LANRE Arogundade is the Executive Director of the International Press Centre (IPC), based in Lagos. In this interview with The ICIR‘s Joseph Olaoluwa, Arogundade, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday anniversary, speaks on his media activism, and good governance, among other issues.
You have been active for many years in media activism and empowerment, running the International Press Centre. How did it all start?
My role in the International Press Centre (IPC) came about through my involvement in the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Lagos Council. The Council, under my leadership as chairman, was active in fighting for press freedom and democracy.
That role, more or less, contributed to my choice as the coordinator of the IPC when it emerged. Now, the history behind it was the fact that around 1998 when the signals were becoming clear that the military would leave, a number of international media and press freedom organisations, which had been part of our campaigns and advocacies for press freedom, and for freedom for detained journalists, felt that since democracy was in sight, a time would come when the media in Nigeria would be needing a lot of support.
By 1998, the media was in disarray because of the attack from the military. There were news organizations that had actually gone underground. The likes of TheNews and Tell were publishing underground. Guerrilla journalism had become a phenomenon. The kind of newsrooms that we used to have was no longer there.
So, to that extent, those international media and press freedom organisations came together and decided to establish a project on media and democracy in Nigeria to find a means of supporting the media.
They looked at the legal aspect that by the time the civilian government comes on board, there would be the need for a number of reforms and the need to access information. They also looked at the aspect of the media itself. They thought that because of the disarray in which the media had found itself, it would need a kind of a professional meeting point where members would talk about issues relating to regulation, media freedom and all the rest.
Which bodies were the international media organisations you have been
They were the International Federation of Journalists, Reporters San Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders), Article 19 and West African Journalists Association. The local partners then were the Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Independent Journalism Centre, which was being run then by TheNEWS organisation, and the Journalists for Democratic Rights. Together, they decided to have the IPC as a more or less independent body.
Initially, they felt the IPC project should be situated within the NUJ, the Lagos State Council in particular, because they recognised its role in media activism. But at that time, we had some crisis in the Lagos NUJ and I think the international organizations and local partners felt it was better to have the IPC as an independent organisation that would not be affected by the crisis of politics within the NUJ.
Our original board comprised representatives of those organisations. I was the natural choice to be the coordinator. The initial funding support was just for a period of 18 months. During those 18 months, we did what we could to stand firm. We had the internet. We were helping journalists to register their email addresses; we had some roundtable discussions around ethics and regulation in the media. It was a couple of projects like that that we tried to look at.
What happened after 18 months?
At the expiration of those 18 months, we were sure the IPC had come to stay and there would be other things we needed to do, especially around capacity building for journalists. To that extent, what should be the way forward?
We decided that the way forward would be for IPC to be registered, incorporated with the government. So by 2001, the IPC became a legal entity as we were formally registered. Once we did that, it gave me the opportunity to have a broader dream for the IPC in terms of building the capacity of the media to engage with the issues of development and democracy. Without media development, you cannot have media in development and also be part of advocacy for freedom of information, press freedom and the rest of them.
That, in summary, is the story behind where we are today. Looking back, it seems like yesterday. It has been a remarkable journey.
What have been the challenges?
Of course, we have had a number of challenges. The first one is sustainability. We are a non-governmental organisation. Under the military, the few civil society groups had easy access to funding from international organisations, which also had the idea that the military must go. So you didn’t need formal structures and all those things then for them to give you grants.
But under democracy, things changed; you had to comply with the law. You had to develop ideas and turn them to projects. I came from a background of activism, where there was never a formal training for all these things. So, just like in journalism, it was like learning on the job. There was the challenge of confronting very tough situations. There were periods in the earlier days when there was no funding and it was difficult to survive, to pay rent, and so on.
But because we were driven by passion, knowing that this was how we can help the media, we kept persevering and reaching out. The fact was that in our own way, we were as accountable as possible. Along the line, we were able to convince these donors to continue to support the organisation. Today, we can look at ourselves and say that in that period, we had big international institutions like the European Union and OSIWA (Open Society Initiative for West Africa), supporting the kind of programmes that we run.
Funding in itself was a major challenge, and I wouldn’t say we have overcome it; it is actually a continuous war. But as I said, we try to follow our dream and the passion one has.
The other challenge has to do with acceptability. Unlike the period of the military where everyone was facing one direction, under a civilian government, we had segments of the society that were suspicious of NGOs, believing it was a way of access to easy money. They don’t even know what we go through to access this money and the requirements of accounting for the money. I know NGOs that had gone under because they failed to comply with best practices when it comes to accounting for money from donors.
