The Leadership Newspaper Vs. Reuben Abati

by Abiodun Ladepo

These days, I get easily angered by events happening in Nigeria. But probably nothing has riled me more than the latest garbage that emanated from the warped orifice of Reuben Abati, GEJ’s special adviser on media and publicity. In an attempt to justify the arrest and detention (for days) of journalists working for The Leadership newspaper, Abati trod on the intelligence of all of us. I have attempted to rebut Abati’s statement paragraph by paragraph.

Abati: Our attention has been drawn to a statement by the Leadership Newspaper titled “Statement on the Arrest and Detention of LEADERSHIP journalists” (April 10), the latest episode in the matters arising from the same newspaper’s publication of an alleged “Presidential Directive” which we have had cause to disavow because the basis of the story proved to have been a dubious ‘bromide’ containing nothing more than “a mishmash of carefully arranged and concocted lies, presented to the public as evidence of a document emanating from the presidency.” Yet, the Leadership newspaper insisted that “it stood by its story.”

Me: The quality of a news item is not the business of Aso Rock. The public judges and ranks news organizations as they see fit. So, whether the story was a bromide or was significant was the job of the reporter and the editor that committed it to print.

Abati: As a responsible government committed to providing good governance and protecting the rule of law, the rebuttal from the presidency was appropriate; yet its symbolism runs far deeper. It ordinarily ought to have motivated all concerned with or related to the process and issues contained therein, particularly the publishers and editors, to double check their claims, and where errors had been made, to quickly retract the story. This would have been in line with the ethics of professionalism, good conduct and unbiased reporting.

Me: It was Aso Rock’s judgment that errors had been made; not that of the publishers or editors. And if the leadership of The Leadership stood by their story, why should they retract it? The Guardian stood by its story that got Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor carted off to jail for about a year in 1984 under the Buhari/Idiagbon Decree4. The journalists refused to divulgethe source of their story “Haruna Replaces Hannaniya” on the basis that it infringed on their right to collect and disseminate information. The Buhari government argued that the story was based on “rumors” as it had not been officially announced by the government. When Thompson and Irabor were convicted and sent to jail, journalists, students, and civil rights activists were outraged. But going by the letters of Decree 4, Irabor, Thompson, and The Guardian ran afoul. Section 1(1) of the decree read: “Any person who published in any form, whether written or otherwise any message, rumour, report or statement or report which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the government of a state or a public officer to ridicule or disrepute shall be guilty of an offence under this Decree. Section 3(1) stated: “In any prosecution for an offence under this decree, the burden of proving that the message, rumour, report or statement which is the subject matter of the charge is true in every material particular shall notwithstanding anything to the contrary in any enactment or rule of law lie or the person charged.’’ REAL journalists all over the world report what is technically “rumors”. All the so-called “exclusive” or “scoop” reporting done in newspapers are “rumors” since they were not publicly announced. I emphasize “REAL” above because, while Reuben Abati was a good writer and, in fact, the Editorial Page editor at The Guardian, I do not recall him ever being a REPORTER, or having attended any basic journalism school. As great as Wole Soyinka is with letters, he is NOT a trained journalist. What makes a good reporter is the ability to get beyond the press conference releases and get the story behind the curtain. I am sure that Abati himself has been one of those “anonymous sources close to the president” when leaking a story (technically a rumor) to his friends in the media.

Abati: This approach reflects the crucial role of a bridge which a best-practice media performs, in the management of the civil engagement between elected officials and the citizenry. Underpinning this social contract is the principle that the freedom of expression goes hand in hand with great responsibility. Given the Leadership Newspaper’s insistence that it stood by its story, questions are automatically raised about professional ethics and the social responsibility of the media, which certainly, by the rules and codes of practice of the various media associations in the country do not accommodate the publication of falsehood, or inciting material, or the abuse of the media’s constitutional mandate.

