Here’s how a new media project is fast reviving accountability journalism in Ghana

In March 2021, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) launched The Fourth Estate, as an independent, not-for-profit, public interest and accountability journalism project in Ghana. The project is aimed at reviving quality journalism, the kind of journalism that holds the powerful to account, enhances public sector transparency, and amplifies the voices and needs of the marginalised.

In less than a year of its existence, The Fourth Estate has already established itself as one of Ghana’s most trusted news sources.  So far, it has succeeded in proving that journalism, when well done without undue interferences, can truly hold the powerful accountable and serve the interest of the public.

With a core team of eight fairly young journalists led by award-winning investigative journalist, Manasseh Azure Awuni, several critical and impactful stories have been produced within the last ten months. The stories cover corruption, human rights, environment, health and a few other generic topics of relevance.

On health and corruption, for example, a comprehensive story on fraudulent activities in some COVID-19 test labs revealed how staff at some testing laboratories were engaged in the issuance of fake COVID-19 test certificates. The facilities named as complicit in the practice included the clinic at Ghana’s Presidency, the Jubilee House clinic. The story prompted the Presidency to order investigations into the issue.

Other COVID-19-related investigations revealed wasteful expenditure of public resources by the Ghanaian government in the fight against the pandemic, and how the lack of proper care resulted in COVID-related deaths.

On corruption, an investigation into acts of bribery at Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority resulted in the dismissal of the Authority’s head of legal services. Another investigation titled: “Bongo Scandal” that revealed fraudulent activities at a community bank in Bongo, a town in Northern Ghana, prompted an investigation into activities of the bank by the regulator for rural and community banks in Ghana, the ARB Apex Bank.

On human rights, a great story on police and military brutalities in Ghana presents a detailed account of over two dozen incidents of police and military killings and other forms of brutalities by the security agencies since 2017.

There is also a compelling story of how personnel from national security raided a casino in Asankragua, a town in the Western region of Ghana. With exclusive video footages, the story details how hooded security officials in mufti, brandishing weapons, terrified and manhandled some staff of the facility before their eventual action of breaking into rooms and dismantling security cameras.

Still on human rights, an investigative piece titled: “The licensed sex predator” revealed how a number of women were sexually assaulted by a self-styled physiotherapist, Jonathan Ohene Nkunim. The story resulted in the arrest of Jonathan who is currently facing prosecution. The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), has named the story among the top 10 investigative stories from Sub-Sahara Africa in 2021.

There have also been great environmental stories such as one drawing attention to how sea erosion is literally obliterating some coastal communities in Ghana. Other environmental stories looked into illegal export of banned timber species and an awaiting disaster from unregulated and precarious siting of houses.

And there is even more. Within the short period of its existence, The Fourth Estate has also proven just how journalism can help advance public sector transparency and accountability, through the utilisation of Right to Information (RTI) legislation. The Fourth Estate, has been a major driver in putting Ghana’s 2019 RTI law to the test.

In the first five months of its operation (March to July, 2021), The Fourth Estate team filed 36 RTI requests to 33 public institutions. The institutions to whom the requests were filed include the Parliament of Ghana, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Health, Public Procurement Authority, Minerals Commission (the regulator of Ghana’s expansive mining sector), Ministry of Roads, among several other Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MMDAs) of state. By the end of 2021, more than 50 RTI requests had been filed.

As expected, many of the institutions failed or refused to comply with their obligations to provide requested information as mandated by Ghana’s RTI law (Act 989). In an article, The Fourth Estate presented the 33 public institutions that passed or failed its RTI test.

After the stipulated 14 days within which institutions are required to make a decision and respond to requesters of information under the RTI law, 52% of institutions failed to acknowledge or respond to requests filed by The Fourth Estate. Per the RTI law, non-response within the stipulated period constitutes a refusal to grant requested information on the part of information-holding institutions.

But the quest to receive requested information doesn’t end when institutions fail to respond to requests or refuse to grant requests. In fact, what follows next is where the victories and great stories emerge.

Petitions are then filed with the RTI Commission requesting the Commission to adjudicate and compel information-holding institutions that are in default to release requested information. Other cases filed at the RTI Commission were to challenge what is considered illegal fees imposed by institutions as a condition for the grant of requested information.

By the end of 2021, The Fourth Estate had filed 11 petitions before the RTI Commission. These were against state institutions that had refused or failed to grant requested information, and those that were demanding fees deemed too high or illegitimate.

Indeed, the very first decision by the RTI Commission on an RTI request was on a case filed by The Fourth Estate. In that case, The Fourth Estate had requested information from the Minerals Commission of Ghana on mining licenses that had been issued by the Commission. The Minerals Commission responded that The Fourth Estate needed to pay the equivalent of US$1,000 in local currency as fees (about GHC6,000), in order to be granted the requested information.

uThe Fourth Estate then filed a complaint with the RTI commission in June 2021, arguing that the amount being charged by the Mineral Commission was astronomical and at variance with the provisions of the RTI Law. In a decision on July 19, 2021, the RTI Commission directed the Minerals Commission to release the requested information to The Fourth Estate via email (as was requested) and at a cost not more than US$0.3 or GHC2. The Minerals Commission has since filed a suit at the High Court to challenge the decision of the RTI Commission.

There have been other ground-breaking decisions by the RTI Commission in relation to cases filed by The Fourth Estate.

For example, the Commission recently fined the Ghana National Fire Service GHC50,000 (about US$8,000). This was after the Fire Service had failed to grant The Fourth Estate’s requested information and also failed to provide an explanation to the Commission on why it refused to grant the requested information.

The RTI Commission has also recently imposed a fine of GHC30,000 (about US$5,000) on the Health Facilities Regulatory Agency (HeFRA) for failing to grant information requested by The Fourth Estate and also for failing to respond to the RTI Commission’s enquiry in relation to The Fourth Estate’s request.

Following another case by The Fourth Estate, the RTI Commission ordered the state Scholarship Secretariat, to release the list of all scholarship beneficiaries for 2019 and 2020 to The Fourth Estate, as requested. The Scholarship Secretariat had argued that it could not grant the requested information due to concerns of data protection. The RTI Commission, however, determined that the excuse of data protection was not tenable and not supported by the exemptions provisions of the RTI Law.

It does appear that more of these kinds of journalism projects may be what will help revitalise quality and watchdog journalism in Africa to inspire hope and trust in the media; and to reinforce the indispensable role of the media in the democratic development of African countries.