KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY MR. AKPANDEM JAMES, FNGE, AT THE 2019 AWARD CEREMONY OF THE CORRESPONDENTS’ CHAPEL, AKWA IBOM STATE CHAPER.
Let me start by appreciating members of the Correspondents’ Chapel for organizing this all important event. I am not aware this has been done before but if it has, then this would still pass for a befitting follow-up to a worthwhile initiative. It feels good to felicitate with a group that one had the privilege of being a pioneer executive member.
Distinguished gentlemen, I was asked to speak on the topic: “The Correspondents’ Chapel: The past, the present and the future.” The topic suggests a perspective look at the Correspondents’ Chapel in the past, as it is now and what it would or should look like in the future. I therefore have to put myself in the mould of a historian, a participant and a seer to execute the assignment. I will start by saying that within the media context. Correspondents simply are journalists who cover beats and send their materials to the newsroom from their locations. You can call them Beat Reporters. The beat may be a specialised sector or a geo-political entity like a state.
Therefore the Correspondents’ chapel, within the context of this presentation, is a gathering of journalists practicing outside the headquarters of their media organizations. However, being part of the wider journalism community, the activities and expectations of media correspondents within a chapel setting cannot be looked at in isolation of the broader prism of journalism practice. Since the topic has some historical and futuristic requirements, I would touch as briefly as time will permit on the general perspective while keeping an eye on the evolutionary trajectory of the Akwa Ibom State chapter.
The Correspondents Chapel in Akwa Ibom State; Activities towards the formation of the Correspondent’s Chapel in Akwa Ibom State started shortly after the creation of the state in 1987, when correspondents of some national and regional media organizations started converging on the newly created state. Some came in from Cross River State, from where the new state was carved out, and others were pioneers from print and broadcast media which took advantage of the new state to set up offices or deploy correspondents.
A good number of the correspondents representing national and regional media outfits were still covering activities in the state from Calabar; but by the time the chapel was fully on stream in 1990, organizations like Daily Times, National/Community Concord, The Punch, New Nigerian, Champion, The Guardian, Vanguard, The Nigerian Tribune, The Statesman, Nigerian Chronicle, Nigerian Tide, National Outlook, The Ambassador, Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Radio Nigeria, News Agency of Nigeria and Federal Ministry of Information, among, others had announced their presence in Uyo.
While the state-owned media organizations which were hurriedly put in place were consolidating, there was an urgent need to form a rallying point for those whose outfits were located outside the state. Most of the correspondents had no offices and had to operate from the Government House Press Centre. There was the need to give the practice in the state some vitality, which only the correspondents could do at the time; but much more than that, there was a greater need to protect each other from the angry eyes of the establishment and the nagging sentiments of their fellow practitioners in the local press.
Although, because of their numerical strength, the chairman of the state council of the umbrella body of Journalists in the country, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), was always from state-owned organs, it was the correspondents that gave impetus to the body, in the state. It continued to be the sole energy of the practice in the state until the birth of local private media outfits. The respect that the state government had for the body was largely because of the correspondents’ disposition to professional practice.
It bears recalling, that given the scenario which greeted the new state, the people became very protective and saw every uncomplimentary story as an attempt to rubbish the government and destroy the new state. Paranoia ruled the space. Operating in the state as a correspondent at that time became tricky and choking, especially if journalist was an indigene. Choking because while the correspondents were trying to keep to professional ethics and policy direction of their respective organizations, government officials as well as self-seeking individuals and groups assumed that blind patriotism should be the basis for journalism practice and reporting. It bordered largely on sentiments! For them journalism should be devoid of criticisms; and reporting should strictly be what the governor or senior government functionary said or did officially.
