Nigerian Media Environment Is Increasingly Hostile, says Edetaen Ojo, Rights Activist


Mr. Edetaen Ojo, media rights activist.

Following the increased attacks against journalists, Blessing Oladunjoye chats with Mr. Edetaen Ojo, an expert in Media rights issues, advocate for Media freedom, freedom of expression and a human rights defender. He has worked on access to information, media development, internet freedom and democracy issues in Nigeria, regionally and internationally for over 25 years. He is the Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda (MRA), a Media NGO based in Lagos

Question – What’s the situation of press freedom in Nigeria? Would you say the environment is hostile or friendly?
Response – In recent times, the environment has really been hostile which is unfortunate because one would have expected that over time, given the developments in Nigeria in terms of the age of our democracy and various developments around the world, that the environment would become increasingly free, but ironically, what we are seeing is an upsurge in cases of attack against journalists by variety of actors most frequently by government, security officials, law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies and so on.

We are also seeing attacks coming from non-state actors like criminals, obviously in situations of riots. We are also seeing that a lot of journalists are endangered, even religious bodies mount various attacks on them when journalists do report that displeased them. So, it is really coming from all sides, all directions and the situation is getting worse.

Question – could you share instances to ascertain that attacks against journalists by state or non-state actors have been on the increase?

Response – Well, I think the most buoyant indicator is the fact that in recent years, Nigeria has been on the impunity index which is produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ based in New York annually. It is an index of 12 countries where journalists are most frequently attacked and there are no consequences for such attacks. Meaning that, the attacks are not investigated, perpetrators are not punished or there’s no push back from the state which is supposed to. So, over the last several years, we’ve seen an upsurge in such cases.

But, more worrying is the fact that Nigeria is frequently, annually in that list of 12 countries around the world where journalists are most frequently attacked and their perpetrators are never punished. So, that would tell you what our situation is that if you look at all of the countries in the world, we are actually among the top 12 that endanger the safety and lives of journalists the most. I think that is the greatest indicator but when you look at the annual monitoring of attacks on the media that is done by different organizations whilst the figures may vary depending on the organisation, the methodology that they are using, what we see is that every year, there are numbers that are really too high of journalists that are attacked in various forms.

Now, what you call an attack may depend on the index you are using, the methodology you are using to characterize attacks. But, over the last several years also, I think in particular since 2012, when the UN bodies have become very concerned about this issues and have initiated a process of combating crimes against journalists and ending impunity for crimes against journalists. They’ve characterized a number of actions as crimes against journalists and when you use those in the situation in Nigeria is quite bad and as I said earlier, progressively getting worse every year.

Question – attacks against journalists pester because perpetrators get away with it most times. So, what are the measures to ensure that perpetrators don’t just get away with it and journalists get justice?

Response – well, again, one of the ironies we face in this situation is that very often, government, government officials and government bodies are the perpetrators. And when that is the situation, it is very unlikely that government would investigate itself in such a way that it indicts itself. So, there’s no incentive to investigate and actually, identify the perpetrators and punish them because usually they are government officials or they are acting on the behest of government.

So, that is a major problem itself but generally, the work that journalists do is such that because a big part of that is holding government accountable, so government are not famous for liking journalists so they really don’t feel themselves put out to starting investigating attacks on journalists, they don’t like to devote resources to the exercise even when these attacks are done by non-state actors.

So, what we generally have is that over the years, perhaps even over the decades, we really cannot point to any situation where the journalists have been attacked, those attacks are investigated, perpetrators charged to court in any way. In all of the killings that have occurred with regards to journalists, we don’t have a single instance when we can say that there has been investigation conducted to identify the killers and that they have been brought to justice.

Not a single instance. I think that speaks volume, when you just think about that and how terrible can this situation be and I am looking as far back as 1986 when Dele Giwa, the former editor in chief of NewsWatch Magazine was killed by parcel bomb. That’s a pretty long time from now and it is about 35 years ago. So, when you look at all of the killings that have taken place then, worryingly, there’s no serious investigation and what that means is that those that attacked journalists then feel a sense of impunity. A sense that nothing will ever happen, there would be no consequence so they don’t have any incentive to stop because really, they don’t fear that they would be identified or punished for their actions.

