New York (INVESTADVOCATE)-In this interview with PETER OBIORA, Online Editor of Investadvocate, Omoyele Sowore, Publisher, Sahara Reporters discusses issues relating to how his online news platform championed and revolutionalised online journalism in Nigeria and world at large.
Other issues discussed include: the role of Omoyele as an Activist and a Journalist, “citizens’ Journalism”, how the Sahara Reporter publication obtain documents and continue to break the news, it source of income, the Sahara TV and Sahara FM amongst other interesting views: Excerpts.
You were part of those that revolutionalised the online journalism in Nigeria and the world generally and Sahara Reporters has been referred to as the wikileaks of Africa. How did you come across the name “Sahara Reports”?
I graduated with a BSC in Geography and Planning and I have always been in love with geographical features. When I was leaving another publication called Elendu Reports to set up Sahara Reporters, there was a temptation to call it “Sowore reporters” and I avoided that temptation of Sowore Reporters, I didn’t want to put my personal name to it. So as a result, I thought about it since I don’t have any journalistic background, and I don’t have too much talent or skills; but I’m going to do this regardless. I considered myself walking into a huge desert with unpredictable conditions of weather and in some cases climate. So, each time I move I’m going to draw a lot of dust and sand, and the best place I could think of where this happens persistently was the Sahara desert and to use that to demonstrate the impact that I thought this would have on news reporting in Nigeria and by extension Africa and the world. I thought the Sahara Desert has the best connotation in terms of what I was heading into and the impact that it might have if it succeeded.
Clarify your roles as an Activist and Journalist
I have tried persistently as well to educate myself and people and distance myself from any placement in any form of box that would make me not be able to do what I believe I would be doing and as a result I do not refer to myself as a Journalist; except when I need it to basically express to people what I do. When I mean basic, is that you find yourself in a situation where people ask you what exactly does that mean, and I say is Journalism. But in reality, there is no difference between journalism and activism in the sense that both characteristic and characters have always moved towards one goal which is to create accountability to speak truth to power and in most cases to put the feet of those in authority to fire, that’s what journalism is about. And journalism is of course the oldest form of activism in the world and the oldest profession in the world. Some people have said that commercial prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, I disagree with that because it was the Journalists that discovered the Prostitutes, saying we found these people in this corner doing this type of a thing and they are called ‘Prostitutes’ and people started calling them Prostitutes, they were discovered by the Journalists. So, the point I’m making is that they are all aimed at the same goal and as a result I find journalism that I have practiced as an extension of the Ministry of my activism.
What is Citizen Journalism?
It’s very simple, it is expanding journalism to individuals who are not exactly professionals, what we are saying basically is that anybody who is a citizen can be a journalist and so in that regard anybody can pick up a pen and write a story for us, they can use their cell phones to take photos and capture videos and send to us. And we create all of that here and put it out to the world to see and everything you see us do are products of people who have witnessed events as they are happening. So, we do not wait until professionals put on their gears and travel from one part of the world to the other before we report news. We give the power to ordinary people to report events as they are happening instantaneously and we publish through our platform, so it’s the most democratic form of journalism that you can think of.
Do you believe on the authenticity of these reports from the citizens?
Absolutely, even when you are a journalist and you write a story, you still need citizens to confirm and verify your stories; you still have to call people who are real citizens to verify your stories. So, it is us mobilizing these citizens to the barricade to say you don’t have to wait until you get a call, when you see it report it and that’s why we use the tag “Report Yourself”.
Sahara Reporters was on top of the news during the 2015 elections in Nigeria, did you do that through “citizens’ journalism”?
Absolutely it was mostly through “citizens’ journalism” and by the way I was on ground myself in Lagos, we had a team in Abuja and we have produced a documentary to this effect already on our website and YouTube page. But even if I was based in the US, we would have done the same thing, because what you are seeing is the power of instantaneous reporting that we mentioned. For us to verify, we demand a higher proof of evidence, so we ask people to take photographs of what’s happening, the results, scan, WhatsApp it to us. We require that people make videos and we are able to check the evidence through very simple software.
If you take a picture with your cell phone, I can use software to check the time you took the photograph and in some cases, I can use software to check your location if you have a location service on your cell phone, when you take a picture with it, there is some hidden information in that picture that shows exactly where that picture was taken. So that helped us a lot.
We also worked with election observers, INEC officials independently because all of them have cell phones, don’t forget that Nigeria has over 100 million cell phones, my grandmother almost a 100 years have a cell phone. So, all these people are using the tools of modern technology to interact with themselves. And what we said to them was that for these two days that they have a crucial election in their lives, they should interact with us, send us their messages, use it to monitor because we know that without the power of grass root reporting they were going to rig the election.
