Busola Ajibola of the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID) is leading the team organising the West African Journalism Innovation Conference (WAJIC).
The inaugural conference hopes to bring journalists, policymakers, digital technologists, innovators and others to discuss issues that affect journalism and the media in West Africa.
Mrs Ajibola talks to PREMIUM TIMES about the conference, why CJID is organising it and what it hopes to achieve.
PT: Your organisation is trying to do something no medium in West Africa has ever done: bringing West African journalists together for a conference on journalism innovation. Tell us what the conference is expected to achieve.
Busola: Yes, thank you so much. Indeed we are organising the West African Journalism Innovation Conference that we call WAJIC and yes it’s the first of its kind in West Africa and it seems it’s going to bring together journalists, technology experts that include experts in the field of AI (Artificial Intelligence), other forms of digital innovations to just come together and discuss the intersection between journalism, innovation, artificial intelligence and other forms of technology.
Now, someone may wonder why that kind of convening is important. It’s important because I like to think that we are approaching what some people would refer to as the fourth industrial revolution and a very prominent feature of that world or that future is innovation and artificial intelligence.
So there’s been, you know, whispers, silent worries about how artificial intelligence, for example, impacts the work that we do as journalists and you know, within other media spaces.
That conference seeks to help you ask those questions that perhaps have never been asked boldly at once and provide answers to them. So, we’re going to be seeking the place of journalism within all of this evolution.
What skills do journalists need to arm themselves with to reposition themselves, to make sure that they remain relevant? Is the fear of disruptions, about the work that we do, is it real? If it is real, how do we address it? So yeah, I think among several other things, that’s what WAJIC is all about.
PT: How long have you been planning WAJIC? I ask this in relation to the fact that President Bola Tinubu has just been appointed the head of ECOWAS in West Africa. Is there any relationship between the two?
Busola: I’d like to say no. Honestly, that’s a coincidence. Because I think the first time we muted the idea of WAJIC was at our annual retreat which was held this year; that was in January; you know where we were discussing digital innovations.
As you would know, the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development is a leader within the think-tank space for media. What we do is think for the media, think for journalism and it just occurred to us that that’s something that we should be exploring, that intersection between innovation and journalism and technology.
That’s something that people don’t talk about much, it’s not in the open. We’ve not convened all the voices that matter to deliberate about how we position ourselves.
So it’s good that the president, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, has now been appointed as the head of ECOWAS. So I think it only reinforces what we have been thinking about. And as you know, our work at CJID is not limited to Nigeria.
We are operational in Ghana, in the Gambia, in Sierra Leone, in Liberia and of course, we are headquartered in Nigeria. So what it means is that our thinking and our strategic planning where journalism and development are concerned is always about all these other countries within West Africa. So, yeah, it’s good that Nigeria itself is plugging in into the way CJID is thinking.
PT: That’s good to hear. But then, still looking at your reason for your West African conference, one would wonder how you plan to manage diversity, especially in relation to language. The majority of the West African countries are francophone. How do you plan to manage that at such a conference?
Busola: Well, because this is the first of its kind, the corporate lingua we are adopting for this conference is mainly English but we are already trying to see how we can make arrangements for translators. Because we’ve got applications from Lomé, from Uganda, from Benin Republic.
We probably would have a crop of individuals from these other countries as well joining us. So there are going to be arrangements for translators who would then help to relay these conversations in a language that delegates from those countries can relate with.
PT: Okay; does that mean you are expecting delegates from different West African countries?
PT: Talking about your main focus: journalism innovation; some may argue that what journalism needs more at this time is finance and sustainability but you appear to be focusing on the network between journalism innovation and development. Is there any part of the conference that is related to journalism financing?
Busola: I think one of the pathways to resolving the challenge of sustainability that the media is confronted with is also innovation. So like we would like to say, journalism has to continue to reinvent itself for it to continue to be relevant.
One of the panel sessions that we’re going to be having and that is going to be moderated by the Editor-In-Chief of PREMIUM TIMES, Musikilu Mojeed, with other media entrepreneurs, is focusing on the challenge of accountability journalism and sustainability.
They would be discussing that nexus between the values of the model of funding which raises questions about ethics, the profession itself and values which talks about the challenge of revenue and income. And I think most of the sessions that we have for WAJIC, one way or the other, whether the ones that are talking about artificial intelligence and the future of journalism, digital innovations, there’s a conversation between Dapo Oloruyomi and Richard Gingras of Google; all are going to be addressing that challenge of sustainability for the media because we cannot even begin to talk about journalism, its relevance, accountability within democracy without resolving the challenge of the business model for journalism itself.