When you look at other minor cases of crimes against journalists, I use minor in relation to things like killings, and disappearances and torture and so on. When you look at cases where journalists are brutalized or beaten by various officials or other non-state actors, when in fact, the evidence is public knowledge, when some of those incidents happen in the full clear of public view, there’s still no serious effort to punish perpetrators.

So it is just a situation that means that the journalists whose work put them constantly at risk really have no expectation of protection or recourse or redress whenever they are victims of these attacks. So I think that is something that needs to change under the UN plan of action and safety of journalists and end to impunity, they are things that countries are supposed to do.

One, of course, is public awareness and enlightenment because as I said, the sources of the attacks are multifaceted. Some are government officials, some are military officials, some are law enforcement agencies, security agencies. So they need to be aware that journalists play a major role in society especially in a democracy. That they have a right to play that role, that they should be protected in the cause of doing that role and that nobody should able to attack them and go away with it.

That public enlightenment is supposed to be a major task that government should be carrying out in looking for ways to ensure that its officials and other members of the society are fully aware about the role of journalists and the obligation of government to protect them. But the UN also requires that countries submit periodic reports about efforts they are making and the steps they are taking to protect journalists, to investigate attacks against journalists and to punish perpetrators. It would be interesting to see what the Nigerian government reports, given that it has a culture of not investigating attacks, of not punishing perpetrators.

So, I think that for those of us who do this kind of work, for media actors and other civil society actors, we should actively engage those processes to find what is the Nigerian government reporting, if it is reporting. If it is not reporting, how can we ensure that it is an obligation to submit reports to the UN agencies that it is supposed to report to. And generally, I think that for the media and other actors, well, we need to focus a lot of attention on any single attack on journalists because those who abuse human rights feel emboldened when there’s no public shed light focused on their activities. By shining the light on things that they do, hopefully, they would become uncomfortable in that environment and progressively desist from those sort of attacks.

Question – MRA launched a project to combat impunity for attacks against journalists In Nigeria so what provision does it make for journalists and how can journalists access this support?

Response – Well, what we are doing is really one contribution to the battle to end crime against journalists and end impunity for attacks against journalists. So it is not a complete package but one of the things that we’ve observed over the years is that when journalists are attacked, very often, they have no redress, they have nowhere to turn to for protection and assistance and then, those who are responsible are never brought to justice.

So, we are trying to use litigation as a tool for combating attacks against journalists for ensuring justice for journalists, for ensuring that those who attack journalists are brought to justice as much as we can. So basically, any journalist who suffers any form of attack is eligible to benefit from this project, all they have to do is to provide us with the details and indicate their willingness to adopt a legal option and we would take the appropriate legal steps to either defend their rights. It is important to note that the attack doesn’t have to happen before you seek protection, so when you feel threatened, when you are experiencing an ongoing attack or if the attack has already happened and you just want accountability, all of those are circumstances where we are willing and able to intervene so it depend, each instance would be depending on the specific nature of the attack or threat that the journalist face but once you are a journalist, you are clearly eligible for us to support and protect you and once you let us know, we have a network of lawyers around the country that are providing pro bono assistance for this purpose.

Therefore, depending on your location, depending on the issue, from our network of lawyers, we would identify a lawyer or group of lawyers that would be able to provide assistance, fight the cases either in our domestic courts or should the situation warrant, we would use international regional mechanisms to combat those sorts of activities.

We are going to be running this in the first instance of 12 months to see what difference it makes, how journalists are taking advantage of it and then as we go along, we may make adjustments depending on our findings. However, beyond specific individual attacks that we would be litigating, we would also be looking at issues that affect the media environment that we can also through either litigation or legal processes create a more conducive legal environment for journalists to practice their profession. So, that essentially is the thrust of what we are proposing to do but it is all that is required. There are other things that we think should be happening for us to be able to have a better environment for journalism practice in Nigeria.

Question – UNESCO, African Union and African Media Stakeholders recently launched a platform for journalists’ safety which you are a part of, how is it supposed to address the challenges or attacks that journalists face on daily basis?

