Nigerian investigative journalist and joint-winner of the People Journalism Prize for Africa (PJPA) 2019, Fisayo Soyombo, says he is donating his N500,000 cash prize to aid the release of “awaiting-trial inmates who have no business in prison”.
He recently carried out an undercover investigation on Nigeria’s prison system.
Last month, Gatefield Foundation, a Sub-Saharan Africa public strategy firm and organiser of the journalism award, named Mr Soyombo and Kiki Mordi, a BBC journalist who is known for her investigative documentary on sexual harassment in some West African universities, as the inaugural winners of the $3,000 journalism prize (approximately N1 million).
They were recognised in Abuja for “subjecting themselves to the excruciating torture of the injustice that they sought to expose in telling these stories.”
Receiving the award alongside his co-winner, Ms Mordi on Thursday, Mr Soyombo said his decision to donate the prize was informed by the sheer feeling of civil responsibility to drive the course of social justice and freedom.
“My three-part investigation may have focused on the deep-seated corruption tarnishing the administration of criminal justice in Nigeria, but that isn’t the only frailty of the system.
“One other is the huge population of awaiting-trial inmates, many of them actually in prison for trivial offences and others not even deserving of detention much less imprisonment in the first place. At Ikoyi Prison, for example, more than 3,000 inmates inhabit a prison built for 800. Of these 3,000, less than 500 are convicts; the number of awaiting-trial inmates usually hovers around 2,500.
“While I am not in a position to help the prisons service clean up its corrupt house, by donating this money, I can at least help to kick-start a process I’m hoping can snowball into prison decongestion through the freedom of scores of awaiting-trial inmates,” Mr Soyombo said.
The fund, he said, will be managed by Abimbola Ojenika of The Justice Project whom he described as “a man of integrity and a hardworking but silent force for social change.”
He said the cash will be used to pay stipends to lawyers who will visit prisons to track the cases, ensure more inmates have their days in court, represent the inmates, settle fines where necessary and provide support to the inmates.
“Aside focusing on the possibility of innocence and frivolity of cases against inmates, women with babies and inmates with young families back home will receive special consideration,” he added.
Expressing gratitude to his parents, colleagues and all those who helped him with the investigation, he dedicated the award to a late friend whom until her death was one of his biggest cheerleaders.
“When she passed on September 3, 2018, I made a little promise to myself that my next journalism award would be for her. I want to thank Gatefield for helping me realise this,” he said.
‘Win for the people’
For Ms Mordi, winning the award is a testament to people’s pervasiveness to true journalism and the clamour for social change.
“Before people would say journalists shouldn’t take sides; it has gone beyond that. In the face of injustice and social inequality, we cannot remain silent,” she said.
The new trend, she said, should be the drive for informed truth that pricks social justice.
Complimenting people’s support for her, she promised to strive for the course of justice at all times.
‘Media: democracy’s oxygen’
Meanwhile, in his keynote speech, Jude Ilo, Head of Nigeria Office of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) noted that invigorating journalism is pivotal to the sustainability iof democracy.
“A nation without journalists by all intents is dead. A democracy without thriving journalists cannot lay claim to being the actual democracy. Media is central to democracy.
“It is the oxygen of morality and gatekeeper of diversity,” he said.
Worried about government’s attempts at muzzling journalists, Mr Ilo urged journalists to remain resolute in their social commitment to holding the government to account.
“At the time Nigeria needed to find its footing, it was these journalists that gave us our voice, they are the ones who amplify our voices,” he said, recalling military high-handedness on journalists at the time.
“The price of freedom and the work of journalists is very grave and we should never take it for granted. For you to keep doing this work, it requires the collective appreciation of Nigerians.”
‘Adding glamour to journalism’
Adewunmi Emoruwa , Gatefield Lead Strategist, said the PJPA is a public service journalism initiative, instituted to add ‘glints of glamour’ to the practice of journalism.
“We believe three very important things: one, journalism matters; two, journalists should be proud of their work; and three, they must be supported and be praised for the job they do,” he said.
Mr Emoruwa said that authoritarian governments have tried to make the media illegitimate and want people to distrust the media “thus the dwindling media trust in Nigeria from 80 per cent in 2006 to 34 per cent now, according to a report by Researchers NG”.
“We need to do it right in the clamour for good journalism by restoring the glamour back to it,” he said.
He said he hoped their next journalism prize would scale up to $5,000 from its inaugural mark.