Me: It is true that a responsible media outfit should not publish or broadcast falsehood. But when it does and refuses to retract/apologize, the courts should arbitrate. Gun-totting policemen or Soldiers should not be seen near media houses unless they are there to protect the place. In 1985, while working for The Guardian, I wrote a story that painted then NFA (now NFF) Chairman, Group Captain John Obakpolor corrupt and about to lose his job because president Babangida had lost confidence in him. Obakpolor (a serving Air Force officer), to his credit, took The Guardian to court asking for N1 million in damages and a retraction of the story. Once I convinced my editors that the story was not contrived (and they had the decency to not force me to divulge the source to even them, although I later volunteered it myself), they stood by the story and Obakpolor lost out. That is the way it should work. This Aso Rock should have taken The Leadership newspaper to court instead of intimidating the poor journalists. And about publishing “inciting material”, who decides what is inciting? A story about Boko Haram bombs found in Lagos could incite Lagosians to attack northerners in Lagos. Would it be illegal to report that? This was the same mentality of the military junta when they twisted and parsed news items to fit their agendas. When the BCOS in Ibadan announced the appeals tribunal’s verdict to reinstate impeached governor Ladoja, agents of Alao-Akala invaded the premises and beat up the news producer. They accused her of “inciting” the public.

Abati: The circulation of a fictitious ‘presidential directive’ that seeks in the main to cause civil strife, engender a breakdown of law and order, and negate the values of our democracy is a very grievous act indeed that should not be ignored. At its core, such a disruptive act erodes the ethos of governance and professionalism and naturally stirs up those entrusted with the protection of law and order; as it should also, every responsible citizen, interest group and the entire media. In that regard, President Jonathan did not have to issue any orders before those who have as much constitutional responsibility as the media; that is, the police, see the need to act in the public interest.

Me: Really? “…naturally stirs up those entrusted with the protection of law and order…” And “…Jonathan did not have to issue any orders…”? Really? Don’t we all live in this same Nigeria? The IGP just woke up one morning and felt like it was his job to waste his men’s time defending Aso Rock against The Leadership? How many stories are published or broadcast daily with which State Governors and Local Government Councilors disagree? This is a naked attempt at rationalizing the indefensible, and it is shameful coming from Abati. So, all

those times that the military shut down offices of The Guardian, Punch, Tell, Newswatch, Concord, and Tribune, the Soldiers were just doing their constitutional responsibility to act in the public interest? Listen to yourself, man. This is how people go crazy. Just before you took this job, you railed against stuff like this. If your conversion was engendered by juju, I salute the efficacy of the “Babalawo” who did it because I have never seen any transformation this wild.

Abati: Without holding brief for the law enforcement and security agencies, such a publication, like all others that threaten our democracy and undermine law and order, become the duty of the Police as an institution to investigate. The Leadership newspaper should see this as an opportunity to co-operate with the police as required by the laws of the land. The Police have not done anything outside the law. The trite rule is that nobody is above the laws of the land. It is also within the powers of the Police to invite persons for questioning and to conduct investigations, which is what they have done so far in “The Leadership case”. Or are the editors of the Leadership newspaper insisting that they are above the laws of the land?

Me: Don’t insult our intelligence by claiming to not hold brief for the law enforcement and security agencies. You did, and are doing. Even though it is true that the Police is empowered to investigate crimes, the premise of their investigation of The Leadership is wrong. The Police have to have “probable cause” before arresting anybody. And please stop saying “invite”. We all know what it is. The story in question does not amount to a crime. And even if the story is false, it is closer to a civil crime, rather than a criminal crime. Court summonses, not arrest warrants, are used to handle civil crimes in a civilized society. Most of your former readers are now of the opinion that you betrayed them by becoming part of the problem of which you had been a leading critic. If it walks and sounds like a duck, it is a duck. Have you looked in the mirror lately? If you have eyes that see, you would be shocked at the mangled face in that mirror.