So there was need for a rallying point to ensure that the individual journalist covering activities in the state was not unduly harassed. It was also to ensure that charlatans do not hijack the practice operating as free agents. By the time the chapel was inaugurated, there was a substantial presence of correspondents on ground. The following, who can be referred to as the pioneers, were already reporting from Uyo for their respective organizations:
Mr. John Nwanjo – Daily Times
Mr. Anietie Ukpe – National/Community Concord
Mr. Akpandem James – The Punch,
Mr. Victor Attai – New Nigerian,
Mr. Akanimo Sampson – Champion
Mr. Aniekan Bassey – The Guardian
Mr. Paul Bassey – Vanguard
Mr. Aniefiok Okpokang – Nigerian Tribune
Mr. Innocent Kalu – The Statesman
Mr. Udeme Afia – Nigerian Tide
Mr. Idongesit Ekpot – National Outlook
Mr. Joe Effiong – The Ambassador
Mr. Israel Ajuazunor – Radio Nigeria
Mr. Bassey Udo – Federal Ministry of Information
Mr. Usen Nta – NTA
Mr. Ebenezer Udoeyop – News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
Mr. Akinola/Chuks Apotuzor – News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
Chief Effiong Odiong – The Chronicle
Mr. Bonny Nyong – Daily Star
The Pioneer principal officers of the chapel were:
Anietie Ukpe – Chairman
Akpandem James – Secretary
Idongesit Ekpot – Treasurer
Just as it is today, the problem we had then was the calibre of those who carried pen and paper to cover and report events from the state. It is a national malaise and has been one of the most troubling features in the practice of journalism in Nigeria. That is why there is always a question mark as to whether the NUJ is a professional body, because a good number of its members cannot pass the simple test of professionalism. Although it can be argued that journalism in Nigeria is a profession, because it has met all the five attributes that should qualify it to be, the business cannot honestly be said to be entirely driven by professionals.
Even as there is a code of ethics for practitioners, there seem to be no defined criteria for engagement and no certified license forpractice. Again, unlike the broadcast industry that is somehow regulated, the print is an all-comers affair. Anyone can set up a shop and print his fancy. He engages those he can pay and arm them with pen and recorders; and call them journalists. They eventually become members of the NUJ, and even contest elections and become officials of the union.
During our time in the state, even though we could not stop the ‘print-shops’ from recruiting pseudo writers, we tried to ensure that those hirelings did not have a free ride within the Correspondents’ Chapel. At a point we did not only stop them from attending chapel events, we ensured they did not represent the chapel at the state council level. We tried to instil sanity into the business of journalism in the state, bearing in mind always that ‘the indigene is always conscious of the community’s integrity; it is the settler that wallows in impunity’. Our disposition brought some positive results because some of them returned to the classroom to be better suited for the practice.
The Correspondents and society’s expectations
The Correspondents’ chapel represents the independent press at the state level because members do not belong to organs owned or supervised by the local authorities – public or private. The independent press, as it were, has a responsibility of keeping the government on it toes and holding it to account, without necessarily being antagonistic. Antagonism here means going out of the professional boundaries to unnecessarily attack persons or institutions under the pretext of exercising freedom of the press. It also has the responsibility of mirroring the society and ensuring that the norms and values of society are not trampled upon by men of power and deviant elements.
Yes, the Constitution provides for freedom of the Press to practice; but that freedom comes with responsibility, it is by no means absolute. There is nowhere in the world that freedom is absolutely free – it either comes at some cost or with some responsibility; in the case of the press, social responsibility. Even in the Nigerian Constitution there are other freedoms enshrined also; so you cannot use your own freedom to deny others of theirs. It is a matter of mutual exercise of freedoms such that the exercise of your freedom does not become some other person’s yoke or put others in bondage. It must be said here that some practitioners step out of bounds and engage in malicious narratives just to hit someone or to be seen as brave and courageous. Courage in journalism is the capacity to publish the truth professionally, no matter who is involved. Publishing outright falsehood and hitting below the belt cannot pass for courage.
Some time ago journalists craved for excellence through professional and factual presentations; but sadly today we have a number of them who just want to be notorious. They terrorise their targets and use very unprofessional language in their narratives. The journalist, first and foremost, is supposed to mirror the society and not to assume the responsibility of a judge. His primary duty is to put the facts out there and let the society be the judge. There is a marked difference between presentation of News and voicing out an Opinion. For News it is facts as are available, without embellishments or being judgmental; but an opinion piece could be the feeling of the writer based on his frame of reference. Opinion is different also from Analysis. Verifiable materials form the basis of a sound analysis which follows from a well-founded premise to a logical conclusion. News analysis is not supposed to be based on hearsay or conjectures, but on concrete materials regarding the issue at stake. The saying “Facts are sacred, opinions free” is sacrosanct in this regard.
