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Equipping investigative journalists to expose COVID-19 corruption

Twenty journalists received training from Transparency International Zambia on investigating COVID-19 accountability. Photo: Transparency International Zambia

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In 2020, with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting Zimbabwe, investigative journalist Brenna Matendere started receiving alarming tips from members of the public.

The government had tasked the state-owned mobile telecoms company NetOne with dispersing ZW$89 million (equivalent to US$1 million at the time) to members of the public via its mobile money service OneMoney, including by distributing SIM cards pre-loaded with funds.

The scheme was supposed to protect some of the most economically vulnerable people in society − including people with disabilities, the elderly and chronically ill − from the worst effects of the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the virus.

But, just a month before payments were meant to begin, some of those who were supposed to benefit told Brenna that they had been excluded from the programme. So, what would happen to the money meant for them?

For Brenna, the story was an important opportunity to expose the corruption in Zimbabwe’s public institutions. Zimbabwe scores just out 23 of 100 on the Corruption Perceptions Index, indicating that corruption is rife in the country’s public sector. As the pandemic made many Zimbabweans more reliant on the state to protect their lives and livelihoods, this corruption brought extra dangers.

But digging into such a story in Zimbabwe is no easy task.

According to Brenna, funding in the Zimbabwean media is so limited that journalists must often use their own money to pursue a major investigation. If investigative teams exist at all, the time and budget needed to develop rigorous investigations is not available. Newsrooms are understaffed and under resourced; there is scarcely enough time to produce daily news coverage, let alone long and detailed investigations.

Furthermore, the state suppresses critical coverage. Zimbabwe ranks 137 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. During the pandemic, prominent Zimbabwean investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested three times in six months after he helped expose a US$60 million public procurement scandal that led to the sacking of the health minister. Cases like his have a chilling effect and deter other journalists from investigating government corruption.

Worryingly, recent draft legislation to protect whistleblowers in Zimbabwe is at risk of being neutralised by a bill that will shrink the space for civil society organisations. In February, the parliament passed the Private Voluntary Organization (PVO) Amendment Bill, which human rights organisations have warned will give the executive branch wide-ranging powers to interfere in civil society organisations’ affairs and undermine citizen engagement in anti-corruption.

To respond to these challenges and promote accountability for the abuse of public COVID-19 resources, in April and May 2022, Transparency International Zimbabwe trained 35 journalists to produce high quality and high impact investigative stories on corruption in public procurement involving COVID-19 funds.

The chapter supported six investigations, including Brenna’s work on NetOne, which was published in The News Hawks, an independent reader-funded digital newspaper. Brenna and the other journalists received a grant to cover the time and cost of the investigation. Three experienced investigative journalists acted as their mentors. This helped strengthen Brenna’s reporting, which focused on two regions where NetOne payments went missing.

Brenna obtained the lists allegedly used by NetOne to distribute SIM cards. Sources in NetOne also gave her information. Whereas SIM cards were meant to be collected from government offices, reportedly they were sometimes collected from NetOne offices directly by third parties. According to Brenna’s reporting, this was “a major loophole that resulted in leakages of the funds to the benefit of NetOne employees and their connections.”

Her reporting found that in the two years since the scheme was implemented, the mistakes made have not been corrected. A report by the Auditor General – in charge of auditing government programs in Zimbabwe – detailed this and other abuses of COVID-19 relief funds. In an interview for Brenna’s News Hawks article, they called for tougher measures to prevent funds ending up in the wrong hands.

Zimbabwe is not alone in facing these challenges. In Zambia, official reports have pointed to the scale of corruption and mismanagement in the public sector, including the health system. Like in Zimbabwe, the media’s capacity to investigate and hold power to account is severely constrained by a lack of resources and supportive legislation, such as a freedom of information law. That’s why Transparency International Zambia trained 20 journalists, and has supported an investigation into fraud involving COVID-19 vaccine certificates.

In Zimbabwe, the NetOne scandal appeared in another of the investigations supported by the chapter, helping the public gain a detailed picture of the corruption that undermined the programme. For Brenna, the funding and support provided by Transparency International Zimbabwe made a vital difference, and skills gained from the mentor – such as reporting fact checking, balancing the sides of the story, sticking to a hypothesis and using multi-media – will help her future work.

Now, the government of Zimbabwe should play its part, and support the country’s brave and talented investigative journalists, recognising the vital role they plan in protecting public resources meant for the most vulnerable.



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