Breaking the barriers to infrastructure journalism: CoST Uganda joins ACME to build capacity of journalists on infrastructure transparency and accountability.

March 15, 2022 12:38 pm

Published by CoST Admin

The media plays a great role in information dissemination, but often times journalists are put to blame either because their publications are “lacking” or they are “subjective”. CoST comes to Uganda with a value addition to the National Construction Sector and the initiative appreciates that the media is a fourth estate without which, our multi-stakeholder arrangement will be incomplete. To contextualize our approach, CoST Uganda has been working with journalists, Civil Society and key associations providing training and mentorship on thematic issues in influencing infrastructure transparency.

In the interest of breaking the barriers to infrastructure journalism, CoST Uganda has recently been invited by the Africa Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) to provide an expert talk and capacity building of selected journalists on infrastructure journalism focusing on transparency and accountability. The talk was delivered by the CoST Uganda Manager, Ms. Olive Kabatwairwe on the 11th March 2022 at the ACME’s training hub in the outskirts of Kampala.

CoST Uganda initiated its infrastructure journalism journey way back in August 2017 following the dissemination of the First Assurance Report; the idea was to help the programme identify those journalists who had interest in infrastructure reporting and documentation, information sharing and advocacy. Broadly, the initiative was aimed at increasing media presence in the infrastructure sector, but also, change the narrative that existed by then regarding the quality of journalistic pieces which were unresearched, subjective and often times associated with complaints with less solutions to the sector. As the interest for infrastructure journalism grows into greater heights, the invite by ACME was handy to engage with more (selected) journalists from the South West, North, East, Central and Eastern regions of Uganda.

’We wanted journalists who are not driven by “money” to do infrastructure journalism but are driven by “passion” to see a better infrastructure across the country. We have had massive turn up of the journalists in all our public events, our reports findings are always in the media for at least 30 days following publication.’’ Olive Kabatwairwe, CoST Uganda Manager.

Uganda invests about 32.8% (UIA) of the Government’s total annual expenditure, while public procurement takes approximately 60% of the annual national budget according to the World Bank. Uganda is operating at an infrastructure deficit of about US$1.4 billion a year, with a loss of nearly US$300 million per year lost in inefficient infrastructure spending, under pricing, and project variations (WB). It is worth noting that with right conditions, infrastructure development can promote growth and equity and reduce poverty (World Bank 2018 Report). CoST asserts that, informed citizens and responsive public institutions can help drive reforms that reduce mismanagement, poor infrastructure and inefficiency. The role of all stakeholders in influencing reforms on how infrastructure projects are planned, prepared, procured, implemented and maintained is critical to the realisation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals with focus on Goal 9; industry, innovation and infrastructure, Goal 6; Clean Water and Sanitation among others.

The training session with ACME’s team of journalists was an opportunity for us to speak about CoST, the core features and the value of CoST work to the journalists. Speaking to them about how transparency and accountability can be enhanced in the infrastructure sector, Olive Kabatwairwe the CoST Uganda Manager led the team of 15 journalists into a deeper interaction on the core features of CoST linking them to infrastructure journalism. She also broadened the discussion to what kind of information the journalists can request for, from whom, and what information is freely available inline with the Access to Information Law 2005 and Regulations 2011.  Journalists were also cautioned on writing right with a critical look at the facets of a good story with focus on planning, data sourcing, analysis and presentation phases. She also shared examples of platforms where journalists can access data to inform their journalistic pieces such as the Government Procurement Portal which which is aligned to the Open Contracting for Infrastructure Data Standard (OC4IDS) and the latest published Infrastructure Transparency Index by CoST Uganda.

‘’I often times write articles on infrastructure projects but, my challenge has been lack of information. I have had challenges getting information, and often times officials are non-responsive to requests, also the bureaucracies are long, before you complete the story, it is not newsworthy anymore due to delays in receipt of information. Besides, I also do not comprehend the procurement process and yet, it is my area of interest, this session has helped me understand where  I can quickly access information and how to engage officials to get timely information’’ a journalist at the ACME session.

During the ACME media session, the journalists appreciated that they had been writing without properly investigating projects. In addition, they were not asking the right questions, not approaching the right respondents, often times asked for information from wrong audiences and did not understand the right to information law/ let alone, the Access to Information Request Form. Journalists also did less literature reviews which affected the quality of stories they published. Some of them acknowledged that they often times produced journalistic pieces to meet their contractual obligations (number of articles, news submitted to their employers which often times affected their career growth) and had less focus on influencing reforms and actions on issues raised. Others wrote to break the news but with less evidence to influence action. Journalists also appreciated that engaging in the infrastructure sector calls for concerted efforts, dedication and an understanding of the various phases an infrastructure project goes through. And that, they ought to go to investigate with the right information to inform acquisition of the right results. At the end of the session, the 15 journalists from across the five regions of Uganda committed to specializing (with more emphasis) on infrastructure transparency and accountability journalism, they committed to writing to influence and not the writing to inform alone. We are thrilled to see a team of committed Ugandans who are interested in investigating how public infrastructure projects are planned, procured, implemented and maintained and are focused at influencing reforms that improve the quality of infrastructure.

‘’I work with several media houses and my target is to submit a story to each every day, I rarely focus on the quality because all I need is to raise the required number of articles. But with this training, I am re-thinking my approach and determined to do more research to publish more informative and influential stories’’ a journalist at the ACME session.

The engagements with journalists such as the one with ACME’s team of journalists have enabled us realize the following.

  1. Promote CoST and its core features of Disclosure, Assurance, Multi-Stakeholder Working and Social Accountability to a wider coverage of journalists thereby building an informed team of writers and reporters on infrastructure transparency.
  2. Raise awareness of the need for increased transparency, accountability and citizens participation in public infrastructure delivery processes.
  3. Raise awareness of the platforms, materials and tools the media can use to inform their journalistic pieces including those designed and developed by CoST such as the Infrastructure Transparency Index, the OC4IDS/IDS, The Infrastructure Monitoring Tool and the various Government platforms such as the Government Procurement Portal, the Electronic the Government Procurement Portal, the Budget website among others.
  4. Increase the number of journalists interested in and reporting on infrastructure projects performance. This has helped us build a team of journalists whom we collaborate with following our mentorship programme.
  5. Improvements in the quality of journalistic pieces on infrastructure projects with a shift from writing subjective pieces to being objective seeking to provide a solution to the issues and challenges identified. Journalists are also shifting to writing well researched and evidence based investigative stories.