Nigeria: Agenda for the Nge

opinion

Since its birth in 1962 the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) has had a chequered history, as chequered as the history of Nigeria. When Alhaji Lateef Jakande and Co met in 1962 to found the Guild the idea was to provide a rallying forum for the editorial leaders in our profession so that, together, they could have a professional path for their industry's growth. Nigeria had just emerged from the cauldron of colonialism and the country needed the support of leaders in the various professions to grow. So the birth of the Guild was timely but it seemed to be something close to a still-birth because the coup of 1966 dampened the enthusiasm of those nationalists who were looking forward to a glorious period of civilian governance. The 1966 crisis degenerated into a civil war that lasted for 30 months with the principle of fair journalism trampled upon by the imperatives of war propaganda. In 1977, the Olusegun Obasanjo Military Government imposed on the country a draconian Press Council Decree which the media, led by the NGE, rejected and rendered impotent. In 1982, the Guild had its conference in Minna, Niger State. I was Editor of Sunday Times and a Presidential Candidate. On the other side was Alhaji Ibrahim, the Director General of the NTA who only became a registered member of the Guild at that conference. Alhaji Umaru Dikko, the NPN Minister of Transport who bankrolled Ibrahim's campaign wanted to put the Guild in his pocket. We resisted him and his party. That is how the Guild died for 10 years until Mr. Onyema Ugochukwu and a few other editors revived it in 1992. We also had Major General Muhammadu Buhari's obnoxious Decree Four, General Ibrahim Babangida's two Press Council Decrees, Sani Abacha's draconian Mass Media Commission and Press Court. With a lot of support from the Newspaper Proprietors' Association of Nigeria (NPAN) and civil society groups, the NGE and the press generally survived the massive fire power of the various military dictators, even though a number of editors were recklessly and unlawfully thrown into jail and media houses padlocked. Since our return to democratic rule in 1999 the challenges have been no less daunting: seizures of printed newspapers, arrest and detention of Journalists and damage of photographers' cameras.

And more recently there has been an attempt to introduce death penalty for hate speech and a refurbished Press Council bill with plenty of teeth. As if we were all sleep-working one of us, Jones Abiri, was locked up for two years by the DSS, yes two years, without trial. And when we woke up from that slumber we noticed that soldiers had invaded the offices of the Daily Trust and packed their equipment and men into detention. All these have happened under our very eyes in a democratic setting that we fought for. So the public is right to think that the Guild, has over the years, been more concerned with bread and butter issues than defending Press freedom and responsibility and fighting for the enthronement of the rule of law and accountable governance. As we write, Sambo Dasuki, former National Security Adviser and Zakzaky, a Shite Leader, have been in detention for years despite several court judgements including ECOWAS Court, offering them bail. And now an election controversy is threatening to mess up the image of the Guild. But the Guild can bounce back to reckoning if it decides to move away from the customary routinisation of its activities. I intend to make a few suggestions for the Guild's Executive to chew on.

One, the Guild must amend its constitution to create a level playing field for everybody who is a member. It was a mistake, a sad mistake, to create a category of membership called Associate Members. Associate members are usually student members who can graduate to full members on graduation and entry into the world of work. For me, once you are a member, you are a member forever. You cannot be downgraded, you can only be upgraded to a Fellow. All members including Fellows should have the right to vote and be voted for once they meet all financial obligations and have no disciplinary case against them. Two, the attempt to exclude certain persons, especially the older members from the affairs of the Guild is discriminatory and unacceptable. Instead, we should create the office of Membership Secretary whose duty will be to fish out persons in the media and academia who can be inducted as members. The lawyers have enriched their professional cadre by making Professors of Law, Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN). Why can't we make professors of Mass Communication, Members and Fellows of the Guild? There are also many seniors in our profession who are not very visible today but whose contributions to the affairs of the Guild would still be appreciated. We should woo them into our fold. We need their experience, clout and the credibility they can bring to the Guild.

Three, there must be rigorous training programmes every year for our editors. We don't necessarily need to send the editors abroad. We can, with the support of the Embassies, bring experts in certain fields from Britain, Canada, United States and especially India where the newspapers are still flourishing despite the presence of digital media. It would be nice to know what magic they perform to get the readers asking for more. Bringing experts here will provide an opportunity for many editors to be trained at once without any long period of absence from their work.

Four, an editor's work is knowledge based. The Guild ought to establish a Research and Book Committee whose responsibility will be (a) to bring to the attention of editors research findings from within and abroad on journalism and related subjects (b) To commission the publication of books and monographs on appropriate journalism and related subjects with a possible collaboration with the departments of Mass Communication of some of our Universities. This merger between town and gown will be mutually beneficial.

Five, Media convergence is a reality today. But it does appear that it is the mainstream media that are holding the short end of the stick. Part of the reason for this is that the mainstream media in Nigeria woke up a bit late to the prospect of their losing their hitherto faithful clientele. They failed to realise, early, that the demographics of their consumers had changed so the publishing paradigm had to shift. Also, the various technological devices available in the market have changed the way communication messages are consumed and the business is conducted today. But there is still room for the mainstream media to do better in what the digital media are doing. People still desire factual and credible information and the prevalence of fake news in several of the digital platforms creates room for seekers after the truth to crawl back to the mainstream media. Fake news is largely the province of those called citizen journalists who do not have the thoroughness, the professional and ethical values of well established mainstream media. In the last one year, Muhammadu Buhari, Wole Soyinka, Ernest Shonekan and several other prominent people have been killed and buried by these irresponsible one-person platforms but as you know they are still alive.

Six, when I was Editor of the Nigerian Chronicle in the late 70s the State Government owned newspaper was selling 100,000 copies a day. When I became Editor of the Sunday Times in the early 80s we were selling more than 500,000 copies every week. Today, all the newspapers in Nigeria with Nigeria's population being in excess of 200 million are not selling up to 10 million copies daily and no newspaper is selling up to 200,000 copies daily. The readership on various platforms has gone up but the buyership is low so the publisher is the loser. Advertisement has also gone to a number of online platforms apparently because they can reach many people across frontiers quickly and they are relatively cheaper. So the mainstream media led by the NGE must restrategise and find creative ways of taking its own share of the big market. We have many more educated people today than two decades ago but the disposable income has shrunk. There has also been a fall in the standard of education and in the reading habit of young Nigerians. So I think the Guild should commission a study on what Nigerians are reading or viewing what they want to read, or view and work on various strategies to improve the reading culture of young Nigerians. This can be done in collaboration with education enthusiasts, NGOs and Foundations whose objectives are education-related.

The Guild must be seen as an institutional group of thinkers and thought leaders perpetually in search of new knowledge for the improvement of its practice. In the United States today two Universities are teaching what is called Drone Journalism. The University of Nebraska has a Lincoln drone Journalism Lab which it started in 2011 while the University of Missouri Drone Journalism programme was started in February 2013. In both Universities, students are taught the basics of flying drone aircraft for story gathering and reporting. Even though these programmes are largely experimental at the moment, this is an indication that technology is giving journalism a shot in the arm. If we can't grapple with Drone Journalism in Nigeria today, we can at least pay attention to doing a few things that are transcendental to our practice. To do better than we are doing today, we must be in diligent search for new knowledge individually and collectively with the NGE as the path breaker and moving spirit.

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