All the reporters in the world working all the hours of the day could not witness all the happenings in the world… and none of them has the power to be in more than one place at a time. Reporters are not clairvoyant, they do not gaze into a crystal ball and see the world at will, they are not assisted by thought-transference. Yet the range of subjects these comparatively few men manage to cover would be a miracle indeed, if it were not a standardized routine – Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, 1946.
It is amazing how things turn out sometimes. Two days ago, I wanted to do a piece concerning the impression created from the altercation between the Nigerian Union of Journalists, NUJ, and the Nigerian Bar Association president, NBA, Mr Rotimi Akeredolu SAN. The NBA president was quoted to have said journalists are among the most corrupt people in Nigeria. As soon as those words allegedly popped out of his mouth, all hell broke. The NUJ fired back by asking the NBA president to retract, to clarify and to apologize for deigning to accuse the holy and lofty Fourth Estate of the realm, of corruption. So intense was the clamor from the NUJ that the NBA president surrendered and offered an apology. ‘I wish to deny categorically that at no time did I ever issue such a blanket statement taking an unjustifiable swipe at journalists and, by necessary deduction journalism’, he said.
As I began to try to gather my thoughts on the topic, the news broke on the kidnapping of the Lagos NUJ chairman Wahab Oba and some of our colleagues. The kidnappers wanted a ransom of a whopping N250million! And as I write here today the 14th day of July, the impasse has not been unraveled. My initial reaction therefore was to drop my intention to do a piece discussing pertinent issues of corruption staining the fabric of the media. However, the issues were so sensitive and so strong that I thought it would be criminal to sweep them under the carpet since journalism and journalists are now at the forefront of national discourse. So what I decided to do is look inward at the journalism profession from the point of view of an insider and proffer my candid solutions. I realize that in doing this, the ire of the profession, and an avalanche of vilification may pour from my colleagues. But what ire and what vile can withstand the truth? One of my former editor used to tell me that if you wrote something and reactions pour in, it shows that you did touch a nerve. I will stand for the truth, I will stand for avant-gardism and I will always be innovative.
Therefore, from the point where the NBA president offered his apology, I was disturbed. I did not understand why the learned gentleman was offering an apology for a statement he made when no one was pointing a gun at his head. Before he offered that apology, I thought that he would come out specifically to explain what it was that led him to have made that statement in the first place. Did some journalists try to con him? What medium are they from? For how long has this been going on? Is he sure that the people who tried to con him or otherwise were, are journalists?
Nevertheless, I realized that in trying to provide any clue to some of these questions, I would be begging the question. The real thing that bothered me was not that the NBA president apologised. What bothered me is the perception that will evolve from that apology, and eventually begin to mould about the business of journalism and the practitioners thereof. Now, what I want to know is that does it really mean that some Nigerian journalists are not indeed corrupt as the NBA president said before he retracted? Is that apology not already creating the impression that the Nigerian journalist and the journalism profession cannot be criticized [even as we are the greatest and staunchest critics of men and governments?] Are we saying that all members of the Nigerian Fourth Estate are really above board?
As far as I am concerned, anybody can be corrupt whether you are a journalist or not. Everybody, even the Pope or Obama, has a price. Whether you are a lawyer, doctor, teacher, American, Pakistani or Brazilian, everyone has this innate tendency to be corrupt. All that is needed is the right or wrong circumstances and definitions for corruption to come full circle. With us journalists, watchdogs and hounds, I am sure we will not be sincere if we indeed say that we are all above board altogether. If we do say that, we risk being seen as a supercilious and a holier-than-thou set of people.
And since the NBA president did not give us any instance where corruption pervades the journalism profession, let us examine one instance. I have a colleague who works in what is known as ‘mainstream media’. Even though he has not been paid his salary of N45, 000.00 from January till date, he religiously goes to his beat. While there, he rubs shoulders and minds with the high and mighty [like Akeredolu]. Now do the arithmetic – January to July is seven months! – seven months of very hard physical and mental labour at meeting stiff deadlines, covering a beat that involves traversing the labyrinths and thoroughfares of 36 times the size of a country like Ghana, and making calls to contacts. That is just a tip of the iceberg. This person is married with three kids. He lives modestly in a two-bedroom rented flat in Magodo. His children attend a private school nearby and they look ok. In these seven months without salary, this chap [as most journalists that are not being paid regularly] still copes nicely in meeting his needs and responsibilities both at home and in his office. Where then does he get the money? How has he been fueling his car, servicing his generator, paying his rent, clothing and feeding his family and carrying on? Perhaps he has a brother in law called Sanusi Lamido. That may not be likely. Well then, maybe he won a jackpot in a lottery and is quietly spending his millions? Most likely but I must confess that most winners of ‘jackpots’ in this country do not get more than a million [equivalent to just $6,000.00], and winnership of lotteries is not the exclusive preserve of journalists. Maybe most of our parents were tycoons and they left us a large inheritance perhaps? If the journalist is not getting money from these sources, how is he surviving these biting times of global and local economic recession? I know that we do not receive grants from the United Nations, or UNICEF, the EU or the AU. Where does the Nigeria journalist get money when he has not been paid for as long as seven months?
