3 Traits of the Best Investigative Journalism in the Water Sector

Conference Reporting

Corruption in the water sector has a dramatic and measurable impact on poor communities worldwide. Unfair procurement practices, illegal taps, and theft of public funds among other acts of malfeasance serve to shift the financial burden of water services onto their shoulders, even while locking them out of water resource decision making.

Where investigative journalism has shone a spotlight on these shadowy areas, civil society organizations and the communities they represent have benefited – in greater transparency in water management, in civic engagement, in responsive governance, and in improved performance in water services.

In August at the Stockholm World Water Week 2015, the Water Integrity Network along with HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation, and Thomson Reuters Foundation convened “Unfolding the Contribution of Investigative Journalism to Water Integrity.”

The session, moderated by independent journalist Fred Pearce (The Guardian, New Scientist), included presentations by:

  • Magda Mis, Thomson Reuters Foundation
  • Yogesh Pant, HELVETAS Nepal
  • Jacopo Gamba, Water Integrity Network

followed by a panel discussion with:

  • David Trouba, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC)
  • Babatope Babalobi, Water and Sanitation (WASH) Media Network, Nigeria
  • Stella Paul, Inter Press Service (WASH), India
  • Selay Marius Kouassi, Media Production Professional, Côte d’Ivoire

Here’s what they shared with us about the best traits of investigative journalism:

Include the voices of many sources from all sides of the story to honor journalistic objectivity and avoid biased reporting

Magda Mis is a reporter with Thomson Reuters Foundation, which covers the underreported stories of mainstream media. Together with Katy Migiro, she wrote an article on the impact of so-called “water mafias” in Kibera, a slum of Nairobi, Kenya. (Read Kenyan women pay the price for slum water “mafias”.) In speaking with a diverse set of actors, the reporters revealed that:

  • Women in the slum are disproportionately suffering from mafia controls that result in high water prices and blocked access to legitimate water resources
  • Local water charities and their international aid allies are working under threat of violence and in the face of resistance from reluctant government officials
  • Water officials acknowledge both government corruption and lost government revenue (40 percent due to theft and leaks alone)

Watch Magda Mis speak on investigative journalism and the case of water mafias in Kibera

Ground the story in deep knowledge of the issue so that news outlets are trustworthy sources of reliable data and perspectives

Yogesh Pant is an advocate with Helvetas Intercooperation Nepal, one program of a Swiss NGO with country projects throughout the Global South. In recognizing the vital role of the media in raising awareness of water sector corruption and governance issues, Helvetas Nepal prioritized capacity building and training for regional journalists, whether working for newspapers, radio, or television. In targeting media professionals, these advocates created new pathways for water integrity news, facts, and community perspectives. Moreover, increasing media presence in the water space has emboldened residents – encouraging them to ask more questions of decision-makers and demand action.

The cases in which Helvetas Nepal trained media professionals resulted in:

  • fifty 30-minute weekly programmes broadcast by “Hamro Awaj” (‘Our Voice’) on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) issues that were broadcast from 12 radio stations in the country, four of which were focused on integrity issues specifically
  • a journalist-organized public hearing on WASH concerns in which residents and officials participated, debated, and made commitments to corrective action
  • a feature investigative documentary on NTV (Nepal TV)

Watch Yogesh Pant speak about successes in building media capacity for WASH in Nepal

Create opportunities for civic groups to change the political landscape for the common good

Jacopo Gamba is an advocate with the Water Integrity Network, an NGO which promotes integrity to eliminate corruption and increase performance in the water sector globally. In reviewing three investigative journalism cases in the water sector of Latin America – in Brazil, Chile, and Colombia specifically – he found certain similarities in the outcomes, namely:

  • High sensitivity situations demand that journalists create conditions of trust, especially deferring to known community leaders where necessary, to gain access to information.
  • When political change was otherwise sluggish, communities welcome investigative media coverage to accelerate government responsiveness to community needs.
  • When media attention is challenged by threats of retributive violence, connections to local non-governmental organizations can provide protection, sanctuary to investigative journalists.

Watch Jacopo Gamba speak about community engagement with investigative journalism in Latin America.

Interested in the complete video? See “Unfolding the Contribution of Investigative Journalism to Water Integrity” on YouTube.

What’s your take on the best traits of investigative journalism in the water sector? Share them in the comments below!

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