TIME TO ACT AGAINST JOURNALISM WITHOUT CONSCIENCE

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I must confess the pain I’m going through: I’m beginning to miss the newsroom that I so much love; I have been missing its organized madness; its unconventional setup. I mean the newsroom of the analogue era: the changing and clattering of the Olympia typewriters. Newsrooms are usually serene and sane in early mornings and mid-days. But as the mid-day gives way to afternoon, the newsroom starts to be vibrant and interesting to those in the profession of journalism. The newsroom is the engine room of every newspaper. It is where the journalist belongs.

The foot soldiers in the endless war of gathering news materials and writing history for posterity start finding their ways into the newsroom, armed with the day’s reports that can pass for news. The commanders – the line editors and other top editorial chiefs get seated in readiness for the next day’s publication.

During the analogue era, the typewriter, notebook and the midget were the AK47 of the reporter. Oh! I still love the troubles of reporting and the wonderful serene of the newsroom. I love being a reporter. As the newsroom becomes vibrant, the editors who are on edge to meet the deadlines and cast the headlines start barking orders as if they are on the parade ground. That was an interesting part of the newsroom. At one corner, the television set blares the latest news and a stationed reporter is on hand to monitor development, another is there monitoring the radio set, yet another has a midget tape close to his ear and scribbling away – transcribing a major interview that will make the difference on the newsstands.

At the other end of the newsroom, some senior editorial members, call them the egg-heads, put heads together – these Generals in the battlefield called the newsroom brainstorm over reported events of the day to determine stories that will make the front page, the headlines that will sell the stories and the pictures that will be most striking and topical.

In another corner were sub-editors who put knives (red pen) through a 300-word story from a reporter and trim it to less than 150 words and still retain the essence, the beauty, the message and all the five-Ws and H in the story. Sub-editors are the silent and the unsung heroes of any newsroom. A newspaper that has the talented sub-editors is blessed with great newspaper with elegance, beauty, and cultivated language; it is the newspaper with minimum errors.

If such a newspaper is blessed with a first-grade production team, then it has gotten it all. In another corner of the newsroom was the production team. Those guys conceived, planned and produced the newspaper, they planned the pages – in the analogue age, it was cut and paste, before producing the films at the lithographic section that would be taken to the press for printing. In a daily newspaper, that was done all night and by morning the paper is ready, hot fresh with hot news spiced with photos, current affairs and ready for the newsstands.

In the digital age, the changes are the technology and the tools of production and facilities for effective communication. In this digital age, a reporter can write a story, send it online to the sub-editor and just stroll into the newsroom. The sub-editor can also edit from the comfort of his living room and send online to the production editor. The organized chaos of the newsroom is still there but technology has made the production process a lot easier and much less laborious.

For the print media, technology may have changed the phases and face of production, but it has not in any way disturbing, inflicted negative impact on content in the context of compliance with the journalism ethics. For the print media, credibility remains the watchword even in the face of stiff competition and shrinking market. But for the new brand of Journalism, defined by online publications and what has come to be known as the Social media, it is another kettle of fish. Let us get it right from here. This is not a general thumbs down for the latest genre of the profession. It came with a lot of advantages one of them being its instantaneous nature – you read, view or hear events as they unfold.
This is also not a blanket condemnation of practitioners of the brand new journalism. Many online publications and bloggers have demonstrated professionalism and commendable conduct beyond what may be ascribed to professionals working on a platform that enables you to have the news on the go.

But this cannot be said of a whole lot of online publications, blogs and other social media users who have turned their platforms to a veritable tool of blackmail, an avenue of extortion and medium of getting even with enemies, real or perceived.

Journalism as a profession is at a critical juncture. Practitioners and other stakeholders must come together to chart the way forward and draw up a new Code of Conduct that will accommodate the peculiarities of new journalism. I’m an apostle of Press freedom and anything that will tamper with that cherished freedom must be totally resisted. But then, the freedom to inform, entertain and educate ends where other citizen’s rights begin. As practitioners, we owe it a duty to the society that the innocent are not injured in the course of our trade.

