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2019 People Journalism Award: Soyombo donates N500k prize to help awaiting-trial inmates

FORMER editor of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), ‘Fisayo Soyombo, has donated all of his cash prize from the maiden People Journalism Prize for Africa to help secure the release of inmates in Nigeria’s correctional centres who are awaiting trial and “have no business in prison”.

He announced his decision on Thursday at the award ceremony held in Abuja, where he was celebrated alongside BBC journalist Kiki Mordi and human rights activist Segun Awosanya.

The donation will be managed by The Justice Project (TJP), a social initiative of Lagos-based church, Ecclesia Hills.

“My three-part investigation may have focused on the deep-seated corruption tarnishing the administration of criminal justice in Nigeria, but that isn’t the only frailty of the system,” he noted.

“One other is the huge population of awaiting-trial inmates, many of them actually in prison for trivial offences and others not even deserving of detention much less imprisonment in the first place. At Ikoyi Prison, for example, more than 3,000 inmates inhabit a prison built for 800. Of these 3,000, less than 500 are convicts; the number of awaiting-trial inmates usually hovers around 2,500.

“While I am not in a position to help the prisons service clean up its corrupt house, by donating this money, I can at least help to kick-start a process I’m hoping can snowball into prison decongestion through the freedom of scores of awaiting-trial inmates.”

The fund will be used to get adequate legal representation for the inmates, pay fines where needed, and generally support them, with special consideration given to women with babies and those with young families.

He added that he will be making a related announcement in a few days time and that he chose TJP because it is led by Abimbola Ojenika whom he has known for 16 years “as a man of integrity and a hardworking but silent force for social change”.

Soyombo dedicated the award to his late friend, Blessing Johnson, whom he described as one of his biggest cheerleaders before her death.

“When she passed on September 3, 2018, I made a little promise to myself that my next journalism award would be for her. I want to thank Gatefield for helping me realise this,” he said.

He also thanked Dayo Aiyetan, Executive Director of The ICIR, and Simon Kolawole, CEO of the TheCable, whose newspapers provided funding for the award-winning report.

According to Gatefield, an African boutique public strategy and media group, which instituted the prize, his undercover story published in October “exposed the entrenched nature of corruption within Nigeria’s criminal justice system”.

While delivering a keynote speech at the ceremony, Jude Ilo, Head of Nigeria Office of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) noted that strong journalism is crucial for any democracy to thrive and urged journalists to be socially responsible.

“At the time Nigeria needed to find its footing, it was these journalists that gave us our voice, they are the ones who amplify our voices,” he said.

“The price of freedom and the work of journalists is very grave and we should never take it for granted. For you to keep doing this work, it requires the collective appreciation of Nigerians.”

Also at the event were Chidi Odinkalu, rights activist and professor of law; Bukky Shonibare, founder of Girl Child Africa; Hamzat Lawal, founder of Connected Development; and Johan Arvidsson, in charge of
Regional and Human Rights Affairs at the Swedish Embassy in Nigeria.

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