CPJ is honored to present its 2020 International Press Freedom Award to Nigerian journalist Dapo Olorunyomi.
Olorunyomi is the co-founder, CEO, and publisher of the Nigerian newspaper Premium Times, which today is one of the most trusted newspapers in Nigeria and a standard for African investigative journalism. Olorunyomi, who has dedicated his life to holding the powerful to account, is a fierce advocate for press freedom and is referred to by some as the “godfather” of online journalism in Nigeria.
The journalist and the Premium Times have been subjected to official harassment over the years. In 2017, police raided the newspaper’s offices on orders of the military and arrested him and a reporter on allegations of defaming the chief of army staff. Premium Times stood its ground, and both journalists were released. The army eventually distanced itself from the chief of staff’s actions.
Earlier in his career, Olorunyomi reported fearlessly on the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. He helped lay the foundation for the high-quality, adversarial journalism for which Nigeria is known today. In 1993 he was co-founder and deputy editor-in-chief of The NEWS magazine as well as co-founder of Tempo magazine. The latter was published from a secret building near the police headquarters and caused such agitation in the regime that authorities arrested even those caught reading it.
Olorunyomi was twice arrested for his reporting and went into hiding in 1995 after the Abacha regime threatened his life. In 1996, CPJ and Amnesty International helped organize his escape into exile in the United States. “Somehow [CPJ] found me. They initiated contact, secured funds for my escape and arranged for legal documents so I could come to the U.S.,” he later told the American Journalism Review. The next year, he spoke at a CPJ roundtable about the detention of his wife, journalist, Ladi Olorunyomi, and the grave situation for press freedom in Nigeria. “Without [CPJ],” he has said, “I believe I would be dead or in prison.”
Olorunyomi worked as an editor at other Nigerian media outlets, including PM News, which he helped co-found; Radio Nigeria; The African Guardian magazine; and NEXT newspapers. In 2005, he founded the Lagos-based Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism, named after Africa’s first Nobel laureate in literature and dedicated to exposing corruption and human rights abuses. He also co-founded the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, a partner organization to the newspaper, which has its own press freedom tracker. The journalism innovation and development institution aims to “promote a truly independent media landscape that advances fundamental human rights, good governance and accountability in West Africa through investigative journalism, open data and civic technology.”
Olorunyomi serves on the advisory boards of nonprofit organizations Africa Check and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism.
The text of Dapo Olorunyomi’s acceptance speech is below:
A Journalism of Freedom and Community
Two months from now, it will be exactly two years since the Ghanaian investigative journalist Ahmed Suale was brutally murdered in the presence of his young child. It will be one year since Dadiyata, the Nigerian blogger, also went missing. And as I speak to you today, 27 of our colleagues are in jail in Egypt, not to talk of the conditions that journalism faces in countries like Mali, even in South Africa, in Zimbabwe, and definitely in Tanzania. The state of press freedom in Africa today is abysmal and extremely frightening.
The modest progress that Africa has made in the past decade is in great threat. Yet we cannot lose sight of the fact that Africa needs a very strong and reliable press. The fact that two-thirds of the global maternal mortality is recorded in Sub-Saharan Africa and also that 27 of the 28th poorest countries where poverty is about 30 percent on a global scale is in Sub-Saharan Africa should remind us of the very difficult work that we need to do both in development and democracy building. For Africa to be able to pull through this difficult environment of the 21st century we need bold imagination, we need a space for debate, we need a context for dissent, we need more marchers on the street, but above all we need an asset of democracy that helps us interpret and mediate these processes in a way that no other institution can.
If you look at the four crippling conditions, the vestiges of authoritarianism, the terrible economic situation, the new growth of a climate of fear swelled by disinformation sometimes promoted by governments, now add the new leveler, COVID-19. All this reminds us, and should serve as a huge warning that the last thing that we need to do is to now shut down dissent. We need an unfettered press to be able to narrate these processes in a way that can lead us to resolutions.
Accordingly, an International Press Freedom Award at this moment awakens the mind. It reminds me in particular, and I believe many of my colleagues, of the very important work that remains undone in the development of our media and the struggle to expand and give true consequence to our democracy. But above all, to give true definition to the reign of human rights and liberties in all countries of the region.
It is in that regard that I therefore dedicate this award to all our colleagues who are still languishing in jail in the region. It is to remind them that freedom’s day is just the next day away.
Thank you very much and God bless.