CONSEQUENCES OF RECKLESS REPORTAGE ON THE JOURNALIST, MEDIA AND SOCIETY BEING A SPEECH BY RAY EKPU, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF MAYFIVE MEDIA LIMITED AT AKWA IBOM JOURNALISM RETOOL HOUSE 2019, ORGANIZED BY THE NEXT EDITION CENTRE FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM AND GENDER ADVOCACY, ON OCTOBER 18, 2019
I don’t think there is any dispute today about the status of journalism as a profession. It is a profession because it has met all the five attributes of a profession. They are:
(a) It has a body of knowledge which is multidisciplinary
(b) It has entry standard the minimum of which is Higher National Diploma or a Bachelor’s degree
(c) It has canons of professional practice. These are accuracy, fairness, completeness, objectivity, etc.
(d) It has a code of ethics that is expected to regulate the conduct of practitioners in the execution of their journalistic responsibilities of informing, educating, entertaining and surveying the environment.
(e) It has regulatory authorities such as the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) and the Nigerian Press Council (NPC).
So anyone of us who comes into Journalism must accept that he or she must practise the profession according to its professional canons and ethics. It does not matter whether we are print media, electronic media or online media Journalists. The rules of practice are the same and the obligations of truth-telling and the fair discharge of our responsibilities are the same. No difference. That means that in our reportage and commentary we must exhibit qualities that can lead to the truth and the fairness that can build a sane, stable, peaceful, inclusive, united and egalitarian society. Any report or commentary that is the opposite of that is in my opinion reckless. The only acceptable and professional ways to go about our business are two:
(a) Your stories must meet the basic requirements of accuracy, completeness, fairness, etc. if you discover that you have made a mistake you must correct it and don’t simply say that it does not matter. It matters because if you do not correct the mistake it will lead to people being misinformed.
Misinformation can lead to poor decisions, sometimes decisions that are detrimental to the peace and stability of our communities.
(b) If you write an opinion article or an editorial and there is a refutal or a contrary opinion submitted to you, you are under a professional obligation to publish it. That is what is called the Right of Reply. But regrettably many of us who hold decision-making positions in our media simply ignore this professional obligation. We simply think it doesn’t matter. It matters because that reply can offer the public those elements of fairness and balance that can make our society more informed and better able to take the right decisions. If we deviate from any of the two scenarios I have outlined either in our reportage or commentary then we are doing something unprofessional.
Many respectable media organisations in the world go to great lengths to establish the accuracy of their stories. They have structures that enable stories that are slated for publication or broadcast to go through the eagle eyes of several experienced journalists before they get to the consuming public as news. In Newswatch, we had what we called The Three Source Rule. If a major story did not come from a document that we had ascertained to be genuine we had to get a confirmation from three sources to convince ourselves of its factuality. An American magazine the New Yorker has seven checkers whose responsibility is to confirm the accuracy of the information it wants to publish. The Readers Digest has 20 checkers who do the same thing.
Some years ago, I was surprised to get a call from Readers’ Digest. The magazine wanted to confirm a quote they took from one of my articles which they wanted to use under their quotable quotes column. They went into that much trouble to get their quote right. If only they knew the kind of excitement I got from being quoted by Readers’ Digest, they would not have bothered that much. But, of course, they did so because they are consummate professionals.
This happened many years ago when there were no mobile phone and communication with people in Nigeria was close to impossible. Now we have the benefit of advanced technology which has given us the cell phones. With a cell phone we can do several things in our line of business.
We can listen to the radio, we can record interviews and pictures, we can do telephone or online interviews. These immense advantages should help to improve the efficiency of our practice. On the contrary, we seem to have converted the phone and the internet into instruments for the spread of what has come to be known as fake news. Some call it junk news, or pseudo-news. This is what used to be known years ago as yellow journalism.
