Nigeria’s presidency threatened CNN reporter Arwa Damon with sanctions and criminal prosecution on Thursday after she issued a pointed report about alleged corruption in the construction of a new toll gate in Lekki Peninsula. As the media industry in Nigeria is also going through a radical transformation, with new and older players jostling for position, the encounter between Lekki Tollgate and CNN took on a new cachet.
The Asaba newsroom of Channels TV reported, “Nigeria’s executive order 0 of February 22, 2017, prohibits any employer from transferring any employee to an agency or ‘other persons without contract’ and directs that all employees under employment should be paid on time.” The law also says that contracting out of employment may be done to avoid termination, but that those contracts must not have termination dates. That purportedly contradicts a comment from Damon which said that her freelancer sources would be paid before the end of May, when the Nigerian government had also ordered contractors to complete the project.
CNN’s coverage of the Lekki tollgate gives the impression of a reporter who was simply doing her job and who was denied access by none other than the spokesman of the Nigerian president, Femi Adesina. In response to a barrage of questions about why the government did not authorize the project as it originally approved, Adesina stated that contractors with contracts “signed” in 2017 “are not quite work yet,” and that the project was “only 80% complete.” The president’s spokesman provided no evidence to back up his statements, only an explanation and the available information. The African Development Bank made similar assertions and has said it will help complete the project. The Finance Ministry stated that the project’s contractors “were working to make the project move.” But experts report that the level of overstatement in these statements by the two institutions is in direct conflict with a 2015 government audit which concluded that the mass transportation projects for the Lekki Peninsula project, all of which involved public-private partnerships, were riddled with problems. All of which sheds doubt over the credibility of the assurances provided by the Nigerian president’s spokesman that the contractor payments, which he said had been “contracted and paid,” were in accordance with the law.
Damon offered an updated report, listing all her sources, including her interviews with a lawyer for some of the companies involved, and she included a quote from a Lagos lawyer who thinks contractors may have been tricked into accepting money to begin work as they had been paid previously. It is not clear whether the Nigerians have ever questioned the full extent of a 2014 independent audit that concluded that the costs of the projects were incorrect, or whether they have taken the government at its word on that subject.
At stake here is public trust in the project of which supposedly brokered payments were only beginning to make their way to the end user. It is unclear where CNN stands on this important story, which is also the topic of an investigation by the Nigerian Union of Journalists. When CNN refused to provide any details about the sources whose recollections she was relying on to report the story, or whether the undertaking of subsequent work was in compliance with the law, Damon said that she had run out of access to the subject of her investigation. A spokesperson for the president and of the president’s office did not respond to requests for a comment.
Earlier this year, the Daily News, a newspaper launched by former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, published an editorial titled “A journalism crisis is unfolding in Africa” calling for a new journalism development conference to deal with the ethical issues raised by automation, foreign ownership and the uncertainty surrounding the ability of African journalists to produce independent and stable reporting. Sudanese founder of Business Africa/Annex Media and former editor in chief of Thomson Reuters Journal Africa, Emma Iwuoha, wrote in a column recently that “the stakes are very high” for African journalists and urged an investigation into the Lekki Peninsula Tollgate saga. She called for “a media ethics conference to address the numerous issues arising from digital disruption and its impact on journalism, the media ecology and the media.”