In January, the web-based newspaper Premium Times published an explosive investigative journalism story on prostitution and sex trafficking in Nigeria. In it, reporter Tobore Ovorie went undercover for four months as a high-end call girl. The story of her experience was a gripping tale of theft, murder and witchcraft which suggested that the networks that controlled these prostitution rings were highly-organised, ruthless and extended to the highest echelons of Nigerian society.
The piece stirred up outrage among the country’s highly-networked “twitterati” who demanded official action from the government and law enforcement. Given the no-holds barred nature of the story, it shouldn’t have been difficult for officials of NAPTIP to find those implicated in the Tobore’s tale. However, questions soon began to emerge about the journalist’s methods, the judgement of her employers and the veracity of the story itself. It didn’t help that the writer claimed she had lost all the evidence and documentation that would have backed up her narrative.
The issue has gone back and forth – with the newspaper responding and more allegations of wrongdoing being brought to light. Without a thorough investigation, though, it will be impossible to determine what actually happened to Tobore Ovourie.
No one would argue that fabricating a story is a massive breach of journalistic ethics, but it is disturbing that a few of the calls for accountability around the story have verged on personal attacks against the journalist. Such reactions remind one that the focus of sex trafficking cases often revolve around the victims rather than the criminal networks that traffic them. And according to a Danish Immigration Service report on sex trafficking victims, sometimes the worst abuse can come from the families of the victims themselves.
“The victims of trafficking are very often being trafficked with the full consent of their own father, mother, brother, boyfriend or even husband. …returning victims of trafficking face a very complex and cruel situation, as their relation to their family is very difficult. Some victims may be excluded from their own family if they have returned or have been returned before the debt to the trafficker has been paid. There is also a genuine risk that returning victims will be re-trafficked to allow the family to pay back it’s debt to the trafficker.”
Just as in cases of domestic abuse when we ask the victim why she got hit rather than asking the perpetrator why he hit her, there is a culture of impunity around issues of gender-based violence which focuses on the victim rather than the perpetrator. We are more likely to focus on why women would sell their bodies for profit rather than why men would want to pay for it. We see the former as shameful and the latter as “natural.”
In the rush tob judgment over the ins and outs of Tobore Ovourie’s story, we seem to have lost sight of something fundamental: There can be no supply without demand. If you don’t know a prostitute, rest assured that you that you know a customer of one. And this is what makes it so difficult to end – or even to properly regulate.
For instance (as reported by Metropole magazine) shortly after taking office in June 2010, the minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Sen. Bala Mohammed, gave a verbal directive that commercial sex workers in Abuja should cease their line of work. He ordered the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) and a special taskforce under the FCT’s Social Development Secretariat to implement the order. However, the first group of women arrested that month were never charged to court. The magistrate at the time, Hon. Aminu Abdullahi, suspended his judgement against the women, ostensibly because they were “first offenders.” Deeper investigations, however, showed that the court had hurried to dismiss the charges because of pressure from high-profile personalities, including members of the National Assembly, governors, state commissioners and top military officials. The minister’s initiative was ultimately forced to slink away in quiet failure.
The solution then, is not to target the female victims – all of whom enter the profession as a means to earn a livelihood – it is changing our minds about what prostitution is and why it exists. Perhaps if fewer men saw their sexual desires as something outside their control, something that they are not responsible for, perhaps fewer men would use their money to fuel such a dehumanising industry.
Indeed the NGO IMPOWER notes that one of the biggest ways to combat sex trafficking is reducing the demand for it as well as targeting the supply. It’s report on Nigeria’s approach to human trafficking notes:
“Nigeria should consider implementing similar educational programs that address the demand among men for commercial sex. If there is greater awareness and understanding of the victimization of forced prostitution, there should be fewer men engaging the sexual services of human trafficking victims. This will decrease the potential profits available to traffickers, thus decreasing demand for trafficking victims as traffickers see their profit margins decline.”
There is no excuse for making up a story and passing it off as real – and even less of one if her paper knew of the fraud and is actively trying to cover it up. However, It would be more gratifying if the loudest calls for justice were focused on the prostitution rings that do exist – which are propped up by demands for commercial sex at all levels of society – rather than on punishing the journalist who attempted, however dubiously, to draw attention to the problem.Perhaps it is time now that we leave the issues of the veracity of Ms. Ovourie’s story to the relevant bodies responsible for journalistic ethics and shift our focus on the problem of sex trafficking itself. Even critics who strongly suspect that she might have made the whole thing up, admit that she based her story on real reports.