Equipping journalists for the fight against illicit finance in Africa

Three years ago, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa established a High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows to gain a concrete understanding of the nature of the problem and to recommend actions taken to effectively confront this global challenge. It established that over the last 50 years, “Africa is estimated to have lost in excess of $1 trillion in illicit financial flows” and currently Africa is estimated to be losing more than $50 billion each year.

Since then there has been sustained and growing debate about how to deal with this challenge. However, little has been done to move the discussion – exposing the problem and finding solutions – out of boardrooms and conference halls to the public domain. This may in part be attributed to the media’s lack of knowledge of this complex financial area and lack of awareness of reporting tools to explain the problem to audiences and spark public debate.

With this in mind, the London-based Thomson Reuters Foundation partnered with the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) and three other reputable media development organisations in Africa to train journalists in order to improve their understanding and skill in reporting on illicit finance.

“The impact of illicit financial flows and corporate wrongdoing in African countries is huge. By encouraging more journalists to look at these issues, the course aims to bring them to the top of the agenda,” says Rex Merrifield, the course trainer.

He adds, “Participants go back to their newsrooms with a clear idea of how financial documents work – and where to look for problems and potential corporate abuse.”

The three year programme called Wealth of Nations is providing in depth training and mentoring for journalists throughout the African content. Of these, 24 journalists from Uganda, Rwanda, Cameroon, Nigeria, Mozambique, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania have been trained at ACME so far.

Olatubosun Olawale, a producer at TVC News in Nigeria who attended a recent workshop at ACME, says the training has given her an edge over other journalists.

“Now I can read and understand financial reports, see red flags, I know the difference between a balance sheet and a financial statement,” she says.

She also says she has since developed a keen interest in tax related issues beyond reporting finance and business stories after the first workshop, Olawale did two reports on tax in Nigeria. See the two reports here and here.

Understanding corporate finances is just one of several areas in which the journalists are trained. They also receive knowledge on trade misinvoicing, transfer mispricing, transnational crime, money laundering and tax haven abuse, as well as important investigative tools to enable new, innovative reporting on illicit finance.

Estacio Valoy, a freelance investigative journalist from Mozambique, says the course has helped him learn how to “give a human face to numbers” and also expanded his knowledge on Africa’s tax problems.

“(Because of the training) I was able to go deeply into Free Economic Zones. I had heard about their abuse, but wasn’t aware of how it was done. While I was already doing stories on this, the workshop added to my understanding,” he says.

Rex Merrifield says many of the journalists have reported that the course gave them confidence to look into financial areas that they would have avoided in the past.

“So the value is in encouraging more stories covering abuses and wrongdoing – stories that are clearly in the public interest. African newsrooms and individual journalists have to take the lead in reporting these stories. They are too important to ignore or simply to leave to reporters from further afield,” he adds.

Merrifield encourages journalists to not only pursue blockbuster stories, but also to cover smaller issues that put illicit finance on the news agenda.

“Time and again we see that once a reporter starts covering topics such as illicit financial flows with understanding and skill, they develop a reputation that encourages whistle-blowers and other sources to come forward with information and story ideas for further exploration,” he says.

Alon Mwesigwa, a reporter with The Observer newspaper in Kampala, says this is a key course for any business and finance reporters like him.

“It has been such an important aspect to enhancing my reporting career in that it explained some issues like transfer pricing, and the techniques that firms use to otherwise avoid or evade taxes – a challenge that most developing countries like Uganda face,” he says.

For Mwesigwa, the training opportunity also provided him with important access to a network of journalists with similar interests, covering the same issues.

“The programme also provided me with key contacts of reporters with a varying experiences, some my seniors in journalism. They can be handy to ask in case I want something say where I can get funding opportunities for reporting,” he says.

To read some of the stories produced by participants of the Wealth of Nations programme, visit the repository here: http://www.wealth-of-nations.org/highlights/


Grace Natabaalo

Grace Natabaalo is a programme assistant at the African Centre for Media Excellence.

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