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Why the Developing World Needs Brave Journalists

Posted: 05/06/10 10:32 AM ET

The newspaper that precipitated a change in government by exposing the true story of the state of health of Nigeria's President Umaru Yar "adua -- who died on Wednesday -- is now fighting for its own survival.

Next, an upstart of a newspaper launched in Lagos 15 months ago by Dele Olojede, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and former foreign editor of New York Newsday, reported in January that the President of that oil-rich country of 150 million people was brain dead and would not be returning to office.

This was the bravest and boldest stroke of a newspaper that has trampled on so many powerful toes that its corporate advertising has dwindled and the distribution routes of its print edition have been sabotaged.

To buy itself immunity from commercial blackmail, Next is attempting to reach the country's 70-million mobile phone subscribers by sending breaking news on SMS and using the mobile platform to sell classified advertising.

From the start the paper and its owners, Timbuktu Media, have sought to transmit information on a number of platforms to Nigeria's media-savvy population and ultra-connected youth. Next's first professionally produced news stories were sent out on Twitter and, since its launch on December 18, 2008, it has become the leading Internet news site in Nigeria, outstripping titles that have been around for decades. In the long term, it hopes to breach other major markets and lead a new media revolution in Africa.

But Next will always be remembered for the lead story on its January 10th edition, informing the nation that its long-absent President Umaru Yar 'Adua was no longer able to recognize anyone, including his wife, and could therefore no longer perform his duties. Scandalously, the newspaper reported that the truth was being concealed from the public through "an elaborate scam orchestrated directly by the First Lady, Turai Yar 'Adua."

The headline could have read: The Emperor Has No Clothes, because the shock felt by the Nigerian public was deepened by the recognition that the newspaper was telling them what they subconsciously knew already.

President Yar 'Adua, who has suffered from poor health since he took office in 2007, collapsed and was rushed to a Saudi hospital on November 23rd last year, diagnosed with a heart condition. Assurances that he would soon be back at his desk proved false. A couple of weeks dragged into more than a month and by early January Nigerians were asking where their president was, and were not being given any good answers.

Yar 'Adua's absence precipitated a constitutional crisis as he had not empowered the Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan, to step into the breach. Leaderless, the country lurched from crisis to crisis.

The cabal around the First Lady retained their grip on the patronage machine while maintaining the fiction that the President was recovering and would be back any day. Most of the political elite were complicit in this sham.

After the print edition went to bed on January 9th, agents of the State Security Service (SSS) attempted to burst into the building and seize the paper but were held at bay by policemen guarding the premise while Olojede and his team scrambled to phone sympathetic officials. "We managed to reach the director of the SSS who said those guys were not authorized to be there, and they were forced to back off," says Olojede.

The story provoked furious denials and protestations, but the President was clearly in no state to appear in public or to meet delegations of parliamentarians dispatched to Saudi Arabia to assess for themselves.

In Abuja, the Next story changed the game permanently. On February 9th the National Assembly declared Goodluck Jonathan to be "Acting President" - though he soon asserted himself and even when he is sworn in this week it will be significant more for symbolizing the downfall of those who tried to hold onto power by all means.

In one more attempt to prevent Jonathan from taking power, the President was flown back to Abuja in the dead of night and, assisted by loyal members of the security forces, transported through the streets of the capital in an ambulance and installed in the Presidential villa, a haunting reminder of who the legitimate if incapacitated leader of the country was.

Rumors were regularly fed through the mill that the President is about to appear in public - moves designed to destabilize the Jonathan Administration's attempts to fight corruption and get the country moving again. But on Wednesday the President finally gave up the ghost and passed away in the presidential villa.

Next's influence has extended well be beyond that story. The paper has covered every twist in the extraordinary power play in the country with insight, independence and tenacity, and its reporting and editorial commentary is taken extremely seriously in Abuja. "It has been gratifying and energizing," says Olojede. "When you have this kind of impact it reminds you why you became a journalist in the first place."

Olojede, who won the Pulitzer for foreign reporting in 2004 for his coverage of Rwanda a decade after the genocide, adopted a policy of zero tolerance for corruption - something of a shock for Nigerian bigwigs who are used being able to buy publishers and reporters.

Distribution agents have been paid to sabotage the paper's street sales and, in a country where politics and business go hand in hand, corporate advertising has dried up.

Staffers haven't been paid for months, and the paper lurches and struggles from hand to mouth. Without a fresh injection of funding, it could wither and die. "We are at our roughest point right now," says Olojede. "We are trying to raise enough money to stay in business long enough to save the paper."

The imperative for Next is enormous. The political conflict in Abuja, which has a scary regional and religious dimension, remains unresolved and the country has a trillion stories that require exposure and a population hungry for information.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, has its largest oil and gas reserves, and is the second largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa. The Obama Administration has declared it the most important country in Africa, one whose beneficial influence will be felt well beyond the borders of the country.

The need for honest, brave journalism is huge and far overshadows the many millions of dollars of well-meaning aid and support for democracy and civil society that usually comes from foreign donors. This is one paper that can't afford to die.