WANTED, NEWBORN NIGERIAN MEDIA: ETHICAL AND PROFESSIONAL QUESTIONS FROM COVID-19/SECURITY ISSUES COVERAGE
(Being the Keynote address delivered at the inauguration of Minister of Internal Affairs, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, as Grand Patron, Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, Zone B, South West at Oyo State Council Press Centre, Iyaganku, Ibadan on Friday, March 26, 2021)
When told that I was to address the topic: “The NIGERIAN MEDIA DURING COVID-19 AND INSECURITY,” I thought, what a salient topic at this time!
But I was confronted with the dilemma of which perspective to approach the subject because of its vast nature.
Is it how the media have fared as business enterprises, or the distressing working conditions and welfare of practitioners which had taken a plunge even ever before the coming of Covid-19 and the aggravation of insecurity in the country?
A situation in which many journalists have either lost their jobs or work without being paid salaries for months. Where media have been forced to adopt novel but exploitative business models to bridge the increasing gap between rising overhead costs and dwindling income from low sales returns, poor advert patronage and so on, sacking staff and retaining them on the same job as freelance without commensurate remuneration or security of job tenure whatsoever?
As a trade union, there is surely more than enough to occupy us in all this and related matters
However, I believe that as a professional body, the organizers of this event may rather wish that we interrogate how we have fared in performing our roles and responsibility as an important institutional component of the social fabric during the challenging era.
I’m told I have just 30 minutes, so, kindly forgive me if I lean more on issues of practice instead of theories, which means this paper may be academically arid. But, I guess, you will understand because I am a practitioner of the profession, not a professor!
Again, I beg your indulgence to slightly amend the topic to read: “WANTED, NEWBORN NIGERIAN MEDIA: ETHICAL AND PROFESSIONAL QUESTIONS FROM COVID-19/SECURITY ISSUES COVERAGE”. I assure you, that in spite of it, we shall still be orbiting the centrality of the original topic.
The importance of communication media as an indispensable tool and pervasive driver of promoting security, stability, prosperity and progress of human societies has been underscored by people like former United States President, Thomas Jefferson, who believe the media is probably far more important or even indispensable than government. The American leader had declared in his famous quote that if he were to choose between a nation without government and one without a press, he would prefer a nation with a press.
The roles of the media have been summarised in the report of a Pan-African Committee on press freedom over two decades ago thus: “…to inform, to educate, to entertain and amuse, to examine fairly and critically and to make constructive contributions to thought and discussion on matters of public and to provide a forum for the airing of ideas and opinions, whatever their origin and however controversial”
I won’t bore you by repeating the history about the coronavirus pandemic and the security siege ravaging the country as we all know these.
Our concern here, I suppose, is to find out how we, in the media have, with our enormous power and potential, brought about alleviating or worsening the country’s predicament and probably still help redeem it!
The fact is glaring, despite relative success, we are yet to escape the deadly Covid-19 trap, while Nigerians live in constant fear of bandits, kidnappers, insurgents, terrorists and criminals who kill and dispossess innocent citizens of their belongings.
Herder-farmer and ethno-religious clashes have also deepened hate and raised tensions among the various ethnic groups resulting lately in issuance of eviction notices and reprisals that have fuelled fear of imminent civil war!
How did we get to this sorry pass, distinguished ladies and gentlemen?
Dear colleagues, although individuals, government, policies and other social/strategic institutions may have contributed to the deterioration of the situation, in my humble view, the media must accept the lion share of culpability.
We must simply acknowledge that we have failed to harness the unique position, enormous powers, rights and privileges the constitution conferred on the media to alter the narrative for the better.
Forgive me, if l sound like critics who make the press the whipping boy for Nigeria’s woes. But this is a family affair and we should tell ourselves some home truths.
Journalism or media practice is a noble and highly responsible profession which calls for outstanding qualities of mind, intellect and character. It presupposes that the journalist must be knowledgeable, skilled, possess passion and be a patriotic citizen of his country.
Part of the duties of media organizations and operators are to contribute substantially to the process whereby social or national problems are defined by reporting of problematic social reality including creating moral panic and issues; also in moulding public opinion, as well as setting agenda for the public whereby journalistic news values act as a cue for the audience, alerting them to the importance of an issue and encouraging them also to place it on their personal agenda of important issues.
But Nigeria like other societies is a complex mix of divergent and often conflicting ideas and interests – the good, the bad, the ugly, sometimes working at cross purposes. Media operators are also part of this society and belong or share something in common with one or more of the interests and groupings.
The risk and danger are, therefore, there for media operators to pander to the interests to which they belong or share sympathy for to abuse their position and power.
But, given the onerous responsibility and unique position the media occupy in the society, it is imperative for them to be able to judge and do what is in the greater public interest and that would serve it at all times without fear or favour to anyone, group or interest.
