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May 9, 2014

Award-winning Nigerian editor: ‘The government does not attack us physically because they are afraid of what the world will say’

By William Turvill

As the British press moved its attention and resources to Nigeria this week to cover the kidnapping of more than 200 girls by Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, one man moved in the opposite direction.

Musikilu Mojeed was in London to collect a One World Media special award recognising his news website Premium Times as an “outstanding media organisation in the developing world making a real impact”.

Staying in a Premier Inn near King’s Cross, Mojeed spent the day after the awards making media appearances – including on Sky News and Radio 4 – and talking to his newsroom.

“It’s not a good time for me to be away,” he says, adding that this is not the only difficulty with the story.

“It’s a big story and it’s a running story. So for us it’s frustrating that we cannot go to where the kids are.

“One of our reporters went there once. And that was in the company of the governor of that state. But we cannot send a reporter there on their own because it is not safe. It is very dangerous.

“So that’s the frustration for us. We would love to go there and tell the whole world the story from there not relying on sources or second-hand accounts from activists.”  

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Mojeed says this story highlights one of the many difficulties that come with reporting in Nigeria.

His website, Premium Times, was set up in May 2011 after the newspaper he worked for, Next, was forced to close because of what he calls “a new form of censorship” from the government.

“Government wasn’t comfortable with the reporting of the newspaper,” he says. “So government intimidated and scared away investors in that newspaper. And they also scared advertisers away from that newspaper.

“So before you knew it, the newspaper went broke.”

According to Mojeed, the government celebrated the closure openly. “Three weeks ago our president spoke on television. And he spoke about my former newspaper. He said the newspaper was set up to bring down government and it was a delight that the newspaper didn’t survive and died.

“That shows to you how uncomfortable government is with truthful reporting.”

In a country of 170 million people where the biggest newspaper has a circulation of around 100,000, Mojeed doesn’t feel Premium Times is missing out by being online-only.

According to Mojeed, Premium Times employs around 50 journalists across the country and reaches "several million" people each month.

Three years after its launch, Mojeed says the website is considering introducing a paywall and he wants to expand by having reporters based in the UK and United States.

The incentive behind launching a website when Next collapsed was that with no printing and distribution costs the operation would be less expensive to run and therefore immune, to an extent, from government attempts to undermine it. But the authorities can still find ways to harm Premium Times.

In addition to “intimidating” advertisers and damaging the website’s reputation – a minister recently said on television that it was responsible for “inciting mutiny in the military” – Mojeed also believes the government is behind a number of digital attacks.

“They have brought down our website several times,” he says, explaining that the on a number of occasions their URL has led to a page saying “website blocked”. Premium Times has since invested in better technology to fight the blocking.

He also believes the government was behind a complaint which saw Premium Times’s Facebook page blocked for three months.

“It’s not been easy. Our reporters get harassed from time to time and the only reason they haven’t attacked us physically is because they are afraid of what the world will say.”

For Mojeed, there are no coincidences when it comes to the timing of his journalists seeing “strange movements” from official people around Premium Times’s office or his website being attacked. He says: “Any time we do big stories, we suffer.”

Here is what the One World Media award judges said about Premium Times:

This Nigerian investigative website has, in the three years of its existence, established a fast-growing reputation for brave and courageous journalism with real impact. With an impressive string of hard-hitting exposés, it has acted as a powerful reminder that, in a modern democracy, the media is crucial in holding those in power to account. Premium Times shows that, in the face of misrule and suppression, the media can act as a beacon for those who wish to create a better society."

Full list of One World media awards winners 2014.

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