Defence spokesperson visits PREMIUM TIMES, seeks warmer ties with Nigerian military

PREMIUM TIMES publisher, Dapo Olorunyomi (L) gifts John Agim (R), the acting director of information at Nigeria's defence headquarters

John Agim, the acting director of information at Nigeria’s defence headquarters, on Wednesday visited PREMIUM TIMES, emphasising the need for congenial media-military relationship in an age of 24-hour news cycle and unconventional warfare in Nigeria’s north-east.

Mr. Agim’s visit, first by the brigadier-general since he was named to the position on January 8, sought to reset the waning ties between this newspaper and the Nigerian military.

Mr. Agim, whose delegation comprised seven other officials at the defence information department, highlighted the efforts he is making towards ushering in a regime of stronger mutual cooperation between the military and the media, especially with regards to national security expediency and citizens’ right to know.

“Insurgency and terrorism cannot be defeated without the media,” Mr. Agim said during the early afternoon meeting at the paper’s head office in Abuja. “I’ve decided that I want to start a new relationship with the media.”

The spokesperson’s visit came a year after his counterpart at the Nigerian Army headquarters, Sani Usman, paid a similar visit in the wake of a misunderstanding between the paper and military authorities.

That visit was shortly after the Nigerian Army wrote to PREMIUM TIMES to demand a retraction and apology for some of the stories published by the paper.

After the paper wrote back to reject the Army’s demand, a team of police officers stormed its head office, arresting the publisher, Dapo Olorunyomi, and Evelyn Okakwu, a judiciary correspondent.

The journalists were released on the same day and the matter was resolved by the police the next day. No charges were filed.

During his visit, Mr. Sani, a brigadier-general who was replaced as Army spokesperson on Thursday, blamed the stand-off on “communication gap” and described it as an “unfortunate” situation. He pledged to normalise relations between the Army and the newspaper going forward.

Mr. Agim largely tailored his comments towards the same purpose.

“The wrong perception of the military which the citizens see in the media has already created an ingrained bias against the institution,” he said. “The Chief of Defence Staff believes that the time has come for citizens to start appreciating the military.”

This cannot be achieved without a diligent and sustainable partnership with the media, he added.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Olorunyomi said PREMIUM TIMES has had difficult times with Nigerian authorities, especially the Army.

But he was also quick to acknowledge the benefits of a smooth and consistent interaction between the media and the military.

“We must help each other to do our jobs better,” Mr. Olorunyomi said.

The publisher further stated that neither the media nor the military was prepared for the Boko Haram onslaught — which has become the most consequential issue pitting the media and the military against each other.

He said the two institutions could exercise their constitutional roles without repeatedly clashing or compromising on extant ethical guidelines of their respective professions.

He appealed to the military to partner with the media in organising regular brainstorming sessions between journalists, military information managers and communication experts.

The training would help prepare the military and the media for occasional crises, including where the military’s operation and national security collide with media independence and the public’s right to know, Mr. Olorunyomi added.

Also at the meeting was Musikilu Mojeed, the paper’s editor-in-chief, who complimented Mr. Agim for spearheading a new push for civil and cordial dealings between the military and the media.

“This appears a return to the days when we used to have a very good relationship with a former Director of Defence Information,” Mr. Mojeed said as he likened Mr. Agim’s posture to that of Chris Olukolade, a retired major-general who was Defence Headquarters spokesperson between 2013 and 2015.

“Most people don’t understand what PREMIUM TIMES stands for. We have on several occasions offered our patriotic support to the Nigerian military and our troops on the battlefront.”

For illustration, he cited a 2017 story which PREMIUM TIMES ran about Nigerian military preparing to remove Yayah Jammeh after he refused to step down despite losing the country’s general election.

“We ran that story to amplify the formidable status of our military and the leadership role it plays on the continent, but the Nigerian Army saw it different and issued statements that antagonised PREMIUM TIMES,” Mr. Mojeed said. “But of course, the story was true.”

While also attributing the hostile relationship to the fact that the two parties found themselves in an uncharted terrain with the war against terrorism, Mr. Mojeed assured Mr. Agim of PREMIUM TIMES’ unwavering support for the Nigerian military.

“You can count on PREMIUM TIMES as your partner anytime, any day. But we will never hesitate to hold you accountable when necessary.”

The meeting ended with Mr. Agim restating his readiness to strengthen military-media relations in the country.

“For those that we have a good relationship, we’ll like to improve on it,” he said. “For those that we don’t have a relationship, we’ll like to build a new one.”

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