And over the years, we’ve seen how digital – I’m trying to be sure that I’m using the right words right now, I don’t want to call them digital disruptions, right, but maybe for lack of better terms right now let me just say that’s what they are. So the arrival of these digital platforms and how they disrupted the revenue model for the media in terms of adverts has constituted a very big strain on the work that we do.
So it’s good that we’re bringing somebody like Richard Gingras of Google to also come, and if they are part of the digital innovations that threaten the business model for journalism, they probably also have an idea of how we can adopt that same digital revolution to resolve this challenge of business model.
So WAJIC is also about how we leverage technology. How do we leverage innovations to address that challenge of sustainability? Because the bottom line is if the media cannot sustain itself, it cannot perform that accountability role that is required for the health of our democracy across West Africa.
PT: But many journalists would look at people like Richard of Google and say these are the people who are actually disrupting journalism, and you are bringing him as one of the keynote speakers.
PT: Will you allow journalists to be able to ask him questions during his presentation because I’m sure there will be journalists who will feel there’s an opportunity to challenge Google?
Busola: I feel like right now you’re echoing what some other journalists that I have had conversations with about WAJIC, you kind of echoed their thoughts right now. So, as I said, digital revolution is not something we can run away from whether we like it or not. It has formed part of our realities and if anybody is in doubt just look at what the tussle is right now between Elon Musk and Zuckerberg.
So the way to think about it is how do we find our own place? How does journalism or media business, how do we ensure that we find a place for it within all of these revolutions that are happening?
So I think that Richard Gingras is going to be there. We also have other experts within the field of technology, within the field of artificial intelligence, and within academia who are going to be talking about what all of these disruptions mean.
Look at what is happening, I think it’s Australia, where, I think, platforms like Google are now having to pay local news platforms for content that they generate. Perhaps that’s the kind of conversation we should be having with platforms.
So, I’ve always worried that journalists or newsrooms invest a humongous amount of money to fund investigations, generally run newsrooms and generate news content. And then to sponsor those investigations that are in the interest of the public, you have to pay Facebook, you have to pay Twitter. I think that is worrisome and so right now this kind of conference gives us an opportunity to begin to throw up this kind of conversation. Who should be paying who? Should it be journalists, after seeking all this funding to do this kind of story then paying the already rich platforms that are, in the first instance, part of the reasons why we’re here; or should they be the ones not just through funding models but revenue as a legitimate source of revenue you know providing resources for newsroom.
There’s also the worry for example about the protection of online identities of newsrooms. I worry that for digital online or for digital news mediums, they exist at the whims and caprices of the likes of Facebook and Twitter. So, if Twitter decides today to yank off the social media handle of say PREMIUM TIMES, what does that mean for press freedom. What does that mean for the rights of the people to information, right of access to information. I’m just I’m thinking.
I do not have all the answers about how these conversations would go but I think that once and for all, we have that opportunity to throw up all of these issues. So, yes, journalists can even send us their questions ahead. Some of those questions can be sent to [email protected]. You can also send your questions to [email protected] so that we can also send these questions to some of these panellists ahead.
But if there has ever been a time when we have the opportunity to explore this relationship between platforms, between innovations, between technology and journalism and democratic accountability I think this is one of the convening that allows us to achieve that.
PT: I personally look forward to it and I’m sure many journalists and people who are interested in the media would be. But then the next question would then be, when you talked about the power of social media and the influence they can have on media organisations, one aspect of which would be government regulation. For example, at some point, the Nigerian government suspended Twitter, including for some media organisations. Will you be inviting government agencies, and regulators to the conference?
Busola: We invited some regulatory bodies. For example, we invited the NBC. We invited the National Human Rights Commission; we invited the Ministry of Information, we also invited electoral bodies from Nigeria, Ghana, from Sierra Leone.
We also invited leaders of bodies that represent journalists, and we really hope that the conference serves as a platform for deliberations, a platform to understand the peculiarities of the challenges that confront us not just as media but how our work relates to the society itself. And we’re hoping that they will all be represented and that we get the opportunity to not just deliberate together but arrive at action points that can move us all forward.
PT: So, in all, you are expecting hundreds of hundreds of participants, including journalists, policymakers and the rest, and you are planning for a hybrid conference.
PT: How does this work in reality?
Busola: As much as we would have loved to have maybe thousands of journalists in person participating in this conference, this year being the first of its kind, we are able to have about 350 participating physically here in Abuja. However, we’ve made the conference a hybrid one so you can join in from anywhere across the world. We’re not limiting the number of people that can register to join us virtually, but those of us that are going to be physically present at the Continental Hotel in Abuja are about 350 people. And I think the fact that it is going to be a hybrid event gives that opportunity for everyone interested in this kind of conversation to participate. So I’m excited about it.
