By Eze Onyekpere
Effective auditing, interpreted as good quality audits with follow-up mechanisms to implement recommendations, apply sanctions and recover funds to the treasury and impact on public policies, to a great extent depends on the decisive role of citizens and public opinion. It is the media that places at the disposal of citizens, the information they need to take informed decisions. It has been rightly stated in Saxbe v Washington Post (417 US 843, 1974) that any informed public depends on accurate and effective reporting by the news media. No individual can obtain for himself the information needed for the intelligent discharge of his political responsibilities. It is the means by which individuals secure the free flow of information and ideas essential to the intelligent self government. Thus, citizens will participate and follow up on audit issues to the extent that the media feeds the public with audit related information.
The constitutional freedom of expression (chapter IV, S.39), including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, coupled with the duty of the mass media to uphold the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy and the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people (S.22 of the Constitution) calls for increased media attention to audit reforms. The media is a strategic partner in the audit reform process with a duty to explain, educate and inform the people. The mischief in the existing system needs to be highlighted while showing how new proposals will address the mischief and the public benefits derivable from reforms. The media can also facilitate informing people on what to do to ensure that reforms take place and point out the strategies to ensure that benefits accruing from the reforms are not reversed.
On the part of the office of the Auditor-General, the following has been noted as part of best practices (DFID How to Note – Working with Supreme Audit Institutions, 2005); identification of all major stakeholders and developing a communication policy for each; production of user-friendly reports and other outputs tailored to the needs of target audiences; senior management staff playing leading roles in formal and informal communication with stakeholders; and staff at all levels understand that they are ambassadors for the office in their interaction with external parties. Relating this to the work of the media means a specific policy and plan of the office of the Auditor-General to engage the media. This could involve the yearly release of time tables for audit events, quarterly briefings on the progress of the work of the Office or any major findings, preparing media friendly versions of the annual audit report, having a department in the office to deal with media issues, etc.
The work of the Public Accounts Committee of the legislature is another aspect of audit work that should be of interest to the media. It is for the media to publicise the content of their work, especially the recommendations of the committee, follow up with Ministries, Departments and Agencies to find out if audit recommendations have been implemented and if not implemented, the reasons for such a failure. Where grave violations of the law have been recorded by the Auditor- General and the Attorney-General refuses to prosecute the offenders, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Crimes Commission look the other way, the media has a duty to ensure that the matter is not swept under the carpet through updated media issues on the violations and the failure of constitutional or statutory duty holders to carry out their duties.
Experts have stated that transparency is central to quality audit work and this cannot be guaranteed without the intervention of the media. Transparent audit work facilitates good public expenditure management and provides the feedback for informed debate. It helps prevent ministries, departments and agencies from doing things that cannot stand the test of scrutiny from outside and prevents the build-up of a crisis in secret. Audit transparency increases faith in government as the citizens understand how their resources are being used. To facilitate the work of the media, it is imperative that all unclassified audit documents, as public documents, should be available to the media and all citizens. This will help the media to do more detailed reports and provide informed opinion on the work of the Auditor-General. Information is the currency of accountability, and transparency allows accountability to be more effective.
It is recommended that the contents of the Model Audit Law prepared by ACCA on public access to information be adopted in the reform of the Nigerian audit process. The essential provisions are as follows: all reports issued by the Auditor General shall be considered public documents when the reports are presented to the legislature. As public documents, they shall be available to the public for a minimum cost recovery fee. The Auditor General will also make his reports publicly available in electronic format on the internet. The Auditor General shall provide copies of his published reports to the government archivist and National Library, all public and university libraries, the National Broadcasting Corporation and the press. In this way, audit reports become real public documents that will attract interest and debates from informed quarters.
The current practice where the Auditor-General of the Federation treats audit reports as confidential information is counter-productive and will not lead to audit effectiveness. Gone are the days when public officials plead confidentiality on reports on how public funds have been managed. It is even unimaginable that the Auditor-General somehow enjoys the contempt and levity that public servants attach to his reports. If the office actually understands the context of his work, he would have clearly opened up to the ultimate sovereigns – the citizens who indeed pay his salary and that of other public officers. To hide audit reports from the owners of the audit is simply untenable and cannot be justified under whatever guise. To even refuse to give out the audits on a Freedom of Information request is clearly against the clear provisions of the Freedom of Information Act and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the demands of the office. To even contemplate using public resources to defend a suit when one is brought is double jeopardy for the citizens. You do not get a report which you are entitled to and the same office denying you access to information is ready to defend the infraction with taxpayers’ money.
In conclusion, if the work of the Auditor-General is to become more effective, collaboration with the media is necessary. Wrongdoing should be exposed and good work commended and information should be available to the public through the mass media.
Eze Onyekpere, a legal practitioner writes in from Abuja.