So we were dealing with elements of suspicion even from within the media who felt it is all about ‘you must justify the money you were collecting.’ But, thankfully, over time, our impact has been felt. The role we were playing has been felt. IPC has been a solution to rallying media organisations for some purposes. We can look at some of our landmarks in that regard. For the purpose of modesty, I don’t want to say achievements.
If you look at the 2014 elections, for example, it started with having a code specific to elections that spelt out the duties and obligations of the media because of the problem of non-compliance with ethics, lack of professionalism and so on. In some other jurisdictions, they had a code of election coverage. It was an idea that came from the IPC. Before the election in 2015, we were able to put the code together, although only about eight media organisations subscribed to that code.
By 2018 when we revisited the idea, it had become more and more popular. The content of the code was upgraded and all the media and professional bodies in the country endorsed it. They included the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Guild of Corporate Online Publishers, Nigerian Association of Women Journalists, over 200 individual media houses, and even institutions of journalism and some other professional bodies like the Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria (ACSPN). Almost all of them were one way or the other part of the development of the code. Today we have a Nigerian code of election coverage.
Those approaches and initiatives have put us in a situation where the IPC is accepted by the media and journalists in Nigeria as an institution they can relate with when it comes to advancing the cause of journalism – in terms of the professional aspect of it, in terms of the freedom aspect of it, and in terms of the role that the media should be playing in the society as a whole.
Another challenge has to do with the media environment. The media is going through serious economic crisis. In some cases, the managements of media establishments have not been helpful of the situation. There is, for instance, the crisis of the welfare of journalists, which tends to serve as a justification for compromise in terms of brown envelopes and other forms of inducements.
Journalists come to your training, welcome the idea, but then pose a question: All this knowledge, we are not even sure of our jobs; even where we are working, we are not being paid, so how can we do all this when we have all these problems? So that is another challenge that tends to limit the impact of what we are doing in the society.
This means that along the line, we have to be part of conversations on rebuilding the media in the society.
The other challenge, which comes by way of frustration, is the lack of professionalism that you see in some media reports. It’s like, ‘Oh, you have done so much on training but the media is still like this?’ Of course, just like we had very good journalists in the past, we still have very good journalists. But in terms of the output, you feel that elements of the gatekeeping that we had in the newsroom then, we don’t have them.
One may say it’s maybe because of the emergence of an online environment where you can send your story direct to your news medium online from where you are without going through some basic newsroom checks. That in itself is a challenge. So we ask: all these things we are doing, can we really say we are making an impact?
Sometimes, we have to justify what we are doing. The perception of the media by the public is currently not the best. They see the media as part of the rot we have found ourselves. They see the media as part of corruption.
Stories that come out are stories that are either sheer public relations, or that have been paid for by politicians. So one challenge that we face is how do we change that perception for the public to have confidence in us.
Those are the kinds of challenges that confront us, apart from the fact that any form of an institution in Nigeria has to contend with the environment. Where, for example, we have a generator and we run on petrol or diesel, the cost of running the office itself is quite enormous. This is why the media – whether as a newspaper, radio, television, online media via the social media, or as institutions – media professional bodies, or as media support groups, we have to be concerned about good governance. We have to be concerned about what we can do to make Nigeria a better society. Because, it is like a cycle; no segment of the society is immune from the crisis we are facing. The worse the crisis, the worse it is for the media.
Our traditional enemies are the security agents who come after journalists and arrest them, and so on. While the bandits or terrorists don’t discriminate when they go out to bomb the train or attack communities, security agents don’t ask people to identify themselves on whether they are journalists or not. We are all paying the price of bad governance in our society. Ultimately, that is the bigger challenge we need to confront. The more the society collapses, the more the media will find it difficult to survive.
What about challenges from the government directly against media activists like you?
There are two ways to look at that. As an institution, we still face the challenge of having to issue press statements and fight for detained journalists.
When you look at statistics, things seem to be worse off. There were things we associated with the military, like the killing of journalists, invasion of media houses and so on. All these have also happened under the civilian government. Journalists have been killed. I think about two weeks ago, the wife of Tordue Salem went to court to sue the government to say the family were not satisfied with the explanation or information provided so far in the circumstances where the family breadwinner would die. They are asking for damages from the government.
Those kinds of developments have a demoralising effect, because you feel that in a democratic set-up, these things should not be happening. The police should understand the role of journalists. The army should understand as well. They should know that in a period of emergencies, journalists are frontline workers, because just as security operatives are going there to maintain law and order, we are going there to provide credible information for the people.
