this gap by stalking the process throughout to align policies with realities on the ground. This process starts with advocacy. By identifying pressing problems of the people, the media is already helping budget formulators and legislators to see that upgrading that overstretched, dilapidated hospital is more important to the people than starting a new market which will take years to complete.
Through budget defense, also, a lot of issues prop up that you can build on and help present in completely different light.
Moreover, the media can help mitigate corruption in the appropriation system. This has happened in the past and I think this role is still direly needed because cutting corruption off the chain is one big thing that can help in greater value for the country’s resources.
- Oversight: While the legislators undertake their own oversight, we as journalists can do our own independent oversight. How? You were a witness to the process that led to the passage of the budget. By this you should be familiar with a lot of its aspects therefore with its passage you can run checks and follow-ups to ascertain the level of compliance and the integrity of the system and its managers.
Should you decide to help this country and your career as a journalist by subscribing to this brand of journalism, here are some hands-on tools I think you would need to make a success of it:
- Be determined: Investigative reporting is a tedious exercise that requires patience until results are achieved. It is also a risky endeavour. So without determination, there’s all likelihood it will be abandoned halfway. As the saying goes, where there is will, there is always a way. You have to evaluate and make it a conscious choice such that you will endure the brunt of it. But I bet you once you start you will enjoy it because you will standout of the pack.
- Stay Current: This has to be the first after the personal decision to toe this path. You have to be at the top of the beat by every means. You should use human network and also leverage on modern resources. Websites like Website Watcher could help you aggregate needed information on areas of interest to you. Google too has Google Alert service that can deliver information and news on issues of interest to your mailbox
- Develop Contacts: To help you remain current, you need contacts. You should have an array of sources for the stories and documents you need just as you need experts that can put you through and to explain things you may otherwise have trouble understanding.
- Discover Data Mines: Identify and discover strategic places; offices, committees and government agencies you need to get closer to for routine data that you can use to advance your reporting.
- Read Thoroughly: As I said earlier on, this is not a lazy man’s venture. You need to work hard and this hard work includes reading widely. You have to read everything and read thoroughly. As they say, the devil is in the details, you have to therefore be meticulous if indeed you are out to sieve through the sand in search of gold.
Distinguished colleagues, of the three arms of government in Nigeria, the legislature has become the punching bag of critics and people who feel threatened by a vibrant and independent Assembly. I have to admit here that many of the criticisms are justified considering the lifestyles of many of our legislators. Many receive bogus entitlements and display abundant wealth in the midst of poverty. But as journalists, we must make a clear distinction between the lifestyle of lawmakers and the integrity of the institution of the legislature. We should not undermine the parliament simply because its operators err. We should rather strive to deepen its tenets for our democracy to prosper. A point to note here is that during the military, both the Executive and Judiciary functioned without hindrance. Only the legislature got scrapped. That is to tell you how important it is. So as the watchdogs of the society, we must make conscious effort to enlighten the citizens about the importance of the legislature. The same vigour we show when reporting the lawmakers should be extended to Ministers, Governors, Commissioners and Special Advisers like me.
In conclusion, the famous words of Thomas Jefferson: “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter’’ is a truism on the place and capacity of the media to effect change in the society. Our duty to report the facts objectively is not only a civic duty but also one that borders on national interest and security. It was America’s charismatic president and thinker, Abraham Lincoln who said “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe”. One sure way of making these facts available to the people is through investigative reporting.
*Imam Imam (@imamdimam), a former legislative aide, is the Special Adviser on Media and Public Affairs to Governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal of Sokoto State. He delivered this paper at a 2-day training on legislative reporting organised by the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly.