Eleven journalists from across Africa this week participated in a five-day training workshop on reporting illicit financial flows and tax abuse in Africa at the African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala.
This is the third cohort of journalists trained under the programme Wealth of Nations, a partnership between the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) and the London-based Thomson Reuters Foundation.
ACME is one of three partners that the Foundation is working with in Africa to equip journalists with understanding and skill in reporting on illicit finance in order for them to produce stories that trigger and encourage public debate on the issue.
Five years ago, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa established a High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows which found that over the last 50 years, “Africa is estimated to have lost in excess of $1 trillion in illicit financial flows.” Currently, Africa is estimated to be losing more than $50 billion each year.
The course’s lead trainer Rex Merrifield says that reporting on illicit financial flows demands knowledge and understanding of “how companies and individuals go about moving their money to places where they want it to be, rather than where it is from, or where the tax authorities would like it to remain.”
He adds, “So understanding these methods, and even the rudiments of how companies operate, can be a major asset in helping journalists to identify where they should be looking, and what they should be looking for. Many participants have said that this has been essential in helping them to succeed with their stories.”
Since the program started in 2014, ACME has participated in the training of 35 journalists from across Africa. These journalists, Merrifield says, have built up a strong body of work with successful investigations and explanatory stories from several countries around the continent. He says the stories would have remained hidden, particularly in countries where there is not a strong tradition of investigative reporting.
“These journalists have brought into the light the misuse of public funds, the abuse of tax laws by companies and prominent individuals, and the large-scale misuse of theft of natural resources,” Merrifield adds.
The current class consists of journalists from South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Swaziland, Nigeria, Algeria, Botswana and Malawi.
Many, who have previous experience in reporting on business, and finance, say they require such specialised knowledge to be able to dig deeper, beyond the surface. The workshops cover investigative journalism, how corporations work, interpreting financial documents, tax avoidance, transfer pricing, how offshore and shell companies work, investigating companies online, among other topics.
“I am really interested in reporting on companies and their dealings but sometimes the reporting can be surface. I really relish the chance to go more in-depth and to learn about it. Particularly because South Africa and Nigeria are the most affected by illicit financial flows in Africa,” says Tehillah Yocheved Niselow, who reports for Power FM in South Africa.
Niselow says the public relations sector in South Africa is so strong that they set the narrative when it comes to business reporting. She says this demands that journalists are able look beyond what publicists share.
Ameen Mohamed from Algeria sees the workshop as an opportunity to “network with other participants from the rest of the continent for further projects and cooperation in the future.”
Two of the most recent ground breaking investigations into offshore accounts and tax havens- the Panama Papers and most recently the Paradise Papers- have shown the importance of collaborative journalism across continents.
Merrifield says there’s been increased collaboration between participants from different countries to find more information, knowledge and assistance in pursuing their stories.
Benjamin Piorgah Tetteh, a Ghanaian journalist, says West Africa is losing money through illicit financial flows, but countries don’t have the human and financial capacity to tackle the problem. His interest in the workshop came after he attended a forum that brought together different tax bodies in West Africa to talk about illicit financial flows. It is there that he learnt about the inability of the institutions to handle it.
“That sort of raised my interest and also seeing the amount that our countries are losing as a result of this. This is an opportunity as a journalist to get training and also be equipped enough to do stories on this matter,” he says.
Micah Reddy, who works for amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, says the challenge with reporting on such issues is the access to information possessed by companies, even with the access to information law in place in South Africa.
“It is very easy for companies and institutions to drag their feet and ignore access to information requests. The only other option is lengthy court battles. A lot of companies rely on stonewalling and there’s not much we can do unless we have time and money,” Reddy says.
Protus Onyango, who reports for the East Africa Standard newspaper in Kenya, says there is a lot going on the African business sector that journalists need to investigative but they are constrained by lack of knowledge.
“I applied so I am able to learn and find out how I can do better stories in relation to business,” he says.
Starting next year, ACME will conduct workshops for Ugandan journalists on how to report on illicit finance and tax justice. Journalists from all over the country will be invited to apply to attend. Additionally, ACME will work with select newsrooms and conduct in-house trainings on the same subject.
For any inquiries about the programme and how your newsroom can take part, please send an email to gnatabaalo(@)acme-ug.org