It has even become more imperative now for journalists to be at the forefront of reporting because of the problem of fake news and the social media. If the conventional media are not there – these include radio, television and so on which have sources in government who can verify information – the so-called citizen journalists will be there. They will take pictures of accidents, they will do everything and they will share it. So the government must realise that with or without the media, information will get to the public.
They need professional journalists to provide credible information, to give perspectives to issues, to clarify doubts, and to speak to sources and come up with information. One of our roles is to help people make informed judgments. By the time we provide information, people will then say, ‘this is likely to be the case.’
Unfortunately, the same government that should recognize that are the ones putting obstacles on our path, not just in terms of the arrests and detentions, but in terms of legislations they are introducing to further frustrate the media. The legislations include the Social Media Bill, the one asking for the establishment of a hate speech commission, and the bill seeking the amendment of the laws establishing the National Broadcasting Commission and the Nigerian Press Council.
All of them have provisions that criminalize journalism. Even there is the Electoral Act 2022, which we have said is good. But if you look at the provision relating to the media, it is a problem. There are the dos and don’ts for the media in that Electoral Act. Then the Act says that when you violate those provisions, you could be liable. In the past, punishment was meted out only on the media institutions; they could ask you to pay a fine or something like that. But in the new Electoral Act, the editors working in the media are now liable and could face punishment where they are believed to have committed any offence. The punishment could be a jail term and payment of hefty fines.
They are criminalizing journalism. That kind of challenge really affects our work, our institution, and us as individuals who are passionate about press freedom.
What are your personal experiences in terms of exposure to dangers in the course of your media activism?
I have been exposed to dangers, to risks. Part of it was the fact that I was on the watch list of the Department of State Security (DSS). Whenever I am travelling out of the country, they will stop me and ask questions. Then I am asked to step aside. In one case, I was arrested and taken to the DSS office.
Even, when I travel out of the country, it sometimes happens. When they see I am a journalist or media executive, they begin to ask me questions, like, ‘where are you going? who invited you?’ Even though you have filled the form, they expect you to write your address, and fulfil so many other conditions.
It then means that as a press freedom activist, as a media activist and other things that I am, I am under the watch of the government. When they talk about surveillance, about government voting money to monitor people on whatsapp and so on, you just naturally assume you are part of those on their watch. That in itself is a big challenge.
There is the fact that on a daily basis, I face certain risks when doing the kind of work I am doing. It is just that in my own case, because of the path I have chosen for myself to tread, it has always been there.
Recall that it was there when we were in the leadership of the NUJ and fighting the military. I also experienced it way back in the university. In a sense, you tend to pay a lot of price for what you are doing. You are also hopeful that what you are doing is helping the society one way or the other. That compensates for the challenges that one regularly faces in the course of doing all this activism.
Have you been removed from the watch list?
According to the information passed by the DSS to a delegation of the International Press Institute, Nigeria chapter, led by the president, Musikilu Mojeed, I have been removed from the watch list. They said I have been on that watch list since my activism in my student days. But I also know that it was due to my media activities. They said they have removed me; when next I travel, I will know whether I have been removed or not.
Some people, including journalists, condemn the Guild of Editors as having become too political in its activities. What is your take on this?
Well, I wouldn’t say it has become too political. I will rather say that what we have seen recently is a revival of the guild. For a long time, the guild wasn’t acting as independently as it should, partly because of the nature of its membership. For instance, we have editors-in-chief that hold management positions, so there is conflict of interest. Should they defend the interests of the management, or the interests of the profession?
We have had this conversation over a long period of time. Recently, there has been the realisation that the guild needs to do more in areas of professionalism, ensuring that members who are editors see the imperative of complying with the ethics of the profession, that we should be professional in our approach, and that we should, as much as possible, not allow individual interests, whether they are political or religious, to affect our editorial judgment.
The welfare of journalists is not the direct responsibility of the guild; the NUJ is the one that is an industrial and professional body that fights for the welfare of its members. It is a union and its role is to negotiate wages, do collective bargaining and engage all those trade union processes.
The guild itself needs more professionalism. What we expect them to do is to help us expand the frontiers of professionalism, fight for media independence, help to address the whole question of who is a journalist, and so on.
In recent times, the guild is moving in that direction. One thing we are saying is that its leaders should refrain from the practice of giving awards to politicians and the rest of them, because in the long run, it compromises editorial independence and integrity.