Abati: This administration believes in and has demonstrated its commitment to press freedom times over. The Freedom of Information Bill (FOI) was signed by this President into law and under this government the Nigerian print and electronic media has grown in number, reach and in terms of freedom to practice. It will be disingenuous to suggest that there is a clampdown of any sort or an attempt to stifle the press.

Me: Thirty-one years old Alfred Papapreye Diette-Spiff, first military governor of Rivers State, did not think he clamped down on the press when, in 1973, he ordered that Minere Amakiri, a journalist with The Observer newspaper, should have his head shaven with broken bottles. His agents shaved Amakiri’s head simply because he reported a story about teachers’ union planning to stage a strike. Apparently, Diette-Spiff was “embarrassed” by the story because it was published on his birthday. Despotic governments begin like that, and there is nothing worse than a supposedly democratic government going rogue like GEJ’s just demonstrated. When a government inhibits dissent, it is a demonstration of cowardice and intolerance, and an invitation to anarchy. It is clear that all that you guys in Aso Rock want to hear and read are sycophantic reports. You want the media to just regurgitate your press releases. How would you have felt if the Police, under OBJ, had “invited” you for questioning for all your “inciting” articles that clearly ridiculed the person and government of OBJ? At some point, many of us who read your column felt that you were downright disrespectful to the person of OBJ and the office that he occupied. We were convinced that VP Atiku Abubakar paid you to attack OBJ endlessly. We also felt that you abused your power as a journalist while at The Guardian and you employed that perch to build yourself up for your current job by tearing down others.

Abati: Why shouldn’t journalists normally cooperate with the police in this instance? We believe that it has to do with the fundamentals of professional ethos that make journalists operate with a different set of loyalties and a different set of outcomes. Yet, there should be no contradiction under normal circumstances where the pursuit of peace and democracy deepening is concerned. This should ordinarily have been an opportunity for the ‘media’ to help our democracy by collectively rejecting the publication of pure falsehood.

Me: This puerile simplification of why journalists resist intimidation by the Police is proof that GEJ does not get good advice from his special adviser on media and publicity. When journalists commit crimes, they should pay for it. If the crime is that of publishing falsehood, the aggrieved should seek redress in court. The government should not take laws into its own hands by harassing the media. You know this, Reuben. I am sure you know this. When the wool is pulled from your eyes and you return to earth, you will be able to “see” again.

Abati: As recently as March 12, 2013 in the United Kingdom, detectives working with the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Elveden, an on-going British police investigation into corrupt payments to public officials, placed two journalists under covert surveillance by police investigating corruption and bribery allegations against journalists. This process was considered a crowding out of press freedom with a number of people settling for an open invitation by the police for questioning, as was done in previous invitations with regards to Operation Weeting – covering investigations of The News of the World which led to numerous arrests, detentions and eventual convictions.

Me: This is the worst example that a Ph.D holder could offer on the issue under discussion. Those detectives in the UK were being investigated for bribery and corruption – a crime in all societies that we all know of – not for the veracity or otherwise of the story they wrote.

Abati: The developments at The News of the World, which centre around the resort to illegal means to obtain and/or publish otherwise dubiously obtained information led to the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry, a judicial public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. The Inquiry published the Leveson Report in November 2012, which reviewed the general culture and ethics of the British media, and made recommendations for a new, independent, body to replace the existing Press Complaints Commission, which would be recognised by the state through new laws. Some of the changes recommended include sweeping measures that will allow police officers to demand information from sources; rights for police to seize materials from the press, changes that may force journalists to reveal whistleblowers’ identities; and other rule changes that may define freedom of speech. To show the extent of an ordered approach, part 2 of the inquiry has since been deferred until after criminal prosecutions regarding events at The News of the World are concluded.

Me: I just knew you would go there. First, these are recommendations that have NOT become laws, and may NEVER become laws. Second, just because they did it in the UK does not mean we should do it in Nigeria. If someone were to recommend such laws in the US,they would be consigned to mental institutions as deranged entities. Why don’t you cite the fact that the press in the US is not encumbered as was recommended by the Leverson Inquiry. You must think all Nigerians are gullible.