The media must seek to protect the society from anything that could be injurious. That is why gate-keeping – the concept of selection, processing and control of information to be disseminated to the public out of a universe, is fundamental.
JOURNALISTS AND THE ETHICAL QUESTION
To enable the media to fulfil their mandate, there is a set of professional parameters as well as ethical principles and codes that govern their conduct and operation.
I have tried to summarise them as they apply to the print and broadcast media as well as the online media.
Need to respect sanctity of truth, facts, accuracy, objectivity, balance and fairness in reportage.
Observe decorum, uphold integrity, and avoid passing opinion and information that is injurious to any person or the public -in form of plagiarism, slander, libel, propaganda or calumny.
NIGERIAN MEDIA AND COVID-19 COVERAGE
Now, let’s attempt an assessment of the Nigerian media performance, first in Covid-19 era, using these templates.
Yes, give it to us. We certainly did well at the onset of the pandemic: Critical newspaper editorials against government’s late and shoddy response to safeguarding our airspace, when all other countries have closed their borders to control the import and spread of the virus; we also rose to the occasion with regard to public mobilization and enlightenment on prevention and safety protocols; monitoring and updating the public on trends in infection rate, treatment procedures and search for cure and vaccine.
But in the search for solutions and answers we focussed on the west and advanced nations, took our cues from there and gave scanty attention to and were cynical of possibilities and claims of options even by experts in our local environment.
As if the west could always be right or that nothing good can come out of Africa.
See how Melinda Gates and popular CNN talk show anchor/ analyst, Fareed Khan, and other western stereotype views and predictions as to how the pandemic was going to affect Africa causing unprecedented massive infections, deaths, economic misery, political upheavals and social unrest were proved wrong.
I didn’t see much big investigative stories exposing the effort of our local scientists or alternative health practitioners either to prove or disprove their claims, after Abuja seemed to have rested on the matter, following the usual jamboree of having some of them submit their works for verification.
The consequence of this has been that we, perhaps, lost a chance to help sufferers not only in the country, but also all over the world.
Related to this is the missed chance to make money and a name for the country.
We have since had to humiliatingly wait with a beggar’s bowl for donations from other countries and donor agencies for vaccine supplies that barely catered for a quarter of our 180 million population.
Yet, we soon must dip into our already depleted treasury for money to augment the shortfall!
The media also shone bright in exposing the deplorable state of our health care system which spurred the government to take urgent remedial measures.
But who is monitoring the spending of the funds earmarked for the provision of equipment, rehabilitation and uplift of hospitals and health facilities to ensure they were judiciously spent for the purpose, and not misappropriated, as is usually the case in Nigeria?
Thousands including public figures have died and are still dying or being infected, still many Nigerians still believe it is a ruse and do not feel the danger or probability of contracting it. Yet, we seem to have gone to sleep in keeping the fact of the risks and danger in public consciousness.
The duty seems to have been ceded to the surviving victims who gave personal accounts and testimonies of their agonizing experiences online that made associates begin to take caution.
Instead many online media and journalists took delight in purveying and spreading false, ridiculous and dangerous claims flying all around the place as covid-19 cure without bothering to cross-check or verify the facts. It was ‘copy and paste’ all the way. The more absurd and sensational, the greater the appeal, with scant or no regard whatsoever for the implication on the health of their audience.
I have not bothered to include in the range of my censure what some may view as undue emphasis on and sensational coverage of discovery of covid-19 palliatives by the masses during the #EndSars protests in which the poor besieged and looted warehouses, private homes and other places where palliatives materials including foodstuffs were purportedly diverted and hoarded by politicians and officials charged with distributing them, because I am aware faulting the media’s news judgment and exercise of its discretion on what to hype and harp on, given the underlying public disenchantment with the political class over alleged duplicity, neglect and insensitivity and so on, is quite a debatable issue.
While it may be justified to highlight the incidents as expose and commentary on our politicians’ hypocrisy and , corrupt tendencies, does the way many radio stations and TV channels especially fielded video reports about them as if there is no worthier news for their bulletins and the way the print and online media also tried to outdo one another flooding their pages with stories and pictures of the ‘masses’ revolt not amount to playing to the gallery? The people saw the politicians as corrupt and wanted them hung. Should the media pander to base instinct and unwittingly or surreptitiously resort to blackmail?
Who, I ask, should set the agenda? From whom should the media take dictations or directions?
Those are questions we may need to chew on.
You are free to disagree with me, but this is what I consider the score sheet of the media with respect to covid-19.
Now, let’s see how well the media fared, in my view, on reporting insecurity ravaging Nigeria.
I observe the same general shortcomings noticed with regard to media coverage of Covid-19 pandemic apply here also, probably in worst form.
