Nigeria: Calls for ethical revival as corruption infects media
By Lanre Arogundade
The 2011 African Media Barometer (AMB) describes Nigeria’s press as very vibrant “with government-run and privately-owned media outlets vigorously trying to outrun each other for audience and advertising revenue”. It says the private press is aiming to match international standards of quality of production, adding that “with the advent of democracy, journalists and citizens have also become more confident and vocal in expressing their views”.
It is an optimistic view and indeed Nigerian journalism does now have extra but powerful backings for its watchdog role. The constitution obliges the media to make governance responsive and accountable to the citizens while the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) confers on citizens, including journalists, the legally enforceable right to access information held by pubic authorities. These and other transparency laws, including the Public Procurement Act and the Fiscal Responsibility Act, provide legitimate instruments for the media to engage in investigative journalism.
At the same time, the phenomenal growth and increasing pluralism of Nigerian media over the past 20 years should have improved the quality of information and the ability of media to set a public agenda for accountability, transparency and good governance.
Media growth has been particularly rapid in broadcasting. From less than 50 broadcast stations (all Federal and State government owned) across the country before 1992, when the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, liberalised the airwaves, Nigeria now has about 200 radio and television stations, 40 of them private. But by owning up to 160 stations, the balance of broadcast power remains with Federal and State governments. Private newspapers and magazines also flourish with more than 50 published nationally.
Overall the democratic environment is enough for media to surpass its record under military rule, yet 15 years on, some observers believe media has lost vigour and has weakened under democratic rule. The perception is strong that media are as corrupt as some of the public and private institutions they are watching over.
The often cited reason is conflict of interests within Nigerian media causing compromises that whittle down critical journalism. Among the discernible roots of the conflict are ownership issues and excessive commercialisation of news.
Media ownership in Nigeria is of two types – government (public) and private. The sole authority for issuing broadcast license remains the President, which means that licenses are usually issued to cronies of the regime.
The power of advertising disguised as news
State broadcast media, non-commercial and originally totally funded out of state budget, was meant to serve as public service media – although that has never really been the case. Deregulation in 1992 marked the advent of news commercialisation with state media free to seek advertisement revenue.
Commercialisation is so excessive, that even the Nigerian Broadcasting Code is being violated. The code provides that “commercial in news and public affairs programme shall be clearly identified and presented in a manner that shall make them clearly distinguishable from content”.
But a former Director of the National Broadcasting Commission, Dr, Tom Adaba says there is too little to distinguish between the “legitimate sales of airtime for paid messages adjacent to or within breaks in the news”; and “charging news sources for the privilege of covering and relaying their pre-paid views or messages as news”.
He says in the first case, the sponsors buy “the credibility of the newscast and newscasters to confer status by association on their company’s logo, message or product” while in the latter the broadcast station sell “cheaply the integrity of its newscast and newscasters by attesting to the “truth” of the claims of the so-called “sponsor”.
“By also charging and receiving fees by whatever name called, to cover `news’ of company annual conference meeting, weddings, funeral, chieftaincy installation, etc, stations are not only prostituting the integrity of news, they are insulting their audience and breaching the National Broadcasting Code”, Dr. Adaba charges.
Studies reveal that paid-for or commercial news is taking significant airtime in the state media. Professor, Kate Omenugha of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Eastern Nigeria revealed the following from a three-month study of the ratio of commercial news on the Enugu State Broadcasting Service (ESBS), Enugu State, Nigeria in 2007.
Professor Omenugha describes a similar trend in the print media: “In the newspapers, the so called specialised pages of the property, IT and computer businesses and finance pages are prime examples of commercialised spaces. The point is that no attempt is made to let the audience or readers know that these spaces are paid for and they end up holding them as sacred as they would news”.
For revenue drive most Nigerian newspapers have replaced traditional news pages with adverts. Previously front page news would continue on the second and third pages along other important news items, but these pages are now usually occupied by adverts.
The most controversial phenomenon is called wrap-around, wherein the entire front and back pages of a newspaper are occupied by advert. Readers are presented with ‘false’ front/back pages dominated by product or political advertisements.
Former Editor of Thisday and now Publisher of the Online Cable newspaper, Simon Kolawole, said he initially frowned at wrap-around concept: “I initially complained about it until I saw it being used in advanced economies and well-established democracies. I simply shut up”.
