• Sunday, July 14, 2024
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World Press Freedom Day: Flying the flag of independent media in Nigeria

World Press Freedom Day

On March 11, 2021, I found myself floating across a muddy river inside a rickety canoe contemplating the life choices that had led me to that moment. In the space of five months, my life had gone from a fairly comfortable existence in Africa’s largest city to becoming a fugitive with a UNHCR reference number and executing an illegal maritime border crossing from Ghana to Cote d’Ivoire while chasing a story about a young Nigerian woman who was wrongfully jailed after being set up by Ivorian police.

The story of Itunu Babalola, which I subsequently published in my newly-launched Substack publication West Africa Weekly, marked me out even further as an enemy of state in Nigeria. It got extensive television and radio coverage and it stayed in the news cycle for months, albeit to little effect. Despite my best efforts, Itunu died in detention on November 14, 2021, and by that time, I would have a target painted on my back by an incompetent but extremely vengeful Nigeria government.

Nigeria has a free press like DPRK has democracy

By my reckoning, no other country with Nigeria’s population size or larger has such a pronounced absence of independent media voices. Not Russia, not Pakistan, not Mexico, not Indonesia, not Brazil, not even the Philippines. Perhaps, China could be referenced, but certainly, nobody would ever accuse China of being “democratic,” which Nigeria is on paper. The thing is that – on the surface – Nigeria apparently, is a “democracy” with a “free press.”

We regularly hold elections – lots and lots of the things in fact. We have a president, a federal cabinet, a bicameral legislature, 36 state governors, 36 state Houses of Assembly, and 774 local government chairs and councillors. We have a thriving private media industry. We have “separation of powers.” Our 1999 Constitution names Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Association as inalienable constitutional rights. We have an “Independent National Electoral Commission.” We even have a “Freedom Of Information Act.”

In the time-honoured isomorphic mimicry that is a staple of post-colonial African governance, Nigeria ticks most of the boxes to be classified as a “democracy” by most indicators. Yet on the 2021 Global Press Freedom Index, Nigeria’s rank is number 120, behind famous press freedom luminaries like Mauritania, Moldova, Angola and Congo-Brazzaville. Even worse, the country somehow managed to slip five places from its 2020 ranking, which means that Nigeria’s press is currently enjoying freedom the way Ukraine is gratefully taking delivery of missile-shaped Russian aid.

While Nigeria’s sprawling securocracy has no problem letter-bombing journalists, attempting to kidnap dissidents from London, successfully kidnapping dissidents in Nairobi, banning Twitter for deleting a tweet that threatened genocide and forcing ISPs to restrict access to news sites it does not approve of, these are not its main tools for bullying journalists. Its main tool, in fact, remains the financial control it wields over newsrooms since it remains by some distance the largest ad spender in the country.

Recently, a minor attempt at protest by Nigeria’s largest daily newspaper led to the removal of all government ad spend from that paper. About a third of the newsroom subsequently lost their jobs.

Substack, West Africa Weekly and an unlikely resistance

When I decided to start writing a Substack newsletter, I knew that I wanted to do more than just offer opinions, analyses and takes. Apart from the fact that I already have a BusinessDay column where I write those things three times a week, I knew that long-read investigative stories written for impact were a definite gap in the Nigerian media space.

Due in no small part to the Nigerian government’s habitual bullying of journalism and journalists over the decades, it had become orthodox practise in Nigeria for even so-called “investigative journalism” to promise little and deliver even less. Avoiding causing offence to power was and still is the major consideration for a lot of what passes for journalism in Nigeria.

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I went full speed ahead in the exact opposite direction. In my launch post on West Africa Weekly, I promised that I would tell Nigeria’s stories exactly as they are, free of deodorant and varnish. The only way to tell the truth about Nigeria, I said, was to tell it in its true form – rude, brutish, monstrous and often barely believable. Using a narrative style that remains a source of controversy in the Nigerian media space, I set about fulfilling this mission with an energy that to many is as terrifying as it is compelling.

I exposed the holder of the sole contract to print Nigerian passports as a disgraced ex-diplomat who was fired from the service for cocaine trafficking. I exposed the friendship of Nigeria’s president to a known terror kingpin, complete with a photo of them inside Nigeria’s Federal Executive Council chamber. I put together months of research to link the emergence of Boko Haram to Saudi doctrinal and financial support for Wahhabism in Nigeria.

I went to war with Nigeria’s biggest airline, Nigeria’s biggest retailer and a tech investment fund over their attempts to step on the rights of little people. I unveiled a deadly collaboration between Amnesty International’s Nigeria country director and the DSS – the same organisation of the journalist-letter-bombing fame.

Most recently I dug into abuse of power and sexual impropriety at Africa’s largest tech unicorn. More striking than my choice of stories to cover was my decision to remain fiercely faithful to my stylistic roots as a millennial TV writer and my unapologetic bias in favour of human rights, facts and the little man. I have staunchly refused to bow to the weak “both-sides” method of storytelling in the case of clear human rights abuses, which I consider to be an abdication of duty as a journalist.

As popular as it is controversial, West Africa Weekly is now a uniquely influential media platform in Nigeria and one which I am currently in the process of equipping to operate even in my absence. Some of the most consequential journalism ever done in Nigeria’s history has already appeared on this platform, and the plan is for even more of it to do so going forward. None of this would have been possible without the unique subscription and monetisation model offered by Substack, as well as the financial and editorial support offered by the Substack Local fellowship, which I am part of.

Just how far is it possible to go with this hyper-independent journalism experiment coming up against a calcified legacy space that bows to power? How much more ground-breaking journalism can West Africa Weekly produce? How many more enemies can I amass while wearing that impish grin on my face? How sustainable is independent journalism in a world that is both increasingly hostile and strongly receptive toward this concept?

I have no idea. So let’s find out together.