Nduka Obaigbena, owner of Thisday newspaper, is not going to go down in infamy all by himself. He is going to take down with him all of his newspaper-owner friends with whom he allegedly shared the N120 million doled out by ATM Sambo Dasuki. And Obaigbena is not going to take just the NPAN members down. He has, according to The Herald, now disclosed that some journalists…no, I take that back…some editors…also collected N50 million from him during the time that the Boko Haram insurgency was at its peak and our Soldiers were being routed mercilessly on the battlefields due, in part, to lack of adequate arms and ammunition. The money was part of $2.1 billion meant for the purchase of arms, ammunition, equipment and other war-fighting gear for our military in order to prevent their further humiliation and annihilation by a rag-tag terrorist group. This was the money that Obaigbena, who was, himself, a former Editor-in-Chief of Thisday, said members of the Fourth Estate of the Realm (as journalists call themselves) placed on a conference table and carved amongst themselves.
This would be a classic example of Jeun-Jeun Journalism gone wild if it were definitively true. Except that the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) has come vigorously to Femi Adesina’s defense and laboriously explained how the government of Goodluck Jonathan, along with other individuals and institutions, responded generously with cash to a fund-raiser it held for the purpose of building its secretariat. The N50 million in question, according to the NGE, was never touched by Adesina – Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Buhari – and under whose reign as NGE President, Jonathan made the “donation”. The money, it says, has already been spent for the purpose which it was given. That should rest the matter right there, right? No. You can bet that Tony Anenih, Musiliu Obanikoro, Femi Fani-Kayode, Raymond Dokpesi, Ebenezer Babatope, Bode George, Tanko Yakassai and Ayo Fayose will use the same excuse to escape justice: “Oh, I was celebrating my birthday and I invited Jonathan. He couldn’t come but in his infinite generosity, he sent N650 million through Dasuki. There was no way for me to know if the money was part of what was supposed to be used to buy ammunition for our military”.
And they will have a strong leg on which they could anchor such exculpatory arguments if we excuse the media practitioners who may have profited on the blood of our Soldiers and defenseless civilians.
As a former journalist myself (once a journalist, always a journalist), I am particularly pained and embarrassed by the depth to which some of the practitioners have descended as they struggle to join politicians and other government officials, naira-for-naira, in the inglorious, greedy fight to fleece Nigeria to death. We should ask ourselves: how does a publisher feel when he collects N9 million from Obaigbena and lumps it with the rest of his own money? Does he think Obaigbena has a money-growing tree in his backyard? Or does he think Obaigbena (or Thisday, for that matter) is that rich to be throwing money around like that? What does he think the editor working for him thinks of him? How does an editor feel when he collects N1m, N2m or whatever from a Governor or Minister? How does the NGE provide the necessary over-watch, constructive criticism, and exposure of graft and other abuses of office if governments are the ones building their secretariat for them? Isn’t that the beginning of self-censorship? What then would be the difference between The Punch (privately-owned) and The Herald (government-owned) if both are joined by the umbilical cord to government funds?
This idea of media organizations seeking patronage and accepting huge financial gifts from governments under the guise of fund-raisers is nothing but “fine bara” that serves as muffler to the otherwise strident voice of the media, and will only stultify the entire industry in the end. If I am paying huge sums of money for news, as a Newsmaker, do I not control the content? Do I not control the timing of the publication? Do I not control the medium? How then do we, as journalists, set the national agenda…the national discourse – which is one of our cardinal roles as the Fourth Estate of the Realm – if we have sacrificed our conscience at the altar of pecuniary interests?
But the tempest in the teapot for President Buhari is the charge that his spokesman’s name is being tossed around in the discussion about money that was inappropriately given and received. Where does Adesina now get the moral authority to speak about or against corruption on behalf of Buhari’s government? In fact, where does Buhari himself now get the moral authority to talk tough about tackling corruption if one of his main spokespersons is tainted?
You see, the way “brown envelope” works; a Newsmaker (or Source, if you will) calls a press conference or calls a particular friendly journalist and “makes” the news in public or in private. He could just read his prepared speech to a group of journalists and take questions thereafter (in the press conference format) or he could just say something to this effect: “Listen, I don’t want you to write such and such about so and so. Here is N50 million. I hope it covers it.” In the latter format, the journalist then calls his fellow journalists, knowing full well he could not “eat” all of that money by himself, and shares it with them. They all agree to kill the story if or when their poor reporter brings it up. How different is that rendition from the one given by Tony Anenih who claimed that he gave N63 million to Tanko Yakassai and Yakassai claims he shared the money with eight other “northern leaders” as transportation and hotel allowance for their trips around the north to mobilize Emirs for Jonathan’s reelection? Same thing! You collect money and share it with fellow corrupt people for the purpose of negatively impacting the society.
Little wonder we now have a dearth of investigative journalism! During his media chat a few days ago, President Muhammadu Buhari had to charge us to get back to doing our homework as journalists before we publish! With the exception of a few outfits, our media organizations have resorted to “agbeleko” (write-from-home) journalism where they write whole pages without attribution at all. Our reporters now attend news events and rely on Press Releases from which they will churn out their own copies. Radio stations just scour the Internet and steal news items there for broadcast. Even many of our TV stations’ news items are materials they plagiarized from the Internet. Out of all the corruption cases being announced by the EFCC and re-announced gleefully by our media, which did they unearth by themselves? How is a journalist different from any other note-taker if all he does is run back to the office with stuff written by others and re-writes them?
Jeun-Jeun journalism is not new in Nigeria. In fact, it is not peculiar to Nigerian journalists. The daily interaction between journalists and government officials who they are supposed to watch and on whom they are supposed to report makes it inherently possible for a dubious official to corrupt a vulnerable journalist. In most of the Western world, journalists are ethically allowed to receive from government officials only free or subsidized rides on airplanes or automobiles; a meal here and there; and some inexpensive drinks – all of which fall under Consumables. Those are also the things government officials are allowed to give journalists or anybody while in the line of duty and get reimbursed by government.
But in Nigeria, we have bastardized the whole process by accepting all kinds of things from government officials – parcels of land, money, large sums of money, SUVs, cows, goats, chicken, shopping sprees overseas, sponsored weddings, etc. And with that, we have lost the moral authority to hold politicians and government officials accountable. We have lost the essence for our existence.
As the EFCC invited Olisa Metuh, Raymond Dokpesi and Obaigbena, so should it invite Adesina to give account of what he did with the N50 million he allegedly collected. Even if Adesina has been “cleared” by the NGE, he should still be invited by the EFCC. For Buhari and his corruption fight to go the distance, it is not enough for him to be fair; he must be SEEN to be fair. And if Adesina begins to name names of fellow editors and columnists who received part of that money from him, none of them should give the lame excuse that they did not know it came from funds earmarked for our military. Those who have given such horrible excuses – the Bode Georges, the Tony Anenihs, the Dokpesis, the Obaigbenas and even the newspaper houses – know they did not convince anybody of their innocence. If anybody in government gives you a large amount of money…large enough that you know could hurt his legitimate income, you have a duty to be a bit curious as to the source of the money and the intent behind the gift. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true!
Our journalists have been recklessly selling their pens to the highest bidder for a very long time. This time though, I think they may have bitten more than they can chew. How can they justify partaking in the sharing of government money that was budgeted (or not budgeted at all) for something else? President Buhari should stick to his guns (no pun intended) and collect every single kobo taken by all the journalists, just as he is going to do with those taken by the politicians. And where the misappropriation rises to criminality, he should prosecute all culprits to the full extent of the law. Perhaps this will teach all of us to live within our means and leave for government what belongs to government.