The equivalent of the wrap-around in the broadcast media is called the ‘big story’ or the ‘special story’. According to Imoni Amarere, Managing Director News of the African Independent Television (AIT) this is when a company sponsors a particular segment of broadcast news. Such news may not be identified as sponsored but the advertising of the sponsor is normally aired at the beginning or at the end of the bulletin.
Despite reservations, editors favour wrap-around. Funmi Komolafe, Assistant Editor of Vanguard newspapers says though wrap-around might be “a clear case of commercial interest overriding editorial interest”, it should not be discontinued “because it earns the newspaper a lot of money which it cannot get from sales”.
Lekan Otufodunrin, Online Editor of The Nation describes the economic benefit as “attractive and critical to the survival of some publications”. Subject to content, a typical wrap-around attracts up to 40,000 dollars and above. Two pages of normal colour advertising cost far less.
But Amarere warns that attraction to wrap-around could prove fatal if examined from the perspective of a reader: “If I want to buy a newspaper and I see it wrapped around I might not be patient, complete wrap around is not a practice that they can sustain because they will lose readership”.
Editorial independence or commercial interest?
There are darker sides to the commercial or advert over-drive, which the AMB notes is “aided in part by the tough business climate for the media in Nigeria”. The AMB states that “public officials and politicians have found advertising to be a powerful tool in shaping the editorial content to their advantage. By either refusing or granting advertising, government officials often succeed to force the media to promote their agenda”.
Private corporations with deep pockets to pay for advertising are also emboldened to dictate editorial content. Amarere says for editors it is a matter of “making a delicate balance” between editorial independence and commercial interests.
Editors confirm pressure from advertisers. Amarere recalls the compliant by Mobil, a key advertiser and prominent oil producing company against his station.
“We revisited the Bonga oil spill of one and half years earlier and examined the failure to clean up the environment. So we did a story. Mobil does not have an office in any the oil producing areas and there was nobody to speak with us. When we called their head office in Lagos they did not respond.
“So we did a fact finding report which was critical of Mobil. They wrote that we did not give them fair hearing; the news was broadcast in July and they protested in August. But we replied saying we had tried to contact them. They later sent a release on the inaccuracies in our report and we granted them the right of reply”.
Otufodunrin tells of similar experience with Lafarge, a Cement manufacturing that advertises regularly in his newspaper: “The company was not happy about perceived negative reports of how its operations were affecting villagers; they would have preferred we didn’t publish but we gave them enough room to state their own story as generously as possible”.
Another senior editor of a private television, who prefers anonymity, says she and other reporters, were once led by a government agency to a factory where a leading food company was allegedly repackaging expired products for sale. She says the company attempted to bribe them on the spot. As it happens, the story never saw the light of the day in most news mediums where the company happened to be major advertiser. The only station that reported the news did not even mention the concerned company’s name.
Secretary-General of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Leman Shuaibu attests to pressures on media to drop perceived negative stories: “What mostly happens is that when interested persons or groups try to persuade journalists to drop certain stories fail, they go round to the media managers or editors to ensure that such stories never get through. The journalists will only grumble but will never report their superiors for fear of the repercussions”.
Some editors say they adopt a softer tone in publishing critical stories about advertisers. According to General Manager of Radio 1, Lagos, Funke Treasure-Durodola “news cannot be compromised; if it is critical it has probably been covered by our competitors so why play the ostrich? Yes we will include it in our bulletin but probably give it a mild treatment”.
Other prominent forms of commercial interest in the media include public relations’ news which some believe threatens to supplant independent news reporting.
Self-censorship is also widespread. AMB notes that “faced with many threats and pressures from media owners, politicians, advertisers, and even armed groups, Nigerian journalists and editors have found safety in self-censorship”.
“Journalists are aware that running or investigating certain stories could end up in them losing their jobs. Newsrooms sometimes “kill” stories because they are sensitive to certain interests that are closely linked to the publication, such as advertisers and political ‘godfathers’ (a code word for political patrons)”.
Sharp practice and bias that goes beyond advertising
Profit not only drives the news agenda; it wins prizes too. Analysts say that many media and journalist associations are biased in the way they confer awards on individuals and corporations.
