The price of free information in Nigeria

“Despite encouraging signs, access to information is still difficult”  

Idris Akinbajo is a 30 year-old Nigerian journalist. On the sidelines of a talk in Holland he was giving on the powers of investigative journalism, he took a moment to discuss press freedom in one of Africa’s most dangerous reporting environments with the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.  In November 2011 Akinbajo won the FAIR Award for an investigative piece into corruption in the Nigerian oil industry, printed in NEXT, a newspaper. NEXT, the paper which published his award-winning feature, is not available in print anymore. Low funds have forced the closure, but the online version, 234next.com, remains. “I have had to leave NEXT, the newspaper I worked for, because they couldn’t afford to pay salaries”, he explained.

On the Reporters without Borders’ most recent Press Freedom Index, Nigeria holds the 126th position out of 179 countries. According to the list, media freedom is better in Venezuela and Zimbabwe than in Nigeria. Though Nigeria moved almost 20 places higher than last year’s ranking (145th place) it’s still classified as a ‘difficult situation. Is it still difficult to be a reporter in Nigeria?

It used to be very difficult. But now, if you just want to do basic news reporting, that’s not really difficult. The problem starts when you want to do critical investigative journalism. When you really want to expose human rights abuses, that is where the challenges begin. There is a high level of press freedom for basic news reporting, but it becomes more dangerous when you want to do proper investigative reporting.

What are the challenges?

Sometimes we get intimidation from security agencies. You get threat calls, you get a lot of bribe offers. People offer you extreme sums of money to stop investigating a story. And despite the Freedom of Information law that was passed last year, government agencies don’t want to give information. They hoard information. You have to go the extra mile to get information.

When the Freedom of Information Act was passed last year, it seemed like a step in the right direction. Is it improving press freedom yet?

It is a good step in the right direction, but the act itself doesn’t make information available. The act has to be implemented, and it isn’t. I’ll give you an example: A non-governmental organisation in Nigeria wanted to know about president Goodluck Jonathan’s assets. The president was deputy governor of a state [Bayelsa] for almost eight years, then governor of the same state. Then he was vice-president for almost four years and now he’s president. So using the Freedom of Information Act, this NGO demanded to see the assets. They asked to see what he declared in 1999 as deputy governor, and what he declared now, let’s see the difference. They said “no, we can’t give it to you.”

What reason did was given for denying the information?

No reason. They (usually) say “it’s an official document, we can’t give it to you”, despite the Freedom of Information Act. The act puts the burden of going the extra mile on whoever is seeking information. So now this NGO has to get a lawyer to open a file in court. The case will be in court for years, maybe there will be an appeal. And we all know about the corruption in the Nigerian judiciary. So at the end of the day, it’s almost useless.

You must have encountered similar experiences while pursuing investigative features. What can be done to improve accessing information?

There needs to be direct punishments for officials who refuse to disclose information even after you have applied, based on the act. If I apply to a government agency for information based on the act and they refuse it, somebody should go to jail for it. Secondly, if I decide to go to court after they refuse, of course the state doesn’t make it easy for me. I have to use my own money. The state should refund that money if the case is won.

What has been improved in Nigeria in recent years, with regards to press freedom?

The growth of new media and citizen reporting has made information readily available to the people. There is a limit to how the government can hoard information. For example, I was at a presentation yesterday. I showed (the participants) live pictures of some protesters and how they were killed by the police..That was possible through mobile phone (technology). The increased use of mobile phones has allowed not just journalists, but citizen reporters to do some good reporting. Also, there is a growth in new independent media ownership. You have journalists coming back to Nigeria to set up real independent media.

Do you have a Nigerian version of WikiLeaks?

There is Sahara Reporters, which is based in the US. It’s not really a news medium, they are not bound by the ethics of professionalism. It’s really a blog that just publishes documents. The best I would say is NEXT newspaper.

How does corruption affect the newspaper businesses?

As an investigative journalist I focus on three main issues: corruption, failure of regulatory agencies and human rights abuses. These were also the areas that the NEXT newspaper focused on. If you want to do these three very well, you would come in conflict not just with the government, but also with private establishments who are benefiting from the corrupt process.

At some point the Nigerian tax body came up with a press release, saying Nigeria’s richest man, who is on the Forbes list of billionaires, had refused to pay his taxes. All Nigerian media refused to publish this news because this man’s companies, after the government, are the largest advertisers. Nobody wants to lose advertisements. But NEXT picked up the news, did the investigation, find out it was true and published on the cover page. This man told his companies to deny us advertising. We lost billions. There was pressure on our publisher who asked “Why do you want to lose all this business for this one story? Why not let this story go?”

You lose all your friends if you want to do real investigative journalism. That’s why you see many Nigerian media don’t want to do investigative journalism…Nobody wants to lose business.

So how does NEXT do it? How does it get the money to continue?

NEXT is barely alive. That shows we are suffering from it. The integrity of the publishers is not in doubt. They stood by the truth and they are suffering for it. We should respect them for it. But I have to move on. I can’t see how NEXT survives. I don’t think it will, I think it is virtually dead. It’s almost impossible to survive and do real journalism in Nigeria.

What would you recommend the government does to improve press freedom?

The Nigerian government must see itself as being responsible for Nigerian people. The government mustn’t think that people are not wise enough to have some information. Nigerians are no longer under military rule. They deserve to know what is happening. The government must respect the people enough to provide information to those who seek it.

After that, the government must really step up the fight against corruption for the press to be really be free. If there is no deliberate effort to stamp down on corruption, the economy would not grow. If the economy doesn’t grow, the media houses cannot grow. Then they can’t pay journalists well. If they can’t pay journalists well, you can’t expect them to do good journalism. It’s logical.

By Peter Teffer

Date: Mon, 30/01/2012

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