First, congrats on successfully clinching the One World Media’s International Journalist of the Year Award!
Thank you so much! (he throws his hands up in the air in gratitude, as a typical Nigerian would. We both laugh).
Mind sharing with us the story behind how you got this Award? How does wining this make you feel?
Well! It’s not a single story that the One World Media looked at before awarding me the International Journalist of the Year Award. My reporting was made up of quite a number of stories dealing with, you know, the trafficking of refugees on Facebook and also the organisers looked at my previous works in investing and exposing human rights abuses by the Russian Vanguard group which majorly targeted vulnerable people in ordinary communities.
So, that is pretty much what they looked at in granting me this honour and yes! I feel great. It’s not everytime you get people from this part of the world win awards of this magnitude. So yeah! I feel very great, very excited. But, again, it is also a call to duty. It reminds me that there is so much more to be done. The fact that I am recognized today means that some of my efforts are being appreciated.
Phillip Obaji – Winner, One World Media’s International Investigative Journalist of the Year. PC: Obaji.
Obaji: I research a lot about the topic, I make a lot of phone calls to people, like experts and I do a lot of research. Sometimes, when you are trying to write a story on a particular issue, for example, you want to write on terrorist group in Chad, because this group is so active in the region, you will also want to know more about that region. It may be difficult sometimes because you will need to learn a lot about this group on the internet, some of the authors who have written about this group and how they operate don’t have their works in the open internet, so you will either have to subscribe to read the copy online or you buy the hard copy of the book, it is often expensive sometimes, trying to get more about something or when you are pursuing a topic because if you want to go indepth then you have to go beyond the goggle search. You will have to buy books, so, I do a lot of reading, research a lot, make calls and that is how I prepare often times, before I begin an investigative story.
What projects are in your sight right now?
The projects that I have inside right now are much. Well! My investigation will continue, investigation of the human rights abuses by state and non state actors. That will continue, and we will see what the future holds. If you are a journalist especially investigative journalist you just can’t retire, it’s difficult to stop doing what you do best. So yeah, there is still so much to do especially when it comes to the investigation of human rights issues.
Incidentally, back to back, just a few weeks ago, you were selected for the Hurge Reporting Fellowship. Any important lessons, ideas and tips you applied in you work to get you where you are today?
I’ve always loved reading. I read a lot of news stories. I go across board, I go through a lot of reports globally, I read alot of Nigerian stories as well. I read a lot of stories about other countries, from media organisations. I also read a lot of local stories in Cameroon for example, in Guinea, Ghana, everywhere across Africa, as much as I read a lot of reports from foreign media outlets to get abreast of what’s happening everywhere and that’s key because sometimes what happens in other countries, you can relate with what happens in yours. If you understand the context about insurgency, you could relate with other countries, like this movement in Mali, you could relate with them with what is going on in the Northern part of Nigeria and also get abreast with how this sort of Jihadists movement operate. So, basically, what you learn from other reports could also be important to your work, in your own environment. So, I learnt that early. I also learnt that it is important to always check how to report these stories. It is important to read from some of the best reporters out there because that is the one way you could get better and make you a great journalist by reading other people’s works especially from accomplished journalists, that will make you a better journalist. Pretty much, I just learn by reading other people’s works, ask many questions especially it has to do with me improving as a journalist.
If you were to reimagine the steps you took in the course of your career in the past, what will you do differently?
May be, I will be spending more time with some of my sources. For example, I have visited lots of refugee camps, spoken to victims of human right abuses in Africa. Then may be, if I’m able to redo some of my interviews, I would have asked a lot more questions than I did. Sometimes you look at the time you want to spend with them, you will want to be quick so as not to miss your flight from where you are coming from, you don’t get to spend more time with your contacts. I think I did miss some of the vital points from the people I interviewed.
Obaji in Borno State interviews survivors of the Boko Haram insurgency.
Obaji: Collaboration is important generally because they give more than one perspective on a particular topic. I don’t imagine going to Ghana for example from Nigeria and report much better than people who have lived all their lives in Ghana.
What skills did you deliberately seek to develop in your career and how do you go about honing them?
I’ve always wanted to be a journalist who has a grasp of digital means, someone who is abreast with technology and that’s why I’m in Berlin, Germany to learn about digital security. I also want to be someone who speaks multiple languages because in Africa for example, where I come from, we have countries that speaks French, Portuguese nation and we have Spanish speaking countries not too far from Nigeria. So, I want to be more perfect in foreign languages which will help me do better in terms of interviews. That’s one skill, I really want to get.
What do I think the Nigeria media industry and other media bodies un Nigeria need to do differently within the Nigeria media landscape?