In 2007, Thisday newspapers named Oceanic Bank the most improved Bank of the year; in 2009 it named Diamond Bank as the bank of the year, Erastus Akingbola, then Managing Director of Intercontinental Bank, Banker of the year and Guinness Nigeria PLC, company of the year. For 2009, it conferred awards of excellence on seven Governors as best in various categories of governance. Vanguard Newspaper named Intercontinental Bank, the Most Corporate Socially Responsible Bank in Nigeria for the years 2007 and 2008. All these companies are key advertisers and media sponsors.
In 2012, the National Association of Energy Correspondents (NAEC) named Chevron Nigeria Limited as the best Community Development Company of the Year. Same year, League of Airport and Aviation Correspondents (LAAC) conferred an award of excellence on the then Aviation Minister, Princess Stella Adaeze Oduah, (later sacked from the cabinet over allegations of irregular purchase of bullet proof cars) and decorated Dana Air, later involved in a crash, the Most Customer-Friendly Airline in Nigeria.
“The awards are not free, they are for money and anything that comes with a prize has implications”, says Olumide Adeyinka-Fusika, a lawyer. “If a newspaper names a bank as the best bank of the year and the bank is later indicted for corruption, that newspaper will not be willing to publish the story because that will be like passing a vote of no confidence on their own judgement”.
Oceanic and Intercontinental Banks actually collapsed following allegations of malpractices by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
The role of media owners is crucial. They have political and commercial interests and may inspire the conferment of such awards as they influence editorial decisions.
“Editorial independence from owners is difficult to obtain within the Nigerian media landscape. Most owners are also managing directors and even managing editors and so are involved in the development and implementation of editorial policies. In trying to balance editorial credibility of media houses, on the one hand, and the economic interest, and often times their personal agendas, on the other hand, media owners frequently interfere with the daily editorial decision-making process” says AMB.
Other sharp practises include the system of ‘retentions’ whereby news outlets receive regular payment from public officials and politicians to undertake “special reporting projects.” This makes it difficult for the media to play its watchdog role over public authorities. It is common to find “Special Issues” of publications that run, cover-to-cover, sweet-worded reports on an official or particular institution. “A he-who-pays-the piper-calls-the-tune relationship has thus emerged between public authorities and the media in Nigeria”, according to AMB.
Some journalists also work as paid consultants to politicians and businesses thus threatening professionalism. AIT’s Amarere says it is demeaning to journalism as “some of the concerned journalists now work for companies through which they obtain jobs. They cover their track by saying they are staff of this or that company and run offices outside the newsroom. In this situation it is difficult to balance profession with commercial interest”.
The Nation’s Otufodunrin is blunt: “Journalists are not supposed to be favouring one news source above another based on their private dealings. It is unethical and makes it difficult for the readers sometimes to know if what they are reading is the fact or public relations stuff”.
Kolawole of Cable News also rejects consultancy. “I support volunteer work for nonpartisan charities but anything with pecuniary benefit I oppose. This is clearly stated in our Editorial Policy”.
One suggestion from Radio 1’s Treasure-Durodola is that consultancy can be allowed if those concerned take leave of absence from the newsroom and Vanguard’s Komolafe states it could be excused if the journalists are not full time staff. But there is no middle-of-the-road for Amarere: “My view is if you want to practise PR then step out completely and if you want to be a journalist, be one, the two should not be mixed”.
Nevertheless, he criticises media managements who fail in their welfare obligations to employees. “In the past it was just a case of brown envelope, but now journalists become PR men to politicians. This is possibly because some the media outfits are also failing in the duties of ensuring proper and regular remuneration of their staff”.
How ethical journalism suffers from low pay and exploitation
Debate over corruption in the media heats up when linked with poor working conditions. It is alleged that some proprietors have openly wondered why any journalist would bother about salaries when they have meal tickets in the form of their identity cards; meaning that what concerns them is the stories and not how the journalists get them or how they survive.
NUJ’s Shuaibu says working conditions of journalists are inadequate: “Journalists working on fulltime, and as freelancers, are poorly remunerated. They do not enjoy health and safety protection and rarely are covered by insurance. They are not even provided with the necessary equipment to help them protect themselves when there is conflict or civil unrest”.