We have had some examples of yellow journalism that gripped the imagination of the world. Let me mention a few. An American journalist called Janet Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a story she wrote for and was published by the Washington Post. It was about an 8-year old heroin addict named Jimmy. She admitted it was fabricated. She was stripped of the honour and her professional life ended in the gutter. In May, 1983 Stern, a German Weekly published what was said to be Adolf Hitler’s Diary. The magazine also sold it to the British Sunday Times for 250,000 pounds but before the Sunday Times could publish it the German Government declared that is was counterfeit. Mr. Henri Nannen, publisher of Stern, apologised to the public and stopped the serialization of the fake diaries.
As you may remember President George Bush had told Americans and the world that the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He did not tell the world that his interest was in changing the regime in Iraq.
America invaded Iraq but did not find any weapons of mass destruction. Lots of lives were destroyed on account of that falsehood.
American lives and Iraq lives. In the 2008
Presidential campaign in the United States, political opponents continuously peddled the information that Barrack Obama was not born in America and was not eligible to contest for the presidency. He eventually had to produce his birth certificate before his opponents stopped the mischievous campaign against him. Even in Nigeria, our former president Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was declared dead by several media when he was still alive. This was several years before his actual death on May 11, 1996. That was an unpardonable piece of sloppy, reckless journalism.
All of these examples were in the days when there was no online or digital journalism. Now we are in a new era where technology should make us do our work almost flawlessly. But I admit that technology often comes with both benefits and burdens. It has brought us the ubiquitous cellphone and the internet with which we can reach the world with the speed of lightning just by pressing a button. We can communicate with millions of people at once through online journalism platforms. We can update our stories as events unfold minute by minute. That is wonderful. That is the upside of it.
But it has its downside too. It has given wings to an old demon: fake news. Let me state here that there are some reliable online platforms in Nigeria that are doing their jobs professionally. Some of them are Cable, Premium Times, The Next Edition, First News. These online platforms are manned by Journalists who had practised in mainstream media and imbibed the rudiments of professional and ethical Journalism.
Apart from the unprofessional online news platforms we also have the bloggers who seem to constitute a problem for truth. They speculate, exaggerate, distort, mislead, quote dishonest, misleading, unverified sources or no sources at all; they are the smear campaigners, the lynch mobs, the rumour merchants, the cyber bullies, the anonymous tipsters, the trial judges by commentary, the purveyors of propaganda, the type that America’s Vice President Spirrow Agnew described as the “nattering nabobs of negativism”.
They use breaking news as a pivot for falsehood, adopting a publish first and verify later approach. They do not correct their mistakes, they only post updates. They don’t apologise for their errors. They just keep a bold face and move on. Those are the dirty jobs artists, the one person riot squads. They care little about the fine points of truth-telling or the effect that lie-telling can do to the community in which they live. They call it Citizen Journalism. Others call it Personal Publishing, Grassroots Media, Open Source journalism, Network Journalism or Participatory Journalism. It is a lie. What they do is not Journalism. It is a misnomer to call it Journalism because it lacks the rigour, the professionalism, the ethical obligation to truth-telling and the fairness doctrine that Journalism is infused with. At best let us call what they do Citizen Conversation or Citizen Communication. They are entitled to do Amebo’s job, crass gossiping, they can make money from the fruit of their fertile imagination but let them not defame Journalism by attaching the name of Journalism to what they do.
In an era when some Universities in the United States are teaching Drone Journalism, the use of drones to acquire accurate information, what they do falls far short of the rigorous demands of our noble profession.
In Africa, the growth of fake news is enhanced by four factors:
(a) The estimate is that eight out of 10 Africans now have telephones. The number is rising daily.
(b) The estimate is that about 250 million Africans now have internet access. The numbers are going up daily.
(c) Half of Africa’s population is aged below 18 years while the average is 19 years. That means that Africa has largely, a population of young people who are patrons of the internet.
(d) Many political actors in Africa are hooked on to it for their campaigns and political conversation.
