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Nigeria: a war reporter talks about his trade

09-08-2010 Interview

Journalists and other media professionals working in conflict zones have a very dangerous job. Sam Olukoya, a BBC correspondent in Lagos, explains that they are entitled to protection under the law, but also discusses what they can do to protect themselves.

 What is the role of the media in armed conflict and other crisis situations?  

The media play a crucial role in these situations. Media reports highlight the gravity of crisis situations, and they set the record straight when rumours are rife. For crisis victims, information can save lives, as media reports can help get aid where it is most needed and to th ose most in need. In addition, crisis victims often rely heavily on media reports to know when and where it is safe to go out and move about. For them, information can be as essential as water, food or medicine.


 What are the main dangers faced by journalists reporting from conflict zones?  

Well, obviously, they are in danger of being killed. Two Nigerian journalists, for example, were killed covering the conflict in Liberia. Journalists also face other risks, such as being assaulted or detained, or being branded spies. Female journalists face the risk of rape. Just one unfavourable report could put the life of a journalist on the line.

 Why is it important for a journalist to know the applicable law when reporting on armed conflict?  

It is very important for journalists to know that they are protected under international and even local laws when reporting armed conflicts. Sometimes, however, this protection is not provided as required, especially under undemocratic regimes and when there is a complete breakdown of law and order. If journalists were unaware of the protection they are entitled to in conflict situations, they would probably not cover armed conflicts, despite feeling duty bound to do so. As a result, important facts about the conflicts would never be publicly known. And if, for example, atrocities are committed but never brought to light, those responsible might never be brought to justice.

 How can journalists prepare themselves to report on conflict situations? What advice can you give them?  

It is very important that journalists receive training in how to survive in a hostile environment. Training of this kind can make the difference between life and death. Sadly, even though Africa has a fair share of war and conflicts, most African media do not have the means to provide such training for their journalists.

Carrying a first-aid kit and knowing how to administer first aid can also make the difference between life and death, as can carrying press identification. In a conflict environment, where there is a high risk of summary justice, journalists may not be given more than one chance to prove who they are.

Journalists should be fully versed in how to conduct themselves at military checkpoints, what to do whey they face a mob, and what to do when kidnapped or robbed. Journalists should have a clear understanding of a conflict before venturing into it. They should be aware of the dangers they are likely to face and how to respond. And they should be physically fit. They should have any medication they need to take regularly on their person at all times in case they are kidnapped.

 Are there any personal experiences you would like to share with us?  

I have covered several crisis situations in Nigeria. These have included oil-pipeline explosions, ethnic clashes, religious conflicts, refugee problems, cooking-stove explosions and military attacks on civilians. Looking back, I would say most of these crises were man-made and preventable. They reflect the very low value society places on lives and property. I have seen human cruelty at its worst – children, women and elderly people killed in the most horrific ways. In Odi, in the Niger Delta, I saw corpses of women and spent shells in a town that was completely destroyed. In Jesse village, an oil-pipeline fire killed more than a thousand people, and children were left without parents. Gra ndparents who ordinarily cannot even cater for themselves had to fend for their grandchildren. Across the country, I have witnessed wanton killing and destruction of property, as people prey on each other in ethnic or religious conflicts. Perhaps the most appalling thing is when people are abducted and never heard from again.


Sam Olukoya  

Sam Olukoya