Journalists try to survive by demanding payment for stories. “They do so through blackmail and this has reached worrisome dimensions” attests Shuaibu.
Media proprietors explain that the economic climate is harsh and inflationary, increasing production cost. Poor electricity supply causes over-reliance and excessive spending on generators; imported newsprint is expensive. Proprietors want waiver on duties for newsprints and other materials arguing that media inputs should be categorised as educational materials. They also complain that low circulation figures, partly arising from stiff online and social media competition affect their economic fortunes.
Shuaibu acknowledges the problems but says it offers no excuse because “even bigger media organisations that earn much revenue are not willing to pay salaries when they are due and some delay these meagre salaries for many months”. He also says forthcoming elections are creating advert-boom. Some broadcast media charge as high as 30,000 dollars for live coverage of party campaigns and other activities.
NUJ therefore urges proprietors to pay staff reasonably competitive wages when they are due “to keep journalists on the ethical path”.
But Kolawole does not agree that higher pay will automatically stop corrupt editorial practices because media also reflects wider societal corruption: “Corruption affects every facet of life in Nigeria, from the clergy to the lay. The media are corrupt too. I will not lie or pretend about that, but I see it as the Nigerian problem. No sector or segment stands out. Even NGOs and charities are involved”.
Kolawole might be right, but others say the media shares much of the blame. When media scholar, Oladokun Omojola’s discussed with nine Nigerian news consumers from diverse background on the relationship between media and corruption, they opined that:
- Poverty persists because of public sector corruption;
- If media performed watchdog role, corruption would not have reached current levels;
- The media fail to criticise government where they risk losing advertisements;
- As long as media favour commercialism over public interest, corruption will continue to rise.
A search for solutions through transparency and fair dealing
Diverse solutions are being proposed to tackle hydra-headed corruption in the Nigerian media.
- Better pay and conditions: The need to improve journalists’ welfare through decent pay and regular payment of wages. NUJ wants a Journalists’ Welfare Act to criminalise non-payment of salaries. In 2012 a forum of media stakeholders convened by the International Press Centre adopted a Memorandum of Understanding on journalists’ welfare.
- A New Code of Ethics: The NUJ is spearheading a review of the journalists’ code of ethics incorporating a bill of rights and sanctions for violations.
- Press Ombudsman: In 2009, the Newspaper Proprietor’s Association of Nigeria (NPAN) supported by Nigerian Guild of Editors established an ombudsman to adjudicate on complaints about ethical violation.
- Strengthening the Law: The Media Network on the Review of the 1999 Constitution requested the National Assembly to make media watchdog role legally enforceable while responsibility for issuing broadcast license should move from presidency to parliament.
Also on the agenda are demands for media owners to be more transparent by publicly declaring their political and commercial interests.
Both Amarere and Otufodunrin say consumers will know where to draw the line and it will give more power. Komolafe adds that it “will enlighten the reader on the interest of the owners while the regulatory authorities will decide whether to register such a media organisation or not.”
Shuaibu, NUJ scribe says “media houses will do well to disclose their interest, both politically and otherwise. This will make it easier for journalists to decide whether they share same views and whether they can work for that organisation or not.”
However, Kolawole believes owners’ bias is already known: “We know their political interests. Nigerian media are largely owned or controlled by politicians. “Even in the history of Nigerian media, politicians, activists and nationalists were the pioneers. We knew their political interests. That didn’t stop anything. More so, who can afford to set up a big media house today if not a politician or a business man or woman with strong political links? It’s a tight corner”.
Kolawole urges both public support and more media more commitment to professionalism: “If millions of Nigerians buy newspapers, the working conditions will improve”. He proposes better management of advertising revenue through priority for staff welfare while “every media outfit must reorient journalists on the values and principles of their profession and apply sanctions for violations of ethics”
Otufodunrin urges journalists to be more professional and avoid self-censorship. Komolafe seeks something stronger — a law “that could make media owners lose their license if found guilty by a court of law of influencing editorial decisions for political and commercial influence and criminalise non-payment of salaries”.
Nigerian journalism is taking up the challenge. Growing calls for more professionalism changes the mood; pointing to a future for ethical journalism.