We will never be able to understand how or where these hapless people get their income until we understand their work conditions. Therefore, I would love to begin by saying that the average Nigerian journalist is a prostitute professionally. Nigerian journalists have the greatest rate of occupational mobility compared to our colleagues anywhere in the world. This is so because of the search for greener pastures and this tendency is particularly high here because of the absence of the greenery where they are. In most cases, he provides his own work tools – his computer, flash drives, and in a rare case that I know of, they provide their own printers. His work has no resumption or closing time, and on very prominent holidays when decent people are home, you find him poring over a story over and repeatedly. He is usually the first out of the house in the morning and gets in very late. When you run into him at these public functions, where there is a buffet, check out his plate – it is a mountain of food.
It is often at these public places that we exhibit our calling as prostitutes by responding to our bidders, in full glare of the discerning observer. As soon as we are nearly done with covering an event, the PRO or convener of the event prepares what looks like an honorarium for every invited journo. It is called ‘brown envelope’.
Without that parcel, you are not sure that your info will be published, and so to establish that guarantee you must part with that envelope. In most cases, it is the fatness or leanness of that envelope that determines the treatment your event gets. Some years back, I was a special duties manager with a communications company in Lagos. My boss wanted to shoot a movie and part of the premier was that we had to bring the journalists in. At first, I did not understand why he put N5, 000.00 in fifteen brown envelopes. As soon as he was almost done telling them what he wanted written, [it was a debriefing believe me], he nodded at me at the envelopes. Truly, I was lost at what he meant, until his PA rescued me. He moved from table to table doling the envelopes and very quietly, the journos began to take their leave. One of them, from one of the biggest newspapers today, did not. She was very angry. ‘How could we deign give her a paltry N5,000? Are we sure we know what medium she represents? If we did not want trouble, we had better settle her right away’, she thundered at us. I was stunned. All our efforts to placate this journo were fruitless until my boss invited and specially ‘settled’ her. I had to find out much later that this journo came from this well-known medium where an ID card as a member of this medium is seen as a meal ticket.
After I became a full time journo myself, I met these same conditions. If you want to know if I collected those brown envelopes, yes I did. I did because in most cases, my little stipend as salary was not always forthcoming. The money almost goes back to pursuing new angles for my stories and maintaining my contacts. If that N5, 000 comes about three times every month, oh Hallelujah! Some of us collected those brown envelopes without the ego and bravado that that my colleague displayed earlier. And I am sure that it was this bravado and this ego that annoyed the NBA president to come out to say that journalists are corrupt people. In fact, it dawned on me also that while the lowly reporter collects his N5, 000 other much more senior journos journalists responsible for approving or disapproving what gets published pocket sums equivalent to what a bank manager collects monthly. My church members used to tease me, ‘Journalists ah una dey enjoy o. Brown envelopes!’ And these monies usually come in ‘goodwill’ forms like bags of rice, cars, special GSM allowances from big corporations who are very eager to market their products via the print or electronic medium. If this is the case, they target the owners of these zines and dailies. If junior journalists collect N5, 000 at press briefings, you should know what these big corporations give the elders.
Nevertheless, the fact that we are not being paid is no justification to allow this noble profession be measured out in brown envelopes. Our employers know we accept these brown envelopes. As crusaders against graft and corruption, I know only of Daily Trust as the one paper that has openly condemned this practice. If the owners of other media are not doing same, what does that tell you? Why then do we grumble when they do not pay us for as long as they do not want to? These papers and their proprietors do not survive on sales and adverts alone. They have ways and means of makings ends meet. Right now, I have an employee. I have not been able to pay him his salary for last month and I have had to engage his services part-time. If you are not being paid, I do not understand why you would still sit down there, insult your employers yet smile at them, and say, ‘yes sir all correct!’ If you have any self-respect you should leave; otherwise, you are just a bread and butter journalist. Insult them all you like but your insults will not stop them from smiling to the bank. Collecting money [no matter how small] at press briefings or anywhere else is unethical and if what is unethical is not equivalent to corruption, then a synonym for it is compromise. And my dears, nothing is more dangerous than a compromised journalist.
Last week, some journalists in Abuja attended an occasion at the German Embassy. While there, I introduced myself as myself. ‘Oh, you are a freelancer!’ one of officials said. At the meeting, the Germans made sure we asked them as much questions as we wanted. They gave relevant info and treated us to light lunch thereafter. Nobody [to the best of my knowledge] collected any brown envelope. However, among some who call themselves ‘mainstream’, or ‘practicing journalists’, such terms as ‘freelancer’, ‘twitter’, ‘blogger’, are taboo and an aberration. If you are not working full-time and collecting brown envelopes, then you are an alien. If you do not join ‘beat union’, you will not be invited to certain events. Listen, journalism in the civilized world is not ‘cash-and-carry’ and maybe that is why journalists are respected there.
Two years ago in Berlin, Germany, I met Martin Meister, Editor of GEO Magazine. While I marveled at his work, I asked how many people he had working for him. He said: ‘90% of our staff are freelancers. Most papers here in Germany do not engage journalists full-time. We keep only essential staff. That way, we are not involved in taking care of their house, car, monthly salary, clothes and other allowances. We give them a target and a commission and they deliver. We do not care if their work is published elsewhere as long as it is exclusive to us. They are comfortable with that arrangement. Everyone is happy’.
Thus, with the release of our colleagues by those kidnappers, wouldn’t the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC want to know why the kidnappers were demanding N250million from ‘ordinary’ journalists?