Even though we hate to take credit for it, but our ability to project the winner with evidence of correct results helped a lot in preventing the rigging and election malpractice that might have taken place. But don’t forget that even before the election there was a major discovery and reporting that we did which was locating an audio tape in Ekiti State in 2014 where Musliu Obanikoro and the rest of them sat together in a hotel and plotted the rigging of Ekiti State. And we reported it in such a way that two judgments were given that said soldiers should not go near election polling units and booths in Nigeria, that prior reporting of the election forced them to postpone the election for some weeks and eventually prevented the strategy that they would have used to rig the election like what they did in Ekiti.
They would have used it nationwide, use soldiers to intimidate, harass and beat people up and arrest them before the day of the election. And on the day of election, they have all these secret stickers and cars and they are stuffed with ballot papers and boxes and are taken to INEC and counted as the real votes. So, I’m just giving you a timeline as to how we plotted all of these and made it happen the way you said you were impressed with.
Why are citizens approaching Sahara Reporters first with documents, evidences, why not the other media?
It is because we have demonstrated over the years first and foremost that our place is a place they can come to and get complete anonymity when they have stories of this kind of magnitude. Our place is a place of integrity so you can come to us and know that we will not trade with your sensitive information with the people that you are targeting. Our place is a place of fearlessness and courage; imagine that this happened to a Nigerian local newspaper, the Army will probably go there and just take everybody away after the publication of that story. The politicians themselves would have probably had hired thugs, hired killers because some of them were people who had been accused of murder in the past. So, there is that general fear among even decent journalists who do not want to take on this kind of responsibility because they are afraid, we are not afraid of these people and we also have a historical duty that we appointed ourselves unto to expose this type of a thing, over the years, we have demonstrated it.
So, there is trust for our work, there is trust for our character and integrity by the citizens. When they have very big things to break, they come to us. I drew your attention to Stella Oduah’s BMW car scandal as well, the same way. But I can guarantee that probably some journalists have seen that, called her and got paid and never used it; you may never tell. But I know that even when we started publishing the stories and we won’t give up on it, some of the people calling to prevail on us to drop the story were Nigerian based journalists; because a lot of them are consultants to these characters which is a story for discussion another day and I think that’s part of what is killing the profession in Nigeria.
Has Sahara Reporters ever retracted any story?
No actually we haven’t, let me say we have a general policy and there you can regard as a retraction, if we write a story and even when we are right and people say we are not correct, we give them a chance to respond, we have a session called “Right of Reply” on the website. So, people can come to us and say your story wasn’t completely accurate and I want to correct an impression created about me and we give them a chance. Not only have we not expressly spent time on those kind of exercise, we have been sued three different times here in the US; so these are not Nigerian Judges. One case lasted for four years and the judge eventually said that our reporting of the event was accurate on a particular character who has stolen money from the Nigerian government through sale of properties of the Nigerian Embassy in Washington D.C and he eventually was found liable of stealing the money and now he has been asked to pay back the money to the Nigerian Embassy with interest. He stole about $1.5 million, the Judge gave a judgment that he is going to pay over $2.0 million to settle and he is desperately trying to apply for bankruptcy so that he will not pay the judgment but that also has failed. That tells you the very meticulous nature of our work to the extent that it can pass through the pronouncement of the judiciary in the US. It tells you that we are not playing here.
Property scandal rocks Nigerian Embassy in Washington DC; former Ambassador Obiozor has questions to answer over property he sold, and disparities in money and records. How did Nigeria’s former Ambassador to the United States, Mr. George Obiozor sell properties belonging to the Nigerian Embassy in the Washington DC area? Why are there vast disparities in the records of the sales? Where are the tax refunds on the sold properties?
Source: Sahara Reporters
Sahara Reporters Ability to obtain classified documents, would you say it’s through Citizens?
There are citizens and the reason is because everybody who works in a classified document depart, let’s call it that, is first and foremost a Nigerian citizen before they got the job. He could be a Police Officer, State Security Service Officer, the Army, all of them who are they? They are Nigerian citizens, so you can put on the uniform and be soldier, when you take off the uniform, you are citizen, when you put on the uniform, you are a citizen, so where have we erred here? Not at all, it’s just a call to arms actually that wherever you might have found yourself, if you find something that is against the interest of your country or humanity in general, you are at liberty to take that document out and we can use it to proactively fight the injustices that confronts our society. One of which is corruption and you see that a great proportion of our stories are based on corrupt officials; especially public officials, even sometimes people in the private sector.
Talk to us more on Sahara TV and Sahara FM
The world has gone online, the future of television, newspapers and radio are online. Every bit of media as we use to know has been compressed into a digital format that is the way it’s consumed today and that’s why we choose when we wanted to started a news platform, we choose going online. When we wanted to start a TV and radio, we choose going online. We are serving digital content to the world and the reason why Sahara TV is well known is because we are using a distribution strategy that is different from what we are used to. For example, you can get it online, but also you can get what we are doing now on Roku which is a small box that is becoming more popular around the world.