When you name a governor as the best governor in education, or best governor overall, when there are critical issues affecting such a governor, would you be able to publish them as you should? Would you be able to commission investigations if there are allegations of abuse of power when your media institution has named that person the ‘Most Transparent Governor of the Year’ and so on?
Again, it is tied to the economic question in the media. If we would not deceive ourselves, some of these awards come with their own rewards. I am sure that those who win those awards show gratitude in some way or the other. How many newspapers are we selling now? But we need to go beyond that to the kind of message that those awards send to the larger society. I don’t think giving awards, especially to those still in government, is actually the best.
There is nothing wrong with media recognitions, but we can do morally better looking at people making waves in the society. Why can’t Tobi Amusan, the lady athlete making us all happy, be the man or woman of the year of a newspaper or television station? We need to change our orientation in the media and find other ways of addressing media survival and sustainability.
In spite of the global economic problems, the media are still surviving in other places. In Kenya, I know of newspapers that circulate, even as we speak, 200,000- 300,000 copies a day. This is the same for some media organisations in South Africa. How are they doing it? How are they addressing their own peculiar economic challenges? What can we do here? It is a conversation that the Guild of Editors needs to have on a more regular basis. It can seek resources to do assessments in other places, or even without going
there, have online conversations. At least, technology has made that possible for media leaders in those countries, and even for us here, looking at media survival in the age we are in.
However, there are some encouraging signs in that direction. We are seeing more of media convergence. Newspapers now have television and radio. They are tapping into the opportunities the online media provides. We need to have more conversations on this. And that way, media professional bodies would be able to justify their mandate by helping us to address broad issues of professionalism and media survival.
Many still remember President Muhammadu Buhari as muzzling the media when he was military head of state through Decree 4. Would you say Buhari, now as a democratic president, has assisted media practice in any way?
I started practising journalism in 1988 during the military government of Ibrahim Babangida, who had overthrown Buhari’s regime in August 1985. Buhari was military head of state when I was the president of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). That was my first encounter with him.
When Buhari was military head of state, there were two sides to him: there was the side that was waging war against everybody, fighting organizations that dared ask questions or fight for the interest of their members.
NANS, for example. When we went on a nationwide boycott of classes to protest the attempt to increase tuition fees in universities, NANS was proscribed. When the Nigerian Medical Association and the National Association of Resident Doctors went on strike, they were banned. When the Nigerian Association of Pilots went on strike over the poor state of the aviation industry, their members were dismissed. Forty-nine of them were sacked by the Buhari regime. Those were the kinds of things that were happening.
But there was the other side of him which had to do with the war against corruption. The perception people had of Buhari when he moved into politics was that of an anti-corruption crusader. But if you are a student of history and science, you would know that even the war
against corruption that time wasn’t total, in the sense that Buhari overthrew the Federal Government controlled by the National Party of Nigeria, which was a party notorious for corruption, but the politicians the Buhari regime sent to jail were politicians from the opposition political parties, some of whom didn’t really amass wealth for personal benefits. Some of the politicians Buhari punished probably donated money from security votes to their political parties. That was the experience of one of the governors of the Unity Party of Nigeria that Buhari sent to jail.
Buhari has always had questionable credentials, which were not known to many people. By 2015, the PDP had really messed up and people were desperate for an alternative and they felt that that alternative was Buhari. Now, our experiences in this current Buhari administration have shown that those who cautioned that the leopard doesn’t change its skin would seem to have been vindicated. If you compare the Buhari of that time and the Buhari of now, it would be that we are getting the same results. He is even leaving the country worse than he met it, and I don’t think that is a good credential for anybody to have.
You once led NANS. Could you compare the NANS that you once led with the NANS of today in terms of activism that not only protects the interest of university students but also challenges the nation’s leaders on governance?
I would say that there has been a collapse of values in the country, generally. There has been a collapse of values at the level of the political class, as well as of the NANS organisation. To that extent, today’s NANS executives are not living up to the kind of expectations students would want. The NANS we have today is not one that a person
like me would want to associate with. It has its own history.
Invariably, NANS has become a department of government, even in terms of those who emerge as its president. It seems the government has over the years planted some elements in the universities. Such students would spend so many years in the university, move from one institution to another, and when it comes to convention time, the government decides on which of them to pick, especially from state agents who become NANS presidents.
You will always know from their age. Some NANS presidents are over 40 years old; there was a time one was said to be 53. When I was elected NANS president in December 1983 at the University of Jos, I was 21 years old. You can compare that kind of situation then with what is happening these days.
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