Many Nigerian politicians now have Special Assistants in charge of social media. A few years ago the BBC did a research on India, Kenya and Nigeria by interviewing people who used WhatsAppmessages. The Corporation found that in Nigeria most of the stories shared on WhatsApp relate to terrorism and the Nigeria Army, health and politics. Fake news is becoming a prominent feature of our daily lives in Nigeria. There are very few online platforms that you can check that you will not encounter fake news or incendiary opinions.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, told us some time ago about the photograph he took with some ladies at a public forum which by some manipulation was turned into a photo pose by him with a stripper. Nigeria’s Vice President and a Pastor of the Redeemed Church of Christ taking pictures with a stripper? Unthinkable but the mischief makers had decided to embarrass him.
In our country such prominent people as Professor Wole Soyinke and Chief Ernest Shonekan, the former Leader of Nigeria’s Interim Government have been killed on the internet. But they lived to deny the story.
President Muhammadu Buhari has been a favourite target of some of the fake news hawkers. This year Buhari was alleged to have died in April 2018 and the cabal in the Aso Villa recruited one Jubril Sudani from Sudan to pretend to be Buhari. That is political demonisation, pure and simple. Just last week there was a big play on several social media and even some electronic media of Buhari’s alleged plan to marry his Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Umar Farouq, as a second wife. There were well designed printed invitation cards to the purported wedding, videos and discussions on this hoax. Meanwhile, the wife to be was attending a conference abroad at the time. She was absent at her own wedding cooked up by imaginative hoax hawkers.
In Akwa Ibom State with about seven radio stations, close to 300 newspapers and some online news platforms the scene is riotous, chaotic. Fake news and incendiary commentary have taken centre stage. People are actually called thieves, murderers, bribe givers and bribe takers on the front pages of newspapers and on online platforms and radio talk shows. I read a story about Mr. Emmanuel Enoidem, the National Legal Adviser of the PDP in which he was called a murderer and there was no shred of evidence or a comment from him on the story. Of course, I was not surprised when a few days later Mr. Enoidem’s Lawyer wrote to the ragsheet that published the story asking for an apology and the sum of 100 million naira.
I also read on one of the online platforms in the state where the Chairman of the Election Petition Tribunal in this State was accused of being bribed with a huge sum of money in dollars. Again, there was no scintilla of evidence and no comment from the person defamed. I have noticed that the major fake news or evil commentaries here are on politically exposed persons. The major targets are Chief Nsima Ekere, former Managing Director of the NDDC and Governorship candidate of the APC in Akwa Ibom State. The various platforms make unsubstantiated allegations of corruption against him. Again, no shred of evidence or any appreciable effort at a diligent investigation of the allegation.
Chief Godswill Akpabio, former Governor of the State and now Minister of Niger Delta has also been a recipient of some barbed shafts from some mainstream and online media in the State.
They claim that there are EFCC charges on him for corruption to the tune of 108 billion naira and that Mr. Festus Keyamo was prosecuting him on behalf of the EFCC. Mr. Keyamo, Minister of State for Labour has denied the role assigned to him. And, of course, if the EFCC had charged him to court for any alleged wrong doing it would have been in the public space. Again, fake news.
I have also observed that the State Governor, Mr Udom Emmanuel, has been a major target of attack by some of the newspapers, radio and online platforms. They use the fact of his being a deacon in Qua Iboe Church as a jump-off point for some of the vicious attacks on his person and government.
For me, criticism is absolutely permissible in a democracy but it must be fair, measured and accompanied by suggestions for improvement or alternative policy options.
Let me give you a few examples of what I have read on some platforms about Governor Emmanuel. “Since Udom Emmanuel came into office in 2015 he has done nothing”. Is that possible? He has done nothing? That is impossible. But some extremists have published it. Another example, “Udom Emmanuel keeps talking of industries.
There are no industries. Where are the industries?” Really, no industries? But people who live where those industries are sited know that they exist. The Vice President of Nigeria who comes from a different party from Governor Emmanuel came here and saw some industries. If you say, as a journalist that what is there is not there when other people have seen that it is there, then you are just making a fool of yourself because you want to be a partisan politician in the garment of a journalist. That is luck-spittle sycophancy. That is self-demeaning. That is self-immolation. There should be honour even among thieves. If there is honour among thieves why shouldn’t there be honour among journalists.