We also have one that just came out called TV Afrique and we are all lined up there, you can watch us. The next thing is that we would want to be able to be available to people on their cell phones, so we are working with people who are going to develop application where you can watch HD quality TV on your cell phone and when that happens, it’s going to make all the TV stations that you ever heard about look like a joke; but those who are smart are already doing it, CNN is already on mobile and a couple of others. Also, we are working assiduously to see if we can reach people who haven’t migrated to this new format. For example we have talked to DSTV to see if we can get a channel on there and have our people served out. Our main strategy is to be out there in front of everybody through digital serving; that’s why we produced the content the way it can fit into your digital media.
Apart from Citizens Reporters, what is the staff strength of Sahara Reporters?
Like the Citizens Reporters working for us, we cannot even tell their strength, because we have people who are consuming and reporting back to us. A lot of our readers are also our reporters, because they know their duties, here in New York, we have almost 20 people who come in here daily and working on ground, we have a lot of people in Nigeria who are helping us out to coordinate the citizen journalists that you have seen, I cannot disclose the strength of the staff all over the world; but in New York for the sake of your question, there are about 20 people in here that produces and distributes our content to the world.
How does Sahara Reporters generate income to offset this huge running cost based on its wide operations?
We have three major strategies for generating income, we sell adverts, and we also receive grants / investments from people who are interested in impact media that we have become, so they assist us. And we use to receive contributions from people but we have disabled that because it’s not worth the stress of having to collect money from people when we haven’t for example set up the process where we can collect assistance from places like Nigeria; so we decided to disable that like I said earlier.
Of course another major way of generating funds apart from the direct adverts is through Google Adsense, it’s implemented across the website, so, we are adding a lot more platform and we are planning to go into what they call native advertising which is the next step. We are also selling spots through the TV station, Sahara TV where people actually place adverts; they haven’t recognised the power of digital media in Nigeria. A lot of businesses in Nigerian are still spending huge amount of money on newspaper adverts because they are trapped in old ways of doing things.
All the newspapers in Nigeria combined together, they are no longer distributing up to 50,000 copies; maybe let’s say 100,000 if we want to be generous daily. But what we get if we write a good story is more than 100,000 unique users in an hour sometimes. During the Nigerian election, we had almost four (4) million people logged on to our website. It’s just in one day; you don’t get that every day; but it just to tell you that the power of media consumption has moved to the digital realm. Selling of advert is also on a digital format, so if people want to place advert with us, they go and fill out the form on the website and say please contact us, then we send them our advert rate, they look at it and if they have questions they contact us and we get back to them. We have a whole marketing team that does that in a very simple and transparent way.
I’m aware you have grants from Omdiyar and Ford Foundations
Yes, but we no longer have Ford Foundation funding us this time and Omdiyar is rounding off in August. The goal for these Foundations and Sahara Reporters is to become self sustaining. We have also in one instance had to take a media loan; there is a media fund organisation that gives out loans to media groups in the US and we had to take loans.
Based in New York City, Sahara Reporters was founded in 2006 by Nigerian political activist Omoyele Sowore. Sahara Reporters is supported by grants donated by the Ford Foundation which has donated $175,000 to the organisation over the past two years. Sahara Reporters has also received a $450,000 grant from The Omidyar Foundation.
How do you manage to run Sahara Reporters from New York without restrictions from the US government?
I have heard people sometimes make some ignorant comments; especially on social media that they should take our license, the US government does not give licenses to the media, you either set up as a non-for profit or a for profit and you just go to the state where you are operating from and tell them what you are doing and I’m registered. Well ours is a hybrid, there is a way that we are a benefit corporation which is a different new corporate strategy for setting up organisations that have non-for profit purposes; but also want to have some room to have revenue; but the difference for a benefit corporation is that your investors cannot force you to go and do certain things that are not good to make profit; which is different from your mission.
Why Sahara Reporters is not part of any online publishing association in Nigeria?
Those types of professional associations and groups have been bastardised in Nigeria to the extent that it would be a shame for us to join some of them knowing the characteristics of some of those that are part of these. Even, most of the online websites you mentioned have been used to target us in the past for doing what is right and we don’t complain about that.
But you don’t imagine that we know them, we have investigated some of these characters and we know that they blackmail people and we then go and be part of the organisation that they are in. If it were to be organisations that were created to protect the interest of members; like having a central pool to hire Lawyers when people are getting harassed or to protect their members by buying insurance, we would do. We have these kinds of affiliations; we have affiliations with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). They have been our best source for getting Lawyers when we get sued for libel. People have to decide what they want organisations or associations to do for them, what I see in this proliferation of associations is that they create a pressure group that goes from place to place to say we need our own body, give us adverts and money.
For example, we do not accept government adverts on Sahara Reporters; we have zero policy not to accept advertisements from any government body. We don’t accept people doing birthday greetings on our website and all those things applicable to the Nigerian environment. We don’t tolerate praise singing and sycophancy, so that’s just to cutoff the kind of things that would create conflict of interest for us. We are there to put the feet of people in government to fire and when government performs, you don’t need to advertise it, people would see it, we would report it if you do great things. But the moment you see government people desperately trying to advertise, you know that they are trying to buy access and by extension buy silence from the media.