By Owei Lakemfa
THE most fundamental human right to the journalist is life, followed by the right to wages or income. These are the foundations on which his profession and the freedom of expression are built. A journalist with a perpetually rumbling stomach cannot be a reliable soldier of press freedom. At best, he becomes a suicidal soldier who, armed with only a rifle, goes against a heavily fortified enemy position.
In 2009 I was engaged in a media battle with former Aviation Minister, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, over his falsification of Nigerian history, including his claimed role in the struggle against military dictatorship. His defences easily crumbled.
However, I did not envisage a counter-attack by a journalist from a different media organisation for whom not even facts were sacred and all was game. I did not dignify such a low level of media attack with even a word as I knew the motivation was hunger.
In July, 2020, I responded to the decision of former Finance and Foreign Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to contest for the post of Director General, World Trade Organisation, WTO with a two-part article. I presented facts about her tenure as Finance Minister, her half-hearted fight against corruption and concluded that even if she wins the seat, it will be of no fundamental use to Nigeria.
I expected responses or even attacks, but thought that if there are some from journalists, they would be based on presenting counter-arguments built on facts or at least, some informed opinion. But I received messages from media colleagues like a female veteran who simply told me I hold an original Ph.D. (Pull Her Down).
The greatest shock came from a veteran editor, an old friend whom I regarded as a brother. He simply reduced the debate to insults wrapped in inelegant prose. Again, such low tides in the media are traceable to hunger and an uncertain future.
In the 1990s, I was part of a debate whether the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, should continue its dual status of being both the professional body as well as a trade union. Many senior journalists had beautiful arguments why journalists should rise above involvement in trade unionism and the alleged ‘E sho bey’ (Apes Obey) tradition of the labourer.
Some of us argued that the journalist is first a worker before being a professional, and that all workers whether they sell their mental labour like the journalists does, or their physical labour like the factory worker, are first employees who need and deserve their wages.
That a hungry journalist with mouths to feed at home cannot dutifully carry out his professional duties without compromising his professional ethics or lowering its standards. That entrusting freedom of expression in the hands of such a journalist, is like leaving a gorilla with a loaded AK-47.
True, the Constitution assigns the media the sacred duty to “uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people”, but he cannot carry out such a responsibility if due to hunger, he is in bed with government officials. Some have pointed out that in many cases, editors appointed to positions in government tend to be unprofessional in their duties.
They tend to fire noisy blank bullets at conscientious citizens who hold opinions contrary to that of government as if Nigerians do not have the right to freedom of expression. They point out to some of these former editors who from the sanctuary of power, take aims at religious or society leaders who do not support the policies of the government of the day.
I tend to agree that such journalists are not necessarily hungry, but they suffer from the fear of returning to their poverty origins or are disoriented by the sudden wealth they come into just for spewing nonsense at the public.
But more substantially, a country that assigns the journalist the constitutional role of holding government accountable to the people, should also provide him the means of doing so even if it has to establish a media fund as a first line charge.
Secondly, journalists should be interested in the activities of the NUJ and rescue it from leaders with kwashiorkor ideas who spread unverified and unscientific claims like the 5G network being responsible for the spread of COVID-19. Basically, the rampant cases of non-payment of wages with no creative ways of solving such a fundamental challenge, is the failure of the NUJ.
I admit that the business climate, rising poverty and the emergence of the internet which has led to a mindless proliferation of the media, and many reading newspapers on line, has negatively rubbed off on the mass media, reducing their ability to pay salaries promptly. But this is just a part of the truth.
Some of it is that some media organisations are badly managed and do not consider salary payments a priority. In fact, in the early 1990s when the media was still experiencing a boom, there were profligate employers who simply refused to pay salaries. There was a leading newspaper which preached that a journalist with an identity card does not need salaries.
Another media mogul with huge income, simply believed in spending the organisation’s income oiling his life style. Some years ago when I was in the Nigeria Labour Congress, a President of the NUJ asked me to assist in getting such employers pay salaries. I told him that at no cost to the union, I could go to Lagos, get a minimum 500 workers to picket two of these organisations for a number of days provided he would be present with a sprinkling of journalists.
He told me that would amount to shutting down the media organisations for the days of the picketing. I nodded and told him he has the duty to defend his members. He agreed, but never called me back.
Even now, there are media organisations, particularly in the electronic, which during state and national elections, rake in billions of Naira but would not willing pay salaries. Recently, the American-based journalist, Azuka Jebose, carried out a social media campaign against a media organisation notorious for not paying salaries and pension and abandoning sick staff and families of deceased employees. Quickly, the employer responded positively.
To me, journalists are also suffering the effects of backing away from the struggles to ensure that no Nigerian goes to bed hungry. This is no idealism or about ideology; whether in communist China or the capitalist West, people are given work or the dole to fight hunger.
The journalist, his employer, corporate organisations, government and the Nigerian citizenry need to collaborate in ensuring the survival and good health of the mass media as this would ultimately be beneficial to all.