Abati: In Nigeria, the place of our media is well regarded by the government and its freedom within the law, is regarded as sacred. The Nigerian media is self-regulated and is required to abide by defined codes of eth

ics. The incident with the Leadership newspapers is not an attempt by the government to muzzle a critical bridge in the societal value chain. Rather, it reflects the professional gaps that need to be bridged within the profession as the media continues to play its very crucial and necessary role in nation-building.

Me: The treatment meted out to The Leadership does not support your assertion that your government regards the freedom of the press as sacred. Just because you say so does not mean it is so. Nigerians are not foolish.

Abati: This development therefore offers the media an opportunity for introspection, one that requires an emphasis on the responsibility of a media house as regards issues of ethics and professionalism; and extends in the main to how such a media house builds corporate governance rules to ensure that reckless, unfounded and grossly misleading publications have no place in the esteemed profession and outputs from its stable.

Me: I agree. But the degree to which a media outfit enforces ethics, professionalism, and corporate governance rules determines its status, stature, acceptability, readership, and ultimately, profit margin. The marketplace will take care of that, not the government. Clearly, when readers select one newspaper over the other at the vendor’s stand, they do so with the knowledge that they trust and respect one paper over the other. It is not government’s responsibility to enforce anything. Again, aggrieved entities always have the option to seek redress in court whenever they feel they have been slandered or defamed.

Abati: Nigerians fought so hard to end an era whereby serious attempts were made to muzzle the media and our recent history will attest to the heroic role played by the media in our emergent democracy. We intend for that to continue and welcome unfettered contributions, investigations and accountability audit of those holding public office today and tomorrow.

Me: These are mere disingenuous platitudes. What your government did with The Leadership was a dangerous erosion of the gains made by your journalism forebears who fought for press freedom in Nigeria. Your claim that you welcome “unfettered” audit of your government contradicts your government’s response when Nigerians questioned the amnesty GEJ gave to known criminals, including Alamieyeseigha whom you yourself, in your saner days, regarded as unworthy.

Abati: What must not be encouraged is voodoo journalism or the deliberate and malicious attempt to use a medium that is designed to inform to now take on the inglorious task of being a mouthpiece for a narrow agenda based on disinformation, deliberate scaremongering, civil society baiting and the offer of media platform(s) to those hell-bent on causing disharmony through well-woven conspiracies.

Me: For those who do not know, “voodoo journalism”, at least in the Nigerian parlance, is when a journalist concocts a story and provides untraceable attribution, or no attribution at all. Please, let any REAL Nigerian journalist tell me that they have never seen voodoo journalism before. Again, the solution to that is to seek redress in court.

Abati: This government is proud of its record on press freedom, its relationship with and promotion of access for the media and civil society. The publication of a spurious document and the alarmist approach to the routine invitation extended to the Leadership journalists should of itself provide proof of a choreographed attempt to deliberately cast the administration in bad light; especially given the synchronized communications from the newspaper, the Action Congress of Nigeria, and others.

Me: There is nothing to be proud of, or not be proud of when it comes to press freedom. Democracies are typically subservient to the people. A democratic government should not meddle in or tamper with press freedom. The press should not have to look up to a democratic government for freedom. Press freedom is a given in a democracy. Didn’t Fela Anikulapo Kuti lampoon the idea of giving humans “human rights” when human rights were already their rights?

Abati: Once again, we urge the Nigerian public and the media to pay careful attention to those who parade themselves under different garbs and push forth information intended to subvert the cause of peace and order. The Nigerian government remains a committed advocate of a free but responsible media that can and should hold the government to account even as it seeks to educate and inform the citizenry for whom we are all responsible. This is the social contract we are all agreed to, for and on behalf of the Nigerian public.

Me: When the Federal government tries to tell the press (the Fourth Estate of the Realm) what to do, it is only a matter of time before it tells the judiciary and Legislature what to do. And when that happens, it would no longer be a democracy; it would be an autocracy.

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