I have met so many brilliant journalists in Nigeria, I have many friends in Nigeria, the one limitation Nigeria journalists do have is not having enough support especially funds. I see a lot of investigative stories in Nigeria and I’m so proud of Nigerian Journalists who did these work. But it can be better when more money is put in the Nigeria media. Nigeria media is really suffering with the issue of funding. I want to see more people who can afford to invest in the media. I want to see many more platforms that give opportunity to investigative journalism or that can offer trainings, workshops that can help journalists to get better, that’s not really happening in Nigeria and I want to see the change.
What other opportunities are out there for young journalists?
I know that a lot of platforms offer opportunities for journalists to improve themselves, and I see a lot of platforms have been posting these opportunities. Young journalists can apply for trainings in Africa or outside the continent. A lot of media outlets are helping to train journalists. I can mention so many, Centre for Investigative Journalism is there, even there are a lot of media organisations in Nigeria that are offering trainings. It is important that these young journalists search for these opportunities, goggle them or ask senior colleagues what they know about opportunities for young journalists. Apart from trainings, there are webinars from various accomplished journals and media organisations out there, and there are a lot of online platforms that young people can always listen to and join to get to know what exactly the opportunities in the field of journalism are.
Last year, I focused on on this group, somehow, I heard about a massacre in a mining town in the Central Republic, known as Aigbado, that caught my interest in getting to understand this group and I spoke to a lot of contacts in the town, people who have come under the severe attacks, so I reported what happened in Aigbado and much later, I got calls from people across the country, telling me about what’s going on in the nation because the bandit group also became an interesting part of the war in Ukraine, part of the fighting under Russian government support as far as Ukraine is concerned. That really developed a lot of interest in this group and pushed me a lot more into finding the activities of the group in West and Central Africa, and if you don’t know, they are very active in Central Republic and so in Mali. So the group has been in the news especially in the last six months and it is because of its involvement in the war. I have focused entirely on reporting about the group and I have taken some risky, in terms of some of my sources have been attacked, some have been killed, while some disappeared.
When it comes to cross national collaboration, what has your experience been like?
Collaboration is key in journalism. Sometimes, it’s not easy, some journalists may not be forthcoming, or they shy away from working together. I have collaborated with a couple of journalists across Africa. Often times, it is always great and it could be challenging sometimes because you are working on a story that is really dangerous and not every journalists will be willing to take up the work and not every journalists are willing to take the risk. If they are willing to go along with you to do the story, you work together with them. Some journalists will say it is too risky for us to go there, it’s something that you don’t want them to do if they don’t want to do and the reasons for not doing it are legitimate. It’s been great doing so and also challenging in doing so. If you are going to another country, Burkinafaso for example, it is under Jihadists attack. You don’t know the terrain too well so you will need a colleague in the media or a fixer usually. It’s been good.
Before you embark on investigating a story, describe to us your typical preparation or activities you engage in before you go through with a story
I pull a lot, I research a lot about the topic, I make a lot of phone calls to people, like experts and I do a lot of research. Sometimes, when you are trying to write a story on a particular issue, for example, you want to write on terrorist group in Chad, because this group is so active in the region, you will also want to know more about that region. It may be difficult sometimes because you will need to learn a lot about this group on the internet, some of the authors who have written about this group and how they operate don’t have their works in the open internet, so you will either have to subscribe to read the copy online or you buy the hard copy of the book, it is often expensive sometimes, trying to get more about something or when you are pursuing a topic because if you want to go indepth then you have to go beyond the goggle search. You will have to buy books, so, I do a lot of reading, research a lot, make calls and that is how I prepare often times, before I begin an investigative story.
Obaji: Takes a pose at the DW studio is in Berlin, Germany, practicing the news using a teleprompter.
Obaji: if you have to succeed as a freelance journalist, you have to keep trying every single day to get your ideas out there and pitch it in a big way . . . you need to try to mould and work on more than one platform, where you pitch everyday. If a pitch is rejected by an editor, try again with another editor.
Why is cross-culture collaboration important?
We all come from different backgrounds and different cultures, so it is very key if you want to understand and do a very good report on a particular story, it is important to collaborate. Collaboration is important generally because they give more than one perspective on a particular topic. I don’t imagine going to Ghana for example from Nigeria and report much better than people who have lived all their lives in Ghana. So it is important to collaborate when it comes to reporting on topics. So collaboration in journalism is very important.
What was your driving motivation and journey towards winning the fellowship?
