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Nigerian publisher Olorunyomi to get International Press Freedom Award

by Shoks Mzolo
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) awards Dapo Olorunyomi for his courageous work

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) will on 19th November 2020 award Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher and CEO of Nigeria’s Premium Times, for his courageous work alongside three other journalists from Bangladesh, Iran and Russia. These journalists will be honoured with this year’s International Press Freedom Awards.

All four have been arrested or faced criminal prosecution for their journalism, CPJ reported.

Now known as the “godfather” of online reporting in Nigeria, for his leadership at Premium Times – an investigative news outlet which he co-founded in 2011, Olorunyomi is also widely respected for his commitment to and fight for media freedom. At the height of General Sani Abacha’s dictatorship, Olorunyomi established the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism and, with friends in Lagos, Radio Freedom (later Radio Kudirat). That pirate station was set up in 1995 “to deny the military a broadcast monopoly over the news,” as the grandee reflected years later. “[We] broadcast news challenging the false claims of the military junta.”

The move came just two years after the closure of The News – a victim of the regime’s crackdown that saw a whole seven media houses shutting down in just one month. In response, some journalists started Tempo. Unable to find the team behind Tempo, as its production was decentralised and underground, the police arrested even those who were caught reading the paper.

“A vendor selling Tempo was struck and killed by a fast-moving car as he was escaping from police,” the stalwart wrote in 2020. “Editors were constantly on the move, hopping from one sleeping hole to another every night, travelling in crowded commuter buses to evade arrest.”

After two arrests, intimidation, and close shaves with death, Olorunyomi fled his homeland in 1996 for a life in exile, in the United States, where he would remain for 13 years. In the early days of his exile, he sought to campaign for two causes: freedom for reporters in prison and exposing the deteriorating political and human rights situation in Nigeria. But Abacha’s spies were tracking his activities and reporting back to Abuja. As a result, on the anniversary of this editor’s escape from Nigeria, the military arrested and tortured his journalist wife, Ladi Olorunyomi, for 68 days in an underground military cell.

Since returning to Nigeria, Olorunyomi has continued his journalism. He also continues to play a role in many initiatives, serving, for instance, on the board of regional fact-checking organisation Africa Check and of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

As Nigeria’s leading investigative news outlet, the Premium Times has at times angered those in power with its reportage. In 2017, the veteran and his judicial correspondent Evelyn Okakwu were arrested after the outlet reported that Nigeria’s chief of staff was to be probed over false asset declaration. In response, the military accused the paper of defamation and roped in the police who in turn raided Abuja’s Premium Times newsroom and arrested the pair briefly before releasing them without charge.

KAS Media Africa, which works closely with Premium Times and is a friend to Olorunyomi, congratulates the publisher on being honoured with the International Press Freedom Award.