All of these speakers seemed to be singing from the same hymn book but were they preaching to the converted or to the heathens?
Last week Asaba, the nearly sleepy headquarters of Delta State, was awakened by the storming of the city by about 400 editors of Nigeria’s mainstream and online media. They gathered in the city to discuss how they can do their jobs better so that Nigeria, too, can look better than it is now. The topic to which they and their eminent guests paid undiluted attention was “Credible elections, sustainable democracy and the Nigerian media.”
The special guest of honour, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, Nigeria’s Vice President, was worried that as things stand today his own profession, law, and our own, journalism, may be on the way to the mortuary because of the rapid advances in technology, which have brought the ravages of obsolescence to our professions. He was, however, more concerned that even the journalists seemed to pose a greater danger to their profession through their lack of objectivity and accuracy. He wondered why we would allow politicians and non-professionals to be the influencers of our practice.
The Governor of Delta State, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa, aka Roadmaster, because of his accomplishments in road development of the largely marshy state, also spoke in a similar vein. This medical doctor who plays politics without bitterness asked journalists not to join desperate politicians to be a danger to democracy. Earlier, the president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Mrs. Funke Egbemode, who got the nickname of ‘Her Excellency’ pinned on her by various speakers, had posited that it is responsible journalism that can lead to sustainable democracy. “A wrong choice next year will leave us with consequences that will last for years,” she warned. On his part, the chairman on the occasion, Dr. Tonnie Iredia, a veteran of responsible broadcasting, asked journalists to “condemn what is condemnable and praise what is right.” He lamented the death of investigative journalism, which could be the only reason why a journalist, Mr. Jones Abiri, would remain in detention for two years without a report in the media.
READ ALSO: Editors commend Okowa for projects execution
All of these speakers seemed to be singing from the same hymn book but were they preaching to the converted or to the heathens? Yakubu Mohammed, a warrior for press freedom in public and private sector media organisations, where he had worked for more than 40 years, was the guest speaker on the theme of the conference. He did justice to it by emphasising the need to adhere to the Media Code of Election Coverage, where there is emphasis on fairness, accuracy and balance. These three characteristics remain the pillars of responsible journalism. Yakubu also pointed to the dangers of irresponsible journalism, which contributed to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007 that resulted in thousands of deaths. He drew the attention of the listeners to the fate of the Federal Government-owned Morning Post, which died from the disease of partisanship in 1974 and was buried in a shallow grave.
Yakubu also pointed out the danger of biased polls before or after voting, wrap-around advertorials that denigrate opponents or pander to religious or ethnic sentiments of partisan politicians. It was clear from what all the speakers said that the problem lay squarely at the doors of the editors who are the gatekeepers, whose duty it is to publish sense and prohibit nonsense. If they publish sense, Nigeria benefits. If they prefer to publish nonsense, then the country is in trouble.
But the foot soldiers in the field also have a part to play in ensuring that the editors have opportunities to make sensible choices in their news selection. In 1981, when I was editor of the Sunday Times, we noticed that our correspondents in the states were filing only favourable stories about the NPN, which was the ruling party, and unfavourable stories about the opposition, UPN. The management of the Daily Times decided to invite the correspondents to a meeting in Lagos. At the meeting, they told us that they thought those were the sort of stories we wanted. But it was clear that nobody ever gave them any such directive. They simply engaged in speculative self-censorship and story selection. It was a shock to us but it seemed normal to them.
At the Asaba conference of editors, the question of ownership as a contributor to blatant partisanship was an issue. He who pays the piper dictates the tune, some of the conferees reminded the audience. Well, there are two types of media owners in the industry. The first set are professionals, people like Sam Amuka (Vanguard), Nduka Obaigbena (ThisDay), Kabiru Yusuf (Daily Trust), Maiden Alex Ibru (The Guardian) and John Momoh (Channels). These were professional journalists before setting up their media. It can be concluded that the basic idea behind setting up these media outfits was to practise journalism professionally and without much let or hindrance. From the quality of their content, we can safely say that the founding objective has been largely met. The second set comprises politicians and businessmen whose reason for setting them up was largely to utilise the power inherent in the medium in a manner that is beneficial to them. It may be to protect their business or political interests or simply to enjoy the power and glory that is inherent in a media enterprise. This group includes Bola Tinubu (The Nation), Orji Kalu (The Sun, New Telegraph), Raymond Dokpesi (AIT), etc. My journalism philosophy is that it is possible to marry professionalism with proprietary interest without sacrificing any. My view is derived from the fact that journalism is a profession and those who hire journalists to work for them expect them to work the way their profession prescribes. Any journalist who works for a non-journalist proprietor must be able to educate his boss on the rudiments, professional demands and ethics of his profession. There is no sane proprietor who will insist that his reporter or editor must do what is wrong, must infringe the rules and ethics of his practice, in order for him to achieve his publishing goals. A paper that is blatantly partisan will quickly wipe off its readership and advertising base because no one will consider it as a credible medium of information. Any proprietor knows that for his medium to continue to be a going concern it must be patronised by the reading and advertising public. And that can only happen when it is professional in its approach to the business.
The onus of publishing a credible medium is largely that of the professional, not that of the proprietor. The public may not know the proprietor but the name of the editor appears on the masthead with the frequency of the paper. The editor is well known to his colleagues and peers who assess his competence or otherwise by the quality of his paper. If his newspaper wins awards for excellence, the credit goes to him, not the proprietor. For me, an editor needs three qualities for success (a) knowledge of his profession (b) integrity (c) courage. If an editor knows the nuts and bolts of his business, he will earn the respect of his staff and peers. That knowledge will stick out admirably in the marketplace. If an editor has integrity, he will earn public respect and that will rub off on his medium. If he has the courage to do what is right and to resist what is wrong, his place in the pantheon of great editors is assured. In fact, it is obvious that a publisher who has as his editor a man who has these three attributes will hesitate to ask him to do nonsense, knowing that he will not obey. Many editors resort to doing what is wrong because they are afraid of losing their jobs. Any sound editor who also has integrity and courage will never be short of jobs. There are still many people in our country who appreciate professionalism, integrity and courage.
Now, the candidates for the various elections have been chosen by the parties. Very soon, INEC will ring the bell for the race to begin. Journalists will play a very important role in ensuring that the game is played according to the rules. It will also be the journalist’s role to watch how INEC does its work and how the security agencies behave. It is the totality of the performance of all the actors that can lead to free, fair and credible elections. And credible elections can lead, in part, to sustainable democracy. In all of these, the press will play a central role. That central role will either help or hinder the country.