Mr. Lanre Arogundade is so many things woven into one. A man passionate about issues concerning the Nigerian media, he is a journalist of outstanding status, an author, a human rights activist and at a time a politician among other things. Noted for his penchant for doing battle with anything that may want to obstruct the ease of doing media business in its best form, Arogundade is also a trainer of media practitioners. With the International Press Centre, IPC, which he founded as a useful tool, he has championed the cause of ensuring press freedom in Nigeria and beyond, in addition to helping shape for the better, the future of media practitioners.
In this interview with SAKIBU OLOKOJOBI, the Director of IPC speaks on a number of issues relating to the media in Nigeria and how best to loosen the grips of the problems threatening to snuff life out of it. Excerpts:
As an organisation interested in the protection of the rights of journalists, what has IPC done in this respect and what are your plans for the future?
We’ve been doing about four things. The first thing is to let the individual journalist understand that the key to greater welfare is stronger professionalism because we need to look at the media, not just in Nigeria, but globally; we need to know that the media landscape is expanding rapidly. Increasingly, international media channels are looking for very good hands. The only international cable television that was in existence when we were in the newsroom in the National Concord in the 90s was CNN. But now you have Aljazeera, BBC Pidgin, BBC Yoruba and whatever. They are all looking for good hands. Train yourself properly and exercise discipline, you will become a good journalist and will be recognized as such. You will get opportunities, not just as a practising journalist but even in academics and as a trainer of journalists. With that at the background, we invest a lot in building the capacity of journalists. We train them to be good reporters for the organisations they work with; we also train them to be good reporters for their own individual future, wherever they might find themselves.
In the area of press freedom, we are very much involved in the campaign and advocacy for the rights of journalists. It is not that we only issue press statements to condemn the arrest of journalists, we are also part of dialogue. We reach out to the police and others to see how we could collectively agree on protecting journalists, especially, those that are on sensitive duties like those covering insurgencies, elections. We think the approach towards relating or dealing with them should be different and that there must be understanding on both sides of the divide. So, we work in that area.
We work in the area of ensuring that laws that will inhibit press freedom are not introduced. The other time, we were at the National Assembly, for example, to be part of the organisations that said the proposed Nigeria Press Council Amendment Decree was not acceptable. This is because it sought to criminalise journalism; it makes it a crime that when you err professionally, not deliberately, you are subjected to harsh punishment. We felt that that is not right and we are part of the campaign against it. If you look at the networks to which we belong whether locally or internationally, there are networks that also help us to advance these cause. We realise that we cannot do it alone. So, we are a national partner for Media Foundation for West Africa, Africa Freedom of Exchange, International Freedom of Exchange, the Freedom of Information Coalition, and so on. In all these areas, we work with other stakeholders to improve the space for freedom of the press and rights of journalists in Nigeria. Now, in the area of capacity building, over the years we have also published resource materials so that journalists who do not have the opportunity of participating in these summits directly can at lease use some of these resource materials as handbooks to guide them on their day to day practice.
How would you say your impacts have been in those areas you talked about?
I think we can look at a number of success stories. One of the unique things we have done at IPC is that we try to work towards solution-driven journalism. When we work with communities for example, we go with journalists; train journalists on community reporting; get journalists involved in the issues of those communities so that even when our project circle has stopped, because usually we get donors funding our projects, those journalists can follow up, serve as a bridge between the communities and those in the local government and ultimately ensure that things are done.
In the past five years, for example, we have done a project known as Strengthening Citizens Engagement in the Electoral Process, SCEEP. In Lagos, we worked in about 18 communities in each of six local government areas. In the course of that project, we worked with those in the communities to produce what we call community charters, where they are able to articulate issues. They had those charters presented to local government chairmen and other relevant people in the communities. So, we have promoted interface. As a result of our activities, some of those communities have reported back to say that, in some cases, the roads in the communities had been repaired and so on. So, we can look at that and say these are some of the impacts of our work.
We have seen journalists who are products of our capacity building who have really excelled. The likes of Yusuf Alli. That is talking about the alumni of IPC trainings. You will be surprised at some of the names that have come up. Alli for instance was Editor of The Punch and now Regional Managing Editor of The Nation.
