TOBORE OVOURIE: JANET COOKE’S TRIBUTE ACT?

Most journalists or those who ever took a course in investigative journalism are familiar with Janet Cooke’s story, which is as the perfect example of investigative journalism gone wrong. Her story is used to teach aspiring journalists the ethical concerns associated with investigative reporting. For the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with her story, here’s a brief summary…

On September 29, 1980, the Washington Post published Cooke’s heartwrenching tale, Jimmy’s World. The story detailed the life of ‘Jimmy’, an 8 year old boy who had become a heroin addict after being introduced to it by her mother’s live-in boyfriend. At that time, the thriving heroin trade was devastating negihbourhoods in WashingtonDC. Cooke described Jimmy as a “third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.”

As expected, the story generated a lot of controversy as concerned people and organisations demanded that Cooke reveal where the boy lived so he could be helped. City authorities launched an intensive widespread search for the boy. However, hiding behind the ethic of protecting her sources and her life from drug dealers, Cooke refused to provide the location. The outrage grew and suggestions surfaced that ‘Jimmy’ didn’t exist and Cooke had made the story up. The Washington Post stood by her and denied the rumours at first but when she won a Pulitzer on account of her story in 1981, they confronted her and demanded that she provide proof of Jimmy’s existence.

Under intense pressure, Cooke crumbled and confessed that she had never met Jimmy and much of the story was fictitious. Disgraced, she resigned and returned her Pulitzer prize. She later revealed that she invented Jimmy due to the high-pressure environment of the Washington Post, which was still riding high from the Journalistic achievement of exposing the Watergate Scandal in the ‘70s.

Sound familiar?

On January 23, 2014, Nigeria and the world at large were shocked beyond imagination by a report published by Premium Times about a human trafficking cartel and the many atrocities committed therein. The report titled: INVESTIGATION: Inside Nigeria’s Ruthless Human Trafficking Mafia. Was written by Tobore Ovuorie, who was said to have gone undercover in order to infiltrate the cartel and only escaped in BeninRepublic by the skin of her teeth. All manner of evil were exposed: prostitution, ritual killings for human body parts (two people were beheaded right in front of Ovuorie), organized theft under the watchful eyes of security agencies. As expected, most of the people who read the horrific story were enraged and a rally began for the unearthed issue to be thoroughly investigated by the authorities.

Now, it wasn’t as if we didn’t know human trafficking existed, we just never imagined it at the level described in the report. Horror is an understatement going by the details in the report. The report hinted at some people in power being involved and also implicated the Nigeria Police Force and the military. A group of pickpockets were described as being protected by a police officer and military officer. When crossing the border, the trafficking ring even exchanged pleasantries with custom officers and they were waved through without any checks. After the widespread praise for the reporter and Premium Times for undertaking such a risky venture to expose this magnitude of evil, it was only natural for Nigerians to want the issue followed through to the end by the appropriate authorities.

As expected, the story wasn’t swallowed in its entirety by most intellectuals home and abroad. While some tackled the shoddy style in which the report was written, others went straight for the jugular of the content. One Hassan Gimba was downright skeptical and made his points known on, poet Emman Shehu’s Facebook wall. Respected ‘noisy reader who writes’, Ikhide Ikheloa, after initially hailing the story and expressing genuine concern, took another look and was swift in pointing out the holes in the story which clearly showed some logical disconnect.

So far, the following fundamental questions still remain largely unanswered:

1: For such a sophisticated syndicate, she got in too easy. There would have been background checks. Just entering her name online would have even given her out. Why not?

2: Why is the Nigeria Police silent on the story? Why hasn’t an investigation been ordered already? Ovuorie mentioned one Babatunde Ajala as one of the officers present during the pickpocket exercise. Who is he, does he exist?

3: How can the girls keep their phones in such a situation as Ovuorie mentioned? If she took pictures without being detected, where are they?

4: Since her phone was later seized and she had no access to phone numbers as she rightly admitted, how was she able to get Reece’s number? If she had memorised it already, why did she say she was at a loss as to how to contact Reece when the phone was seized in the first place?

5: If an investigative report is meant to ‘expose’, why don’t we have names already? A governor from the Abacha era was mentioned, who is he? So many ‘notable’ people seem to be involved but who are they?

6: Why is there such relative silence in the mainstream media, considering the magnitude of the report?

I’ll stop at the above six questions. There have been attempts by people from Premium Times to answer most of these but it still doesn’t add up. Even the Editor-in-Chief, Dapo Olorunyomi’s reply to Ikhide didn’t help to dispel the doubts most people now have. A few days ago, texts on the operation surfaced from Premium Times but even those seem lame and their silence for so long has eroded most of the trust anyone has in them.  For an investigative report, why are there very few details that have a certain level of exactitude?

If they’re telling the truth, it’s sketchy. Truth is never sketchy.

In a way, Cooke’s story conveyed a certain (and reasonable) amount of truth on the reality prevalent in America’s inner cities back then. Ovuorie’s story has done the same and while we cannot conclude that it is utter fiction, the onus lies on her and Premium Times to tell us the truth about what really happened. Is it a case of colluding with international bodies abroad just to justify foreign grants at the expense of painting us so black? Is it an elaborate con? Yes, we know we need help – a lot – but if this is the sort of help on offer, then no thanks. We have enough problems as it is and it wouldn’t bode well for an already battered image of Nigerian journalism if these questions go unanswered. Curiously, I haven’t heard anything from the Nigerian Press Council on this matter, despite the level of noise already being made. Is it their way of washing their hands off this story? Either way, it’s not good for them.

We want to believe this story, wee really do. We are enthusiastic about exposing evil in all areas and doing something about it. But if this is the level we have to sink to in order to expose this ‘larger’ evil, is there any hope?

This is not to discredit Ovuorie and Premium Times. They deserve all the applause for this story if it is true but truth is provable and its facts don’t rest on shaky ground. However, what we currently have rests on a seismic carpet as it is. We simply want the truth. It will bode well for them to furnish us with conclusive proof.

Nigeria is waiting. The world is watching…

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