Many years ago when I was Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch some of the editors of the magazine used to say to me at our editorial meeting “Oga let’s jazz it up”, meaning let us do some embellishment, let us put onions, crayfish, periwinkle to make the soup tasty. The two things I used to say to them were: “Did they teach you that in Journalism School? Don’t you know that jazzing it up has consequences?”. The consequences for the journalist who jazzes it up is that he loses his respect as a professional; he can be hit with court cases if someone’s reputation is affected; someone who does not want to waste time in a long legal suit may resort to self-help which may come in any form he thinks fit. So watch out. Those verbal salvos, those printed submarines you deploy can come back to haunt you because you do not have a monopoly of mischief.
A blogger and so called human rights activist, Steven Kefas, had spent, as at last week, 150 days in Kaduna Prison without bail for alleged inciting comments against Governor Nasir-el Rufai of Kaduna State. Mr. Kefas has now sued Governor Rufai and the Inspector-General of Police for illegal detention. He has no idea when he will be out of the cooler. That is a consequence of mischievous publishing.
For the media, there are also consequences of reckless or unprofessional reporting or commentary. The media can be sued and libel suits are expensive to run and libel penalties are heavy today. If you lose a case or have to publish an apology as a medium you lose a bit of your professional integrity or money. Your credibility comes down. Readership and buyership are built on a medium’s credibility.
If you lose both you are on a slippery slope to the abyss of business failure.
Perhaps the worst consequences for unprofessional, reckless journalism resides with the society as a whole. The people of Asaba in Delta State have just marked 52 years of what has come to be known as the Asaba massacre. On October 7, 1967, the people of Asaba had dressed in their Sunday best and trooped out to welcome the Nigerian soldiers who had just arrived in their city. They did not know that the Nigerian soldiers were informed, falsely, that Asaba people were harbouring Biafran soldiers in their houses.
The Nigerian soldiers separated the women and children from the men and took the men in batches of 10 and killed them. The number of men massacred is put at about 1000. That was one of the major group casualties of that war based on false information.
The 1994 Rwanda genocide is well known all over the world. There is a memorial established in that country to honour the one million people that died from the ethnic crisis generated by the Rwandan media especially some radio stations. The government and people of Rwanda have not been able to live down that genocide that was a bye product of reckless reporting.
Akwa Ibom State is very fragile because it still has a large population of uneducated and gullible people who can believe almost anything they hear or read. The incendiary Journalism that one witnesses here is based on partisan politics and possibly ethnicity. Journalists hold one of the keys to the stability of Akwa Ibom. Use it to open the door for peace and stability to step in, then development will flourish. It will be a disservice to the state for journalists to practise their profession in a way that brings disaster to their community.
Those who are involved in this unprofessionalism are advised to mend their ways in their own interest, and in the interest of their media because as Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message”. The message can destroy or deliver your medium. It is also in the interest of those who practise their profession here to ensure that there is stability because it is stability that provides a favourable atmosphere for your practice and personal survival.
(1) Oso, Lai and Akanni Tunde, 2018
Democracy and the Digital Public Sphere, Watch Dogs or Captures Media, A study of the Role of the Media in Nigeria’s Emergent Democracy 1999 – 2016
(2) Holiday, Ryan (2017) Trust me I am Lying, Confessions of a Media Manipulator
(3) Peck, Robert: The Foundations of Dissent, the Supreme Court and the First Amendment
(4) Harding, Luke (2017) Collusion, Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and how Russia helped Donald Trump win, Vintage Books.
(5) Bellow, Adam (2010) New Threats to Freedom,
(6) Ekpu, Ray, (2019) Fake News and Hate Speech, a keynote speech at the National Open University of Ngeria (NOUN) Colloquium