Seun Okinbaloye of Channels TV was one of our trainees when we were doing the basics of election reporting. We see those kinds of impact. We see journalists who have been part of our programmes and who have won awards. There was a female journalist, when we were working with some communities in Amuwo Odofin area, that didn’t have a number of amenities. IPC went there to have a project called the Unheard Voices. We were in the area to help those communities bring out their issues. We even trained those communities on how to use camera, report their issues and get it to the media. We worked with a number of communities in the riverine areas. The focus of that project was electricity. We are talking about Igbo Alejo, Itoboro and so on. Invariably we realsied that the communities didn’t have schools. In Igbo Alejo, the school there was built since Lateef Jakande days and because of the difficult terrain, the school collapsed. One of the things we did was to go with community representatives; we met with the Commissioner for Education, late Professor Lawal; met with member of the House of Reps and the senator – Tokunbo Afikuyomi. After we had finished the project, this young reporter from The Sun kept going back and doing follow-ups; she kept reporting the communities. So, due to her persistence and her reporting, the Ministry of Education ensured that a public school was established in Igbo Alejo, for the first time in the history of the communities. I’m sure the school is still there today. As a result of that story, the lady, that year, won the Cadbury Award for Education Reporter of the Year. These are some of the impacts we have seen. May be we need to do more to access our impacts, we have really helped to shape the professional destiny of a number of journalists. By our record, we are still compiling, we have trained over 2000 journalists since our inception, on different aspects.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has said that online media will be regulated. What does that mean to you?
I really don’t know what it means until we see the details of this so called reformation. I know you publish online, for instance, and I know that you must have registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission; you must have subscribed to the regulatory authority in your relevant area. So, I really don’t know what this super regulation they are talking about entails. What I know is that there has been issues about what happens in the social media. In the social media, there is a lot of fake news, bad news and so forth. Although we also caution because we come from the freedom of expression background and say no matter what we say, the online environment has given people greater opportunity to express themselves in terms of issues that concern them, in terms of welfare, in terms of speaking out. They take pictures of bad roads and of things happening and sharing them. But there is also the other side. People have said: Can we leave this environment without any form of regulation? And we say, perhaps, it has come to a stage, where there should be some regulation. But who does this regulation? It should not be the government alone because there are some interests connected with the online or digital environment. There are issues around digital rights, digital rights of others and so on. Why don’t we have a wide stakeholders’ dialogue, and an agreement that involves the Ministry of Information, Communication, Guild of Corporate Online Publishers, Nigerian Guild of Editors, and other interest groups within the society. We all need to come together and say these are the minimum conditions in terms of ethical conduct in the social media in our space. That is what we feel the minister is trying to react to. We feel that we need this dialogue if the media space is to be regulated at all. The minister also talked about regulating foreign media. Again, I don’t know what this means. I don’t know whether CNN or BBC will need special permission before I can go to BBC website on my laptop or mobile phone to read their stories. I think sometimes we have to be careful so that we don’t make ourselves a laughing stock in the international community. I don’t know whether what the minister is saying is that CNN, BBC, Aljazeera and others would be registered with the Ministry of Information. I just don’t understand, because these days, you can access various international media through your devices. That is why I said until the minister comes out with the details, we probably would not have full understanding. Just be assured that if that regulation would affect press freedom; if it would curtail investigative journalism; if it would threaten the independence of journalists; if it would connote that journalists must disclose their sources, we will oppose it and fight it.
Going back to IPC, from all indications you have achieved a lot. But what are the challenges that you have faced in the course of carrying out you mandate?
We face the challenge of funding. Basically we are an NGO and we gravitate towards donors. Sometimes, these donors, even when they are generous, don’t cover all your costs. There are times when it is really difficult to keep going in terms of even paying staff salaries and others, that you really have to struggle to survive. Then, even where donors are supporting you, their priorities may change. They may say that they are not working in the original area again. And you have to constantly adapt.
Of course, the environment is very competitive. We have many development organisations now emerging. Infact, those that were not in that sector are venturing into that. For instance, you have the Cable newspapers now and there is the the Cable Foundation. So, you have to look at your mandate, your activities and your vision, and begin to adapt. It has been quite tough and challenging. Another challenge we are also facing is lack of trust. People still feel that you are doing this because you need donors’ money, without really looking at what we do and what contributions we are making into the volume of knowledge of media performance. Sometimes, we do what academic do. As we speak, we are monitoring 12 newspapers, how they covered the election and how they are covering post election developments. We come up with research. Some of our reports have been used in the academic circles. They find them very useful. So, we have a lot of roles to play, but because we come with the tag of civil society or NGO, they come with a lot of baggage. In the sector, we have a lot of corruption. People just feel that some of these things are done to fulfill all righteousness, and that it is just an avenue to make money. So, this could be sometimes frustrating because you risk a lot to do this job.