Response – the digital platform for the safety of journalists is a multi-stakeholder initiative that is supposed to also contribute to this process of ending attacks against journalists and ending impunity for crimes against journalists. Coincidentally, UNESCO is also supporting our litigation project, indicative of the interest they have on this issue and being the lead UN agency on the issue of communications so they are working with the African Union and various partners including NGOs, intergovernmental bodies, human rights bodies like the African Commission and so on, to focus specific attention on this issue, bring stake holders with diverse competency and skills together to address the problem from different perspectives.

The platform itself is supposed to provide an avenue for gathering, processing and analysing information related to attacks on journalists so that we have a place all of us can go, to find out what is happening and you can look at this platform on a country by country situation. So if your interest is Nigeria for instance, you can go to the platform, see what attacks against journalists have taken place in Nigeria, what actions are going on, who are the partners that are engaged in combating such activities and so on.

So, the platform is supposed to really provide a portal, a one stop shop where much of this information could be available depending on how effective we are in implementing the project we might actually be able to capture every single attack that happens on the continent and this would be categorized depending on the nature of the attacks, the countries which it happens and then those who are working to end either attacks against journalists or impunity for attacks, then decide what kind of response they should take.

The platform also provides a coordinating framework for those who want to collaborate, who want to work together, who want to support the actions of others or build into actions that are already ongoing or mobilise other actors to join their initiative. That is the expectation. It has only just been launched in the last few days, so we would see how it works out but again we are maintaining the idea that we would be engaged and flexible so such it responds to the needs on ground.

Question – let’s talk about what journalists themselves could do to avoid being victims of attacks. Is there anything possible?

Response – Oh yes! There are a lot of things journalists can do. I think that the first thing really is an awareness of the issue and how it impacts them. The reality is that when journalists are constantly attacked, they begin to self-censor themselves in order to avoid attacks and when you start to do that, you either avoid doing particular stories or you distort the stories so that they are more palatable to those who may otherwise be offended and so on.

So it undermines the work that journalists do, it undermines the ability of the wider society to get accurate and reliable information, trust worthy information that they can act on. That itself could be a huge disservice to journalists. So it is important to understand what the consequences and implications of these constant attacks may be.

The other thing that I think journalists can also do is to again, publicize, shine the light on every attacks against journalists such that those who have a responsibility to act in line with holding public officials accountable and highlighting their responsibilities would then have to take the required action. So, let’s not take the attitude which I see very often that an attack on a journalist is not such a big deal, it is not such a big story, we would rather publish an attack on a politician or some other member of the society when attacks on journalists are frequently left unreported. So, it is also important to begin to highlight the attacks on journalists and provide solidarity for each other because if you are all endangered because of the work that you do, then it is also important that you share experiences and support each other whenever any member of the profession comes under attack.

Thirdly, journalists need to be aware of safety protocol that they can put in place, that they can apply to protect themselves because very often, journalists are doing very serious investigative stories that obviously would attract some negative consequences and they just go about like, they believe that God would protect them but once you are believing that God will protect you and they say that heaven helps those who help themselves. It can also make it easier for God to protect you by not just exposing yourself and being careless. So it is important that journalists at all times are aware of their environment, what the security situation is, what the risk might be and so on. But very importantly, if you are investigating a story, if you are meeting with a source, if you are going to a particular place to do anything related to your work or story, it is always important that you let your Editor know where you are going, what you are doing, who you are meeting, such that if anything happens to you, it is possible to even begin to investigate.

Because, what usually happen is that, when a journalist is attacked especially when a journalist is killed, very often people don’t know why, they don’t know who the journalist met, where the journalist went and it makes investigation difficult, somebody who wants to harm you would set you up to meet with him or her in a location where you may be vulnerable. You may not be aware of this but if you are going to meet a source or somebody you are investigating for information, try and let your Editor, at the very least or some other colleagues know where you are going, who you are meeting and what the meeting is about. This begins to provide avenues for effective investigation if anything happens to you.

Question – also related to the issue of journalists’ safety, I would like you to address the issue of about 730 journalists who have died of COVID-19, according to CPJ. Do you think it would make some journalists to stop working during this pandemic or what are your thoughts about that?

Response – well, obviously, I think it’d discourage a lot of journalists from effectively covering the COVID-19 situation but I don’t think that is the best responses. It is also to be aware of what the risk is, what the dangers are and take effective protection to ensure that you are not unduly exposing yourself in the cause of doing your work because also, the coverage of the COVID-19 situation would also contribute to solving that problem.


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