The fellowship is known as the Jim Hurge Reporting Fellowship. It is put together by the International Centre for Journalists. Journalists cover the most pressing issues, that’s what the ICFJ want to achieve. The goal is to help upcoming leaders in media achieve their aims, basically, telling stories about some of the walls of the most important issues.
How much does your organisation support you in pursuing the stories in aiming for the outcome that you are being celebrated today?
A lot of my work have been published by a news site headquartered in New York focused on issues such as dissidence. I had pretty much the support of the … It’s been great, I have been working for the Daily Beat since 2015. This is my eighth year with the Daily Beat and I will say the support that I have gotten has been incredible.
The freelance journalists may be allowing their limiting thoughts or other bodies stop them from reaching higher in their career. First of all, I recognise that it is not easy working and succeeding as a freelance journalist, especially if you have to earn a living through that medium. The media is not a place where people can really get it easy. Many organisations have their staff reporters and correspondents, so there is just a little opportunity given to freelancers. Also, some organisations are leaving the fact to focus on specific topics and relate the stories, not just from one country or region but they always want the stories spread across the globe. For example, if they publish a story about Nigeria today, they will publish about another country tomorrow. So there are just so many bottlenecks and obstacles involved when it comes to freelance reporting. But if you have to succeed as a freelance journalist, you have to keep trying every single day to get your ideas out there and pitch it in a big way. Also you need to try to mould and work one platform, where you pitch everyday. You may not have your pitches approved regularly when you focus on one organisation. It is important to have many platforms where you can pitch your stories.
Most importantly, you need to believe in yourself and keep striving everyday. If a pitch is rejected by an editor, try again with another editor. It’s not going to be easy though, but only the strong hearted, only those that can persevere get it.
What are the challenges that you had to overcome to get this far?
I never always give up, I always strive, pursue and believe that I can go far and succeed, so that keeps me going. Some of the major challenges I had to face being a correspondent is the fact that much of my focus is on conflicts and that means I always travel to the conflict areas in which is not easy. In the last two years, I have focused lot of my works on a group which is active in the Central Republic, that’s in Africa, where they are present. So, covering the group has been extremely dangerous, I have been the target of the group. I have been the target of supporters. Sympathisers of the group would have been attacking so to speak, and under the attacks, using social media platforms. So that makes it risky, you are putting your life in danger when you go against such groups or report them. Groups many people see as criminals, terming them as terrorist group. So that’s the danger involved in my work.
In the course of travelling to Maiduguri to see how children were fairing under the conflict, I wrote some stories about my experiences in the city, then I shared on social media. Immediately, the Daily Beast saw it. They contacted me and asked if I could begin to write stories, and I said ‘yes’, I’m pretty much interested in doing so.
Christo Vandiki . . .was more or less my mentor. He schooled me a lot about journalism and I don’t think anyone has had a great influence on me than Christo Vandiki. I basically knew how to write good stories because of Chris, and when he passed in 2020, he left a big gap in me, in my career. He was really really instrumental in rising me in the media but I have had some other editors who have been wonderful, who I love working with. Kitty Baker, executive editor of the Daily Biz. She was the one who first brought me on board. She has been amazing, also role model, she still work with Daily Biz and she has inspired me a lot.
I’m continuing my coverage in the Vanguard Group of my investigation activities. I know it’s going to be challenging, yes, it’s not easy to report about, but I’m going to pursue and give it my all and hope that turns out well. I will find ways of protecting myself and I hope that eventually it will be a well resourced story that will give more understanding about the group, their objectives , and their activities across Africa. I know it will help many people and organisations to better explore in ways that they can report.
How did your career in journalism begin?
What an interesting story. I actually started out as a sports anchor and presenter in Nigeria, in the city of Calabar. I think it was in 2000, and I was still in secondary school. I hadn’t finished secondary school when I went to the Cross River Broadcasting Corporation, and we called CIBC. I met one of their sport anchors and I told him that I was a good sport presenter and analyst. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to begin as an analyst. Later, I became a presenter. I was with CIBC until 2008, when I quit because I needed to focus on other things, including human right campaigning and activism. Later, when the Boko Haram Insurgency began in Northeast in Nigeria, I got to find ways of campaigning for children in the city of Maiduguri to press on education because I thought at a time that if nothing was done to protect children from harm, they could possibly be pushed into terrorism. So, I didn’t want that to happen, in the course of travelling to Maiduguri to see how children were fairing under the conflict, I wrote some stories about my experiences in the city, then I shared on social media. Immediately, the Daily Beast saw it. They contacted me and asked if I could begin to write stories, and I said ‘yes’, I’m pretty much interested in doing so. Eventually, I became a correspondent at Daily Beast, and that pretty much helped my journey into journalism and how it has been in the last two decades.