Last year, towards the election and even this year, we can’t count the number of journeys we embarked upon from this office, flying from one part of the country to the other to train journalists. It takes its toll on you, but behind it all is the passion – the passion that this is an avenue for us to achieve the media of our dream. That passion keeps one going. One just hopes that there will be a greater understanding and acknowledgement that we are adding value to media professionalism in Nigeria.
One major project you have executed in recent time is the Nigerian Media Code of Election Coverage. There was a document like that before. What informed the new one?
The idea of a code of election coverage first came up in 2014 towards 2015 elections. Again, it was a response to complaints about media performance – you are not doing anything, there is no regulation! This is part of self-regulation. We said, let us look at international best practices. We realised that in some countries, journalists give themselves a code of conduct specific to elections. Because of the tendency for every other journalist to be an election reporter during the period, because you are covering the whole country during a general election, those who are not on the politics beat get deployed to go and cover elections. We therefore feel you need a basic guide. By the time we came up with the code in 2014, it was just barely three or four months to election. We did not have enough period to disseminate it and share thoughts about the content, do step down training and so forth. The only thing we were happy about was the fact that for the first time we had the code of election coverage in place for the use of journalists.
In the aftermath of the election we had some reviews, which showed that there wasn’t substantial compliance. There couldn’t have been substantial compliance because many journalists were not even aware of the code, they didn’t even know what it was all about. It was only endorsed by few media organisations – Nigerian Guild of Editors, Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria, the Nigerian Union of Journalists, the Nigerian Association of Women Journalists, Media Rights Agenda and International Press Centre. So, coming from that experience, looking at 2019, with the fortune of being funded by the European Union, to carry out some media activities, we felt some of the things we should do, first was to review and update that code. This is because there were a number of emergent issues that we needed to respond to as part of the things we saw in the 2015 elections. These include the rise of hate speech, the fact that some journalists were not conflict sensitive, the fact that we now talk about fact checking journalism and so on. We felt that the content needed to be updated. That was what led to the review and updating of the content.
Again, we said let us do it in time this time around so that many journalists can be aware of the code and also use it to defend themselves, especially when they are being pushed by their editors or proprietors to do that which is unprofessional. They can at least say, oh, this code says we should not do this. We looked at that and the timing. Unlike in 2014 when the code came about November 2014 and the election was going to hold in February, this time around we launched the code as far back as June 2018. That gave us clear eight to nine months before the elections. Then, unlike 2015, this time around, we said beyond these media umbrella bodies, let us bring in other stakeholders. Let’s encourage each media organisation to endorse the code to give it some weight so that journalists will take it more seriously. We had more professional bodies that endorsed the code. This time around, we have the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers, we have academic institutions like the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, we had media development groups. More importantly, we had the endorsement of various leading media organisations all over the country. I think we had about 60 online publications that endorsed the code. We also have over 100 newspaper houses, radio stations, television stations including government owned ones like the News Agency of Nigeria, Voice of Nigeria. It became very popular. This time around, we are able to print 20,000 copies apart from the one online. And some media organisations invited us to do step down trainings for their journalists on the content of the code. We had the News Agency of Nigeria, AIT, Raypower and so on and so forth.
If you look at the reporting in the 2019 election, we can say, yes, it has some effects. From our own monitoring, we didn’t see elements of hate speech as much as we saw it in 2015 when newspapers did not hesitate to take hate advertorials. This particular new code is very strong on hate speech, conflict sensitivity and so on and so forth. So, we didn’t see the preponderance of hate speech like we saw in 2015. I would then say that compared with then, this code has greater impact, although we still need to do more because Nigeria is a big country and we have many journalists. Before you know it, another general election will come. This time, next year, 2023 election will be occupying media agenda.
Despite the code, there were some cases of hasty publication of election results. How do you wish to handle this?