Here, one sees a media that appears pliable and seems to have lost its independence, abdicated its responsibility and pandering to parochial interests in total breach of professional ideals and values of sacredness of facts, truths, objectivity, balance and fairness; both in news and even opinions.
In a media industry with lack of job security where journalists are poorly paid, where many had been laid off and made to do the same work as stringers, , it is probably understandable even if regrettable that some compromise professional ethics – running errands for and doing the bidding of people of influence or just anybody who wish to and have the money or other resources to exploit their platforms.
The crisis in the industry has been compounded by the fact that many of the young one’s flooding into the profession apart from lacking the requisite passion, training and skills for the job, sheer zeal to positively impact the society; are driven by love of money, material gratification and pleasures.
Consequently, rigour in research, facts, truths, balance, fairness have nosedived if not ultimately jettisoned with sections of the press.
Let’s do a quick rundown of some cases.
Try and do a content analysis of newspapers and online publications and you would notice the metamorphosis the names of the hoodlums terrorizing Nigerians had undergone in the last few years. It started from gunmen in the Middle Belt states and Boko Haram insurgents in the North East. The appellations soon switched to ‘killer herdsmen’ and later again’ bandits and kidnappers’ and then ‘Fulani killer-herdsmen’. Sometimes, the terms were interchange for the other.
If you read them carefully and critically, however, you will discover that most of the stories were based on hearsay, with no serious leg work or investigation to establish the facts and identities of the anonymous attackers. They were simply so labelled based on the information the sources, who may in most cases and for some reasons, be prejudiced, volunteered to the reporter, or news organization. The information may thus be false, or distorted.
And according to their whims and caprices or relationship to the sources/victims/suspected attackers, the reporter and editor without much ado, air or publish the suspect information.
You can only appreciate the comical but at the same time tragic absurdity of what I’m saying when you compare the published reports of, say, a south-based newspaper and its northern counterpart on the same incident. Honestly, you will not know whether to cry or laugh.
So, what has happened to rigorous research, to doing the necessary leg work towards establishing the truth in such cases and boldly calling a spade a spade, and where it is in doubt to leave out, as we say?
By its compromise, timidity and sloppy handling of its duties, the media has created a situation in which it appears hamstrung by the blackmail not to promote ‘ethnic profiling’ so as not to fuel national discord and crisis.
Even, the character and content of the issue of insecurity feature in the media as defined by vested interests within government and security circles or those who feel underserved by perceived lopsided configuration of the nation’s security apparatus and its seemingly weak or lethargic official efforts at protecting their lives and assets.
If the Federal Government describes ongoing killings and premeditated attacks and sacking of communities by unknown gunmen across the country as a result of herders-farmers clash and later attributes the mayhem to the influx of remnants of Libyan fighters and terrorists from the Sahel, then, it is simply so. No further interrogation, no painstaking and tenacious diagnosis of the obvious contradiction that could assist in finding sincere and viable solutions to the problem.
Amidst these contradictions and dubious narratives, how much did the press do to check or recheck to establish the truth, vis-a-vis counter-narratives and even preponderance of evidence, circumstantial and otherwise, linking some criminal elements among a particular ethnic group, and rightly or wrongly, purported official complicity in the heists allegedly being perpetrated in furtherance of purported Islamization and Fulanization agenda?
A time there was in our history when no official secret vaults even under military regime is too steely or formidable to be busted and truths in public interest therein revealed by Nigerian journalists.
But, these days, under a democratic government, the media depend on press statements from the PR departments of government and corporate agencies, or wait for a Natural Security Adviser, NSA, to squeal his frustration and suspicion of sleaze in an arms purchase contract in which he was probably side-lined.
Where are the investigative reporters? Do we even have credible and authoritative sources who can be depended upon to give incontrovertible information only because he wanted to help the nation and not necessarily to push some selfish or ulterior agenda?
How reliable are our so-called sources? How genuine is the information they give?
Many do a disservice to the public by surrendering their power and offering their platforms, which are supposed to offer saturating education, insightful enlightenment and resolution of controversial issues, to charlatans to peddle falsehood, propaganda and insult public sensibilities. They embarrassingly allow such people escape scrutiny by either asking them drab and patronizing questions or failing to grill them further when they parry hard-hitting and penetrating ones!
Now, the security crisis has snowballed such that we now have not just bandits, insurgents, kidnappers or other shades of criminals on our hands to fear, but threat of a looming bloody conflict arising from agitation for self-determination by various ethnic groupings in different parts of the country over government’s seeming reluctance, inability or helplessness in ending the carnage
The nation is a trust, and in times like these, everybody looks up to the press for rescue. But are we at our duty posts? Who will rescue and restore our compass, so, we can help save the drifting ship of state from shipwrecking?