I can’t say that I know the number of people we should expect from all our online participants, but I really am looking forward to a very impressive number of people joining us. So, it will be livestreamed on all of our social media platforms, and we’re also connecting with other media organisations to stream it live for those who will not be in the room to join us virtually.
PT: All these talks get to the issue of planning. So we are bringing about 350 participants from across West Africa – across the world but mainly from West Africa – to Abuja to participate in this lively discussion. How are you funding this?
Busola: A very big thank you would have to go to the MacArthur Foundation for the excellent work that they are doing to support journalism in Africa, to support transparency and accountability not just in public spaces but even in private spaces. So, one of our notable funders for this event is the MacArthur Foundation, but we also are very grateful to organisations like the HBS, Henrich Boll Foundation.
In fact, I forgot to talk about our art exhibition. So, the arrival date is going to feature a very, very wonderful experience, that’s on 24 July. On the evening of arrival, between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., we are again, for the first time, using arts to visualise the issue of safety of journalists, and that speaks to the work that we do at the CJID.
I want to give you a context. Last year, we tracked about 54 attacks against journalists in Nigeria. Now, this year, between January and June, we’ve tracked 79 and some of those attacks include incarceration. They include physical attacks where journalists are beaten up, where there’s blood all over their bodies, and where their equipment is damaged. Sometimes, it’s a denial of information. There is the growing trend of SLAPPs, you know, Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation.
It’s worrying that these are ways of censoring, not just censoring the media but making the work that journalists do more difficult. What is more worrying is the lack of accountability and the impunity that the perpetrators of this violence enjoy.
So, in a democracy, you know you would expect that where the right of a citizen is related, that you know that there’s some form of prosecution and some form of punishment to serve as deterrence right? It should even be more important when it is the journalist whose work borders around public interest and public purposes. Not in one instance, and I’ve said this on several other media platforms and I hope those who have some role to play are listening and they are paying attention – not in one instance for example in cases of journalists that have been killed in the course of their work, has any prosecution taken place.
We’ve tried to use data to tell the story. We’ve tried to use words and texts to tell the stories. We’re not getting the kind of responses that we want. So, for the first time, we are using arts, visual arts, and we’re partnering with the Society of Nigerian Artists, Abuja Chapter, to organise this art exhibition now as a result of the violations of journalists’ rights.
We also have issues of trauma. A journalist that is violated, that is beaten up, is traumatised and unable to do that work as effectively as they should. So at the CJID, we’ve over the years had to support a very large number of journalists on social supports, and unfortunately, it’s one aspect of our work that we’ve not been able to get any support for in terms of funding.
So we’re also using that art exhibition as a means of fundraising solely dedicated to providing psychosocial intervention for journalists who are traumatised. We are hoping that it’s something that we can scale for journalists. I think we’ve also supported journalists from Ghana at some point, but we really hope that it’s something that we can scale for journalists across West Africa to benefit from.
So, for the art exhibition, you must RSVP by the way, strictly by invitation.
PT: If you don’t have money, you’re not going to attend?
Busola: Well, the good thing is that we are leaving the exhibition throughout the conference. So if you don’t get to participate on the day of arrival when you come on the 25th and the 26th, you still get to view the artworks. We’re also going to be auctioning artwork so people can buy and when they are not buying they can donate to the cause. It’s an experience itself and I am looking forward to it and I hope the public is also.
PT: Still on the issue of funding, we’ve talked about the digital platforms that are essentially taking all the money away from the media. One would expect that platforms like Google and Facebook will be interested in sponsoring a conference like this. Did you reach out to them? Why are they not putting their money in conferences like this?
Busola: Yes, we did reach out to them. As of now, we have not gotten any word from them to give us financial support for WAJIC. But it’s not too late. Nobody knows what would happen. We still have about nine days to WAJIC. We are hoping that we can still get some miracles.
PT: The other side of that question would then be, for a conference that is focused on West Africa, that will likely, at the least, contribute to the development of democracy through journalism in the subcontinent, why are there no local sponsors. Why is it MacArthur and Henrich Boll Foundation, Are you reaching out to them? What are they saying?
Busola: Yes. At least, we reached out to Dangote Foundation, we’ve reached out to BUA, we reached out to the Danjuma Foundation and a host of other diplomatic communities.
Like I said, WAJIC is still nine days away, and I do not want to start with pessimism. I and my team at the CJID are very hopeful that we’ll still get to hear from this local organisations and we really hope that they see the relevance of this.
It is the wheels in the cycle that runs our society in terms of transparency, in terms of accountability, in fact in terms of solutions.
Perhaps when this understanding becomes very clear, even local organisations will see a reason why this kind of convening is very important and why they should be a part of it. It could also be that because this is the first of its kind and they’re just hearing about WAJIC. But I am hopeful that perhaps this conversation gets to them.