Deep rot in Nigeria

Newspaper reporters in Nigeria frequently demand payments just to turn up to press conferences. The rot in the business runs so deep it’s almost impossible to tell what is fact, as a new generation of web-based ‘citizen journalists’is revealing.

Omoyele Sowore, a representative of the US and UK-based website Saharareporters.com, tells why they started the website early last year. ‘It was just too shameful. You would notice obvious flaws in interviews conducted by major newspapers; they are usually devoid of the hard questions. It looked as if the big men write out their own interview questions, answer them and pass them on to the newspapers, radio and TV stations. And it was clear that journalists had become caught up in the rat race for illegitimate wealth.”

In its mildest form, press releases are published almost verbatim. Reporters either have an agreement with the government media men and are ‘settled’with money, or threatened they will not be paid what is known as ‘qua”, or ‘mobilisation”. Some papers don’t pay salaries, and journalists have to make what they can on commission. One newspaper publisher, when handing out an ID card to new staff, reportedly tells them: ‘Look after this, it’s your bread and butter.’

In its more malevolent form, journalists are all but owned by powerful men. Sowore points to the case of former presidential aide Andy Uba, recently removed as governor of Anambra by the Supreme Court. Saharareporters published documentary evidence he had not graduated with his first degree. ‘But some in the press still call him Dr Uba,’said Sorowe.

Newspapers have a straight conflict of interest, they are financially reliant on political adverts, full-page colour hagiographies to governors and other political players. Last year, one paper alone took an estimated £270,000 in advertisements on one edition from supporters of former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, celebrating his birthday.

Many newspapers are also owned by the elite. In July, Nigeria’s Sun newspaper had its assets frozen when its owner, the former governor of a south-eastern state, was arrested on corruption charges.

Can the new citizen journalists be trusted to be free of political influence? There has been one obvious blip in the new media reporter’s rise. Another site, Elendureports.com, incorrectly reported during the election that Umaru Yar’Adua, the ruling party candidate, died in Germany while having a medical check-up. Elendureports.com did not want to comment, but in Sowore’s opinion its credibility was not damaged. He said: ‘In some regard, those who pushed the news to us were PDP people, who, I suspect, were doing so to test the mood of the nation, and damage the media.’

Saharareporters.com waited for confirmation and didn’t publish the incorrect story. Being based abroad helps it to get hold of documents that sources would be reluctant to give to local journalists. Sorowe said: ‘They are afraid that the journalists might use the materials to blackmail and extort money from their targets or turn them in entirely.’It also means they can’t be harassed or shut down by the police.

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