This spring, everyone who knew of Adeola Akinremi’s plans to travel to northeast Nigeria to report on the tens of thousands displaced by Boko Haram told him to be extremely careful. Some urged him not to go at all. But Akinremi, features editor of the independent daily ThisDay, was set on telling the victims’ stories and he set out for Adamawa state the first week of May.
“The displaced people have suffered in silence for too long,” Akinremi explained to IPI in a recent interview. “All I wanted to do was to get the government to hear their voices through my writing and put pressure on the government to clamp down on the insurgents as quickly as possible.”
After returning to southern Nigeria, Akinremi published “Why Boko Haram don’t deserve our amnesty”, describing the anguish sown by members of the terrorist group. Two days later, on May 10, he received an email containing threats from Boko Haram. “You will die like other infidels that we captured”, the email read. “You’re now a walking dead and a prey to the Lions of Islam from the bullet of a passing car or a nearby rooftop.”
Akinremi is far from the first reporter Boko Haram has targeted. While the group arguably poses a threat to the safety of all Nigerians, journalists who write about Boko Haram can find themselves specifically targeted. Boko Haram militants have killed journalists in the past — TV journalist Eneche Akogwu in 2012 and cameraman Alhaji Zakariyya Isa in 2011 — and the group bombed ThisDay’s offices in 2012, apparently because it did not approve of the way the paper covered its activities.
“One of the reasons Boko Haram gave to justify their attack on our Abuja office was that we were not giving their activities front page prominence,” ThisDay Director Eniola Bello told IPI. “They want to create panic.”
Since the bombing attack on ThisDay, Nigerian media houses have increased protection of their buildings by stepping up security around their entryways and erecting barricades. “[Boko Haram has] threatened newspapers by name. All of us have taken measures to protect ourselves. We have put on controls and metal detectors at the entrance to offices,” said Kabiru Yusuf, chairman of Nigeria’s Media Trust Ltd.
Protecting reporters in the field, however, is a more complex issue.
Facing hazardous working conditions, Nigerian media outlets struggle to provide their employees the protection they need to report in dangerous areas. Financial restraints often prevent media companies from offering training, equipment and adequate insurance.
“Most [Nigerian] newspapers are not rich,” said Yusuf, who is also chair of IPI’s Nigerian National Committee and a member of IPI’s global executive board. Insufficient funding, he indicated, limits the protections newspapers are able to provide to journalists reporting in unsafe situations.
For example, equipment that would improve the safety of journalists in the field, such as body armour, is said to be beyond the financial means of most Nigerian media houses.
Also absent are specialised courses to teach journalists how to work in hostile environments. “There is no special training for reporting on Boko Haram,” Bello stated.
While budgetary restrictions are clearly a factor here, too, observers say the absence of training is also due to a general unpreparedness in the media sector for the challenge of safely covering such an extraordinarily dangerous conflict.
“Insurgency came suddenly upon our country,” Akinremi explained. “It has not always been there, so no one prepared for it. Even those in the military didn’t prepare for terrorism, let alone the journalists.”
Raheem Adedoyin, special adviser on communications strategy to the Kwara (southeastern Nigeria) state government and secretary of the IPI Nigerian National Committee, calls the lack of training the second-most-serious threat to the safety of journalists in Nigeria, behind the country’s general insecurity. Adedoyin suggested journalists are not trained on how to report on Boko Haram or how to avoid danger because “training is not even available”.
Journalists are safer when they learn what precautions to take and what support they will need when reporting in a conflict zone. They also need to be aware that they may require substantial financial resources to buy their way out of trouble, according to Adedoyin. To address the absence of training, ThisDay encourages its reporters to apply for international trainings and fellowships.
The most effective way Nigerian media houses safeguard their journalists is by keeping them out of hazardous situations in the first place. Bello said ThisDay tries to remove its reporters from unsafe areas when they receive threats.
“Our main weapon is avoidance,” Yusuf said. “We try not to be too heroic.” He explained that news is often gathered after the terrorists have left an area, when the threat is lower. News organisations do not send journalists into dangerous situations unless the journalists volunteer to go.
When journalists cover Boko Haram, they are encouraged to alert the armed forces and make contingency plans to receive emergency assistance. Then at least the security forces will know they are in danger, Adedoyin said.
If a reporter receives a threat, the media outlet will advise him or her to report the incident to the police, who may increase surveillance. However, journalists say that Nigerian security forces are not necessarily able to help.
“Police cannot protect anybody,” Bello said, emphasising that Boko Haram poses a threat to all Nigerians, not just to journalists. Yusuf agreed that the police are sometimes too overwhelmed to help. “The most reliable thing is to protect yourself.”
Akinremi said he has been “keeping a low profile” following the death threat against him in May, adding: “The police seem not to have the resources.”
Covering conflict in Nigeria is made even more risky by the absence of insurance for reporters. Many journalists operate without life or health insurance. Although Nigeria’s pension laws require all registered companies to provide group life insurance for their permanent employees, for financial reasons not all newspapers comply.
“Life insurance does not exist for Nigerian journalists,” said Akinremi, though he added that the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) was currently championing the cause. The more journalists can rely on insurance policies, according to Yusuf, the more risks they will be able to take.
Some media organisations do provide basic health insurance. ThisDay does not offer insurance, but Bello, ThisDay’s director, said that his reporters have policies through their union. Purchasing individual insurance is out of reach for most journalists because their pay is often meagre.
Yet, despite the hazards and lack of resources, Nigerian journalists fearlessly continue reporting. They do not turn to self-censorship, Akinremi affirms. “Most journalists write without harbouring fear of any kind in their minds,” he said. “Journalists around here are not known to take any precaution. It is the reason we put our bylines on the stories.”
Akinremi said that he knows expressing certain views can make a journalist the object of an attack. But, he explained, “I want to do my job regardless”.