It is probably symbolic that many of our leading lights in the profession, icons and models who provided good examples of patriotism, selfless service, diligence, excellence, forthrightness in the use of press power to advance our nation have been leaving us in the last few years. This year alone we have lost former Information Minister, Prince Tony Momoh and Alhaji Lateef Jakande who left within the space of two weeks of each other’s demise barely a month ago.
I have no doubt that we can proffer brilliant and practical ideas towards solving the highlighted problems, but, I daresay, without meaning to assume the toga of omniscience, which indisputably belongs to the Almighty alone, that none of the prescriptions can work without due spiritual recognition and commitment to our life purpose and the privilege of being in this noble profession, as the basis in moving forward. You can recommend improvement in professional training, teaching of media ethics, ask people not to take bribe or gratification all you want, but it will all be useless and ineffective, because we cannot deny being aware of all this, they are all part of what we were taught and are supposed to operate with?
The problem is that we have lost the compass, the knowledge that we are accountable not just before the law and society but the Almighty for our creations and writings.”
We need to realize that whatever talent, gifts or abilities we have, whatever position or profession we find ourselves we have been endowed and entrusted with by our Sovereign Maker to serve Him by contributing to the welfare of our fellow men and advancement of peace, harmony and development of our environment which are all His creations.
This requires that as His tools or agents, we not only aspire but also hone our skills and abilities to be the best in our fields of competence and deploy them to benefit our fellow men and society. The quality and greatness of our works and achievements will thus reflect His own magnificence and benevolence. It is thus that we glorify and honour our Creator before the world.
As Christians and Muslims we may go to church and mosques to reverence Him solemnly and make humble supplications, but If we need to be retold, this is the only true way to worship the Almighty, in fact, how He commanded He be worshipped through Christ Jesus, Prophet Mohammed, Moses and His other Messengers – that is, through the deeds! In other words we are to spiritualise the work of hands, making the performance of every task a reverential worship of God, in gratitude that He has given us the chance to accomplish something extraordinary among all the creatures in this vast world.
It is no coincidence that we have found ourselves in Nigeria and not in Afghanistan or Europe or even America. God has created and placed all of us here to experience and together harness our diverse nature, capabilities and endowments to build this space into an earthly Paradise, a haven of peace, beauty, bliss and harmony and progress, for the benefit of ourselves and others. It is thus a training ground for us to develop and mature spiritually to qualify as an agent of God able to help further and ennoble His Creation and for admission into His heavenly Kingdom Paradise. Only by fashioning conditions as obtained in Paradise on earth do we get the passport and visa to the luminous realm of eternal bliss. (Remember the Lord’s Prayer?)
To achieve this, it behoves on us as media practitioners to ensure that our contributions are worthy and conform to the Will of God and His Divine attributes which are – Perfection, Purity, Love and Justice.
The Creator manifests these attributes to all His creatures without any partiality. He commands us to do so to our fellow men too, with the warning that we shall reap the reward or consequences in multiple, depending on the nature of our actions – good or evil. Thus, the statement: “Whatever you sow, you will reap”.
This, the automatic effect of a natural law, the Law of Reciprocal Action, ensures inexorably and without bias. Another Law, the Law of Homogeneity or what we call “Birds of the same feather flock together” groups people of similar nature or who are bound by threads of fate to have the same experience, so that none escapes the Justice of the Almighty.
While the third law, the Law of Spiritual gravity either uplifts those who are free of guilt to a state of Paradise and presses down disobedient ones into conditions, worse than the nether region or what we call ‘hell’.
If you look carefully at what Nigeria has become today, then you have the answer to the question of what we have been forming for ourselves.
Therefore, we must begin to see ourselves not as Hausa-Fulani, Ibos, Ijaw, Yoruba, Tiv, Kanuri, but as brothers and sisters from the same spiritual origin. As media practitioners, we must shift our focus, goals and allegiance from mundane and fleeting pursuits of personal selfish motives or parochial and sectional interests solely and unconditionally to the invincible and omnipotent Almighty Creator, our Maker Who alone can protect, care and bless us.
Ladies and gentlemen, we honour today Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, a man whose ideology, while he served as Governor of the State of Osun, exemplified the novelty and the revolutionary. To him we owe the renaissance of the adoption and use of the Omoluwabi ethos, the pristine virtue that epitomizes the character, traditions and everything that makes the Yoruba race, one of the great, progressive and noble civilizations in the world.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that South West, the Yoruba heartland, is a pace-setter, leader and herald of every good thing that has come to Nigeria including media practice. Neither, I believe, is what we are gathered here to do.
May we be able to revive and apply this noble heritage as we reflect on their significance and that of today’s event.
I like to thank you all for being an attentive and wonderful audience throughout this punishingly lengthy rigmarole!
Thank you indeed.
March 26, 2021