The easy entry and easy exit nature of online publications make the challenge a herculean one. Now, professional blackmailers, cub reporters who did not earn their first promotion in a reputable media setting, and, in fact, people without journalism or communication training at all have taken over this platform parading themselves as publishers and wrecking psychological havoc on individuals and ruining reputations that took decades to build. In the final analysis, they are ruining the integrity of citizens whose activities are capable of deepening the economy, boost employment and promote the Nigerian nation to a higher pedestal in the committee of nations. Many of these so-called publishers perpetrate this crime with so much impunity assured that everything in our system is configured to make them get away without even a slap on the wrist.

This trend needs to be arrested. Press freedom does not include freedom to publish falsehood; to impugn on people’s integrity and people’s reputation without any justifiable reason(s). Nigerians deserve to be protected from the onslaught of these morally challenged persons parading themselves as publishers and inflicting harm on their fellow citizens in the noble name of journalism.

A fundamental way out of this ignominious and criminal conduct, I suggest is to tighten the legal noose around illegal acts. Libel is a crime in our statute books, yes. But people get away with it because they know that in our judicial system, justice is often delayed and thereby denied. The judicial system should be reworked and made to deliver justice promptly and without delay. If you know that in the event that you commit a libel, you could be in jail in less than a month after the crime, you will have a second thought before setting out to do the crime.

Also, the Nigerian Press Council (NPO), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Newspapers Proprietors of Nigeria (NPAN) and the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), need to look at how they can quickly rescue this lofty profession from the hands of quacks, blackmailers and marauders before they drive us into collective infamy. New Code of Conduct to accommodate the peculiar modus operandi of the online publications is desirable now.
These professional bodies may also want to consider enlightenment campaign targeted at members of the profession in all genres of journalism. Such a campaign has to extol the virtues to conform the journalism ethics and rail against unprofessional conduct.
Moral persuasion through seminars, workshops and conferences can also help in the campaign to bring sanity back to the profession.

Indeed the task of rescuing this noble profession from the clutches of the practitioners of journalism sans conscience; from blackmailers, fraudsters, tricksters, extortionists and gangsters parading themselves as professionals is one for all men of conscience, in and out of the media industry. It is what we owe this worthy profession and the gullible public. On the other hand, practitioners deserve better treatment and protection from the dangers of the society they tend to entertain, educate and inform. The corrupt and the thieves in leadership positions must be ready to face and accommodate unpleasant reports tailored to checkmating their criminal acts to sanitize society.

Journalists should not be seen as compromising or serving as agents of criminals in power. Those serving leaders as media handlers should be prepared to defend the actions of their masters with facts and within the ethics of the profession, that’s if they belong to the profession in the best professional manner without compromising the ethics of the profession. NUJ should, re-strategize not to lend support or provide a shield of protection to any identified crook, rogue or clown mistakenly in power with thieving credentials. We need a vibrant, fearless and objective professional journalism. This reminds me of the celebrated case between Leadership Newspaper and the presidency.

The presidency through compromised security agencies wanted Leadership to re-track an interesting leaked-out story it published. It rebuffed the threat and the government overreacted without success. There was the case of Desert Herald publisher, Malam Tukur Mamu and former FCT Minister, Senator Bala Muhammed and FCDA Director Treasury, Muhammed Ibrahim Bomoi. Bala and his team were ‘forced’ by threats to report the excesses of Desert Herald to the NUJ National Secretariat for justice. NUJ as a trade union decided to intervene for peace but Desert Herald rebuked all invitations for dialogue and the union had no option than to support the embattled minister and his associates in the case. NUJ could not act beyond its powers.

Desert Herald was not proscribed but faulted for its revelations of ‘sharp corrupt practices’ that allegedly characterized in the FCDA by the Nigeria Press Council. When the case was reported to NUJ by the embattled Director Treasury and Nosike Agbenyi, the minister’s Special Assistant on media, NUJ knew Tukur Mamu was not its member and there was nothing it could do against him other than brokering a truce. But for reasons not clear, it went ahead to summon Mamu for ‘trial’ which he shunned with the condition.

In the end, the union out of frustration suspended its Desert Herald chapel which was a minus to it. Desert Herald continued with its steady revelations while promising the release of a book it published on several alleged financial scandals of the embattled minister, “The Rot Within”. Such issues should always be avoided in the interest of the profession if we are to make any headway to progress and retain the respect of the noble profession.

Muhammad is a commentator on national issues

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