By Tonnie Iredia

A fortnight ago, one of my previously cherished neighbours, Professor Sam Ajayi, a pharmacist, shouted across the fence to salute me, but his rather good gesture ended in a fiasco as we both swore never to relate again. The bone of contention was his caustic remarks about some of my colleagues in the media whom he claims visit his Agency regularly to “beg him for money”.

He asked me if there was nothing the Nigerian Union of Journalists, NUJ, could do about corrupt practitioners in the media instead of celebrating the World Media Day the week before. To me, there were too many simplistic things in his statements. First, will a corrupt person beg for money? Of course, not, he would use surreptitious means to get it. Second, how would an opinionated pharmacist know of the efforts of NUJ in dealing with corrupt journalists?

Third, is it rational to conclude that some fellows who regularly beg for money are bonafide journalists because they so claim? Who, I asked him angrily is a pharmacist? When a poor man buys a fake drug in Nigeria, someone gleefully puts it to him that he must have bought it from a chemist instead of a pharmacy. Of what use is that classification to a poor man where in the three lineages of his village, there is just one medicine store? I told Prof. Ajayi point blank that what matters to the sick is not some meaningless nomenclature but where he can find pain reliever for his headache.

So, a chemist is a pharmacy.  My comments infuriated him but what actually pissed him off was my threat to send journalists to investigate how he got so much money to become the man that corrupt journalists are all after!

Yes, I agree that some of us in the media may be corrupt but is there any profession, vocation or occupation in Nigeria without its bad eggs? Otherwise, there would have been no need to set up a panel right now to investigate our Chief Justice and the President of the Court of Appeal.

Indeed, many years back, the legendary Chukwudifu Oputa, then a learned Justice of the Supreme Court told a public gathering that in Nigeria there are lawyers who “after charging their normal and usual fees, charge an extra for the judge”. While not justifying corruption in the media, I make bold to say that in Nigeria, it is society-induced. Nigerian journalists are an endangered species; an over-used and under-paid group that does not deserve freedom of the press. The other day, two people were appointed Ministers of Information.

While the pharmacist was made the senior minister, the professional journalist was made minister of state. Can a pharmacist be that lucky even in his health ministry? What about remuneration? In the print media, some proprietors hire workers but do not pay salaries.

They tell their workers to use their identity cards to fend for themselves. What should journalists in such papers do in a country where unemployment has remained a dominant phenomenon for longer than makes sense? In the case of the electronic media, salaries are not only delayed, they are quite low even in government- owned stations.

As we testified in this column previously; while civil servants in the country work for only eight hours a day and five days a week, public broadcasters work round the clock daily and throughout the week.  The relaxing period of the weekends for other public officials is even the most demanding period for broadcasters. Yet, the remuneration package for both categories is the same which is based on the grade level system.

This offends the principle of equal pay for equal work. For two consecutive years, 2005 and 2006, Nigerian public broadcasters had to embark on strikes over the failure of government to include them in the payment of monetisation benefits which other categories of public officers had enjoyed as of right two years earlier.

Their two  unions – the Radio, Television and Theatre Workers Union (RATTAWU) and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) cried aloud in vain that government reneged on agreements it reached with them on the subject.

Under the circumstance, what journalists can legitimately do to help themselves is quite limited as the long hours of duty precludes them from private practice which is legitimised for some favoured professions. Some journalists beg their way to choice assignments like covering the Governors, the Presidency and Ministers but that obviously cannot accommodate many practitioners.

What about borrowing a leaf from what other poorly-paid workers do to survive?  That would have been smart really if journalists could set up something like police check-points in wait for those who are publicity- desperate. But, then, will such victims comply with our demand since all we have are writing materials without life-threatening weapons? Lucky police, they are positioned to physically extort. Exactly one week ago, a youth corps member who was having a drink with a male friend at one leisure centre in Abuja was forcefully separated from the boy by the Police and arrested as a prostitute. Her NYSC identity card did not matter.

The boy was advised in his own interest to vanish while the Corper was spirited away to the Area 3 Task Force Environmental Centre to be bailed.  All of this, the media cannot do. What a journalist can do is to thankfully accept a voluntarily given ‘brown envelope’ for which the profession has been under fire.

Journalists who accept the brown envelope are publicly denounced as corrupt while the public says nothing about the giver. Since the taker made no demand, it is unfair for the giver who initiated the transaction to complain thereafter. What’s more, there is evidence in the public domain that our media have been fighting against gratification for long.

This is what one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers underscores with its daily publication of a-five point statement titled ‘Code of Ethics’. According to the paper: “We, Punch Nigeria Limited, do not demand or accept gifts or gratification to publish stories, articles and photographs, neither do our journalists; therefore, we implore you not to offer any to our journalists and to please contact us if any of our journalists demands for that”.

Well, for me, I will like to be a journalist again in the next world but with a different mission statement.  Anyone who offers me brown envelope will have to explain what it is for and if it is in dollars-the currency of party primaries- we will count its content together to ascertain that it is worthy of its purpose and that it befits my status. If not, I will accept no envelope but naira in ‘Ghana must go’ bags as is done for lobbying in the legislature.

Finally, I will not allow anyone to describe the gift as gratification because even in America-the civilised world- it is regarded as ‘tip’. So, what is wrong with brown envelope?

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