What were the decisions you had take to stay in course?
I told myself that I’m never going to be fearful. I decided that I will always strive to improve myself. I did apply for a number of courses. I remembered, I attended a course organised by _ Foundation, Kenya. It was important for reporters, International Human Rights training programme in Canada, it was also important for journalists on how to respect human rights. I did a training programme in Senegal, but it was more or less a conference that was helpful for journalists like me. I have attended quite a number of trainings that have improved me as a reporter. Currently, attending a training on digital security which is aimed at assisting journalists to get to understand how to better protect themselves. So, these programmes have been very important. I decided that I’m going to attend as many programmes as possible, to be a better journalist. I also said to myself that I’m going to thrive to improve myself, I will be brave to pursue most of the precious stories on the Africa continent and I have covered quite a number of stories, which has taken me to places and I have gotten a number of topics especially which have to do with armed groups.
I’m a very spiritual person, I pray a lot, I believe in God, and I know that my journey has been the one of faith. I really love to be grateful. I wake up every morning to be grateful for life. The major decision I have taken as a journalist is never to give up on the journey. Sometimes, it can be very difficult, and just say I want to go away and do something else. Keep pushing and trying. Eventually, you will get there. I told myself that I would never get physically fed up of the job. Sometimes, you will have a good pitch, and then you send the pitch to the editor and she says “No, we can’t take it for some reasons”, it can be demoralising sometimes because you as a journalist will feel that what I have come up with is huge, and the editor comes telling you that we can’t take this for now, it can be devastating but you have to keep going. There are always disappointments on the way, sometimes breakdowns. But I decided long ago that I won’t let any obstacle stop me from reaching my destination of success.
Any role models or people in the industry that you look up or admire and have supported you in your media journey directly or indirectly that impacted your career?
I have this editor called Christo Vandiki, he was the Daily Biz Foreign editor. He was a better journalist. He reported for Washington Post, spill across the world, he was also an editor for News Week, he’s known alot, he covered the Central America, Africa, Europe. Chris was more or less my mentor. He schooled me a lot about journalism and I don’t think anyone has had a great influence on me than Christo Vandiki. I basically knew how to write good stories because of Chris, and when he passed in 2020, he left a big gap in me, in my career. He was really really instrumental in rising me in the media but I have had some other editors who have been wonderful, who I love working with. Kitty Baker, executive editor of the Daily Biz. She was the one who first brought me on board. She has been amazing, also role model, she still work with Daily Biz and she has inspired me a lot. I have great editors. My present editors, Nicho, Ibrahim, they have been amazing people, they always want me to keep going, always wanting my success and I thank them alot. I have worked with quite a lot of editors. I have worked with at least 50 editors in the last eight years. Many of them have been inspirational and wonderful to work with.
Female survivors narrates their stories to Phillip Obaji Jr. PC: Obaji.
Obaji: Covering the group has been extremely dangerous, I have been the target of the group. I have been the target of supporters. Sympathisers of the group would have been attacking so to speak, and under the attacks, using social media platforms. So that makes it risky, you are putting your life in danger when you go against such groups or report them.
From your experience, what are some of the challenges young journalists need to overcome in the course of their media career
I say to young journalists that it is very important to learn and understand how things work and also wait. You will never get to the top immediately. This thing takes time and the way the media industry works, patience and determination are keys because while waiting for the result, you could get fed up but it’s important to never give up. It is also important to overcome fear because as journalist, especially if you are one that want to have your name on so many platforms, you want to have many bylines. It is important to be determined, that is what will take you very far. Never give up, many times you will have rejections especially if you are a freelance journalist, you will have to pitch to different editors, and they may not understand what you are trying to say and may be impatient to listen to you to make yourself clear, and they simply reject it.
What will you suggest the Nigeria media landscape need to do to step up to be as competitive as global media brands?
This has to do with so much and much more about funding. Nigeria has bright and brilliant journalists, like me from Nigeria. The problem has always been funding. To pursue investigative stories particularly outside of Nigeria requires a lot of money and many media organisations in Nigeria don’t have much to fund journalists to do what they will love to do. So funding is a really big issue. Nigeria has got lot of independent media outlets. When I travel across the world, I meet people who tell me “they are so surprise to see that you have Nigeria media outlets who are critical of the government”. They are surprised that so many Nigeria media outlets are not scared to task the government. From their expression, you get to know that their are many a quite number of independent media outlets that are neutral and they can take the government heads on. The problem we always face is that, in Nigeria, we don’t have so much of the money journalists need to do. So funding is the biggest issue that the Nigeria media people are facing.