As long as you do not violate the electoral law… What the electoral law says is that any result that is declared and endorsed by the presiding electoral officer at the polling unit can be declared. To me, that is not hasty. What people should not do is declaring someone a winner when INEC has not declared him the winner. It is wrong for the media to do that. You can publish as approved at the polling unit. Wait for the official pronouncement of INEC because those figures may not be valid. During the collation, they may decide that there are some issues in some areas. So, if you had reported that somebody had won, then, you would have misled the public.
We need to exercise caution. Infact, we need to err on the side of caution when it comes to election reporting. Election in Nigeria is tied to a number of things – it is tied to religion, it is tied to ethnicity and so on. If we are not careful about what we report, it can lead to heating up the polity as they always say. It can contribute to electoral violence and that will not be good for the country.
Let’s move away from the media and other issues and look at your person of Lanre Arogundade. Who is he? I’m asking this question considering your involvement in different activities at different times in your journey in life. You are a journalist, you were once in the newsroom and now in IPC, you were a politician, a rights activist and so on. Who really is Lanre Arogundade?
I think Lanre Arogundade is one who is passionate about human and socio-developments. I’m concerned about basic rights of citizens, for them to have access to the basic things of life; good things that make life meaningful. That interest, coupled with the need to protect the fundamental rights of citizens have actually shaped all my activities like being a student leader, journalist, a human rights activist, a pro-democracy activist. All my engagements have been tailored towards that. It is all about having a better society. Of course, I come armed with my own ideology which is against capitalist system. I feel that capitalism is our problem. I am a socialist in orientation, belief and even in action. But beyond ideology is the fact that the society can be better off if we allow official conducts to be guided by the basic principles. Those principles should be about putting the human or public interest at the apex of whatever we do. We are here because we went to school at a period when public interest was predominant. Not just in the education sector but in the health sector. For me, the totality of my actions is geared towards getting government to do those basic things that made it possible for us to have good education; those basic things that made it possible for us to have good health. If you tell anyone that there was a time when as a secondary school student, you could walk to a general hospital with your uniform (the uniform was your identity card) and get attended to, they would doubt you. But it happened then. We need that. That is why I’m so involved in this media work based on the belief that the media should not miss this basic needs of life. All we are talking about is to ensure that our community and our society are productive. We can talk GDP, we can talk about figures and talk about plans to become one of the biggest nations in the world, I feel that what matters is for people to be able to go to the hospital and be attended to by competent doctors, for our children to be able to go to school and get good education. If you look at what is happening in our system now, it doesn’t make one happy. Doctors are leaving in droves despite all the resources we have in this country. So, if you ask me, this is where we in the media need to do more.
Off media issues and other serious issues, how do you unwind?
It’s a bit limited. I like dancing when I have the opportunity; I could just go with some good music and dance. Sometimes, I walk in the neighbourhood. In those days, one would unwind, as we would normally do in the newsroom – go out and have one bottle or two. I don’t do that often now. I also read that socialising is also part of healthy living – when you sit with a group of friends. Occasionally, I still do that even though I really don’t take alcohol. I still sit down with some friends, chat. They might be having their beer, it doesn’t stop us from socialising. These days, I also try to read because whoever stops reading cannot learn. I still have books I read about media, about politics. So, I unwind with that and when times permit, I go to social events with the family, we go to concerts. Occasionally I also go out to watch films with my wife. Those are the little little things I do to unwind.
You said you like dancing and that of course, goes with music. What is good music to you?
What is good music?! Good music is music that has good rhythms. But I have my own choice when it comes to music. You are likely to see me dance when it comes to afrobeat and all those stuff.
You visit the Shrine?
Occasionally. When Fela was there, I was a fairly regular visitor, but now, once in a while. I go to watch Femi perform.
What message would you like to pass on to Nigerians in general.
My message will be to Nigerian youths. They need to do more. They may face some disadvantages, they need to face the fact that seriously, the future belongs to them. We need to see more positive use of energy in this country. It is the youths that can drive development. We need to see youths that can take government up on the issue of development through whichever means they can.
And for the media, we need to help to raise the level of debate about those basic things; we need to leave these high sounding issues and go to the communities to see how government is impacting on people’s lives. Where it is not impacting, we need to bring it to the attention of those in authority. So, journalism today should be solution-driven, should be people-oriented. If we do that we will gain the confidence of the public and we will be seen as a vanguard of democratic development.