There must be a clear difference between those who take pleasure in writing from personal dispositions (not based on facts and reasonable ideas) and journalists whose writings must be based on facts and sound reasoning.
We may not like it, but truth must be told in spite of the expected misgivings, that a good number of today’s journalists are professionally lazy. Reading through some published materials you would wonder whether they were actually written by journalists; and most disheartening, whether they ever passed through any fellow who carries the tag of an editor. The language often times is very uninspiring and the presentation very unbecoming. A good number of today’s practitioners lack a sense of interrogation and exist more or less as conveyor belts. Some hardly chew issues; they just swallow them hook, line and sinker. Attributions are as pedestrian as they come and generalisation has become the order of the day, even in some of the most highly rated organs. Opinions of individuals are now taken as the sacrosanct position of a group, organization or government simply because the giver of the opinion is a member of, or is associated with the entity in issue. There no longer is the sanctity of a legitimate authority.
It is common knowledge that the media ecosystem has changed with the pervasiveness of technology and invasion by pests and charlatans who believe that having a by-line on a rag-sheet makes them journalists. These charlatans invade the media space with pamphlets they mistake for newspapers; and the society sadly is condemned to consuming junk in place of news. These pamphleteers walk the space like dinosaurs, terrorising targets that do not kow-tow to their whims. They even threaten the existence of the mainstream media; and of course they themselves journalists. They have no business with the code of professional practice, and most of them do not know what it is all about. They do not even care whether it exists.
This crop of story tellers and fable peddlers are largely made up of opportunists and attack dogs hired by politicians and other vested interests to deal with whatever they see as opposition or enemy. They exploit the gullibility and sentimentality of the masses to feather their mercantile or hate enterprise. It is bad enough that they call themselves journalists; unfortunately the society sees them as such, because they also use instruments of mass communication. Some engage in self-adulation and sadly some are in fact celebrated by a disgruntled or sentimental segment of society.
It is also worthy of note that in recent times, when placed on a measuring scale of news concept, the gulf in choice, style and direction of reporting seem to be getting wider between the government-owned organs and the independent press. The concept of selectivity plays at the premier league of news reporting; but Correspondents have a duty to also always give the other side of the story, no matter how unpleasant. The core considerations should, of course, be the facts of the matter and the quality of presentation.
The journalist has a sacred duty to advance the society. If we go more than six decades back, we will realise that although many variables contributed to the realization of Nigeria’s independence, the role played by particularly the independent press, more than any other, was largely instrumental to its speedy attainment. Sometimes, to evade responsibility, today’s journalists will claim that that was in the pre-independence era, but it can also be argued that though Nigeria had gained independence from the colonialists, the people are still not free from some kind of internal colonization foisted by operators of state apparatus, vested interests and their cronies. The press still has a cardinal responsibility to salvage the people from the current grind through probing and professional reporting. It has an enviable task to positively shape the society.
As it was in the past, so it is still today and might roll into the future if nothing drastic is done to halt it. You have all sorts of characters hanging around the corridors of journalism with writing and recording instruments, pretending to be reporting issues and events. It is unfortunate that not much is being done to properly regulate the practice, but professionals have to urgently and deliberately salvage their trade from charlatans. They have to show the difference and let it manifest through the discipline of practice and thoroughness of delivery.
At the sub national level, members of the Correspondents’ Chapel must set the pace in professional reporting and critical analysis; and hold public office holders accountable and in the process drive purposeful growth and development of the society. Correspondents have that very responsibility because if they don’t, the pamphleteers would occupy one half of the spectrum spewing tantrums while the establishment media will take the other spectrum wallowing in a cacophony of praise-singing. Although the society becomes the ultimate loser, the professional journalist must have lost his integrity in the melee.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you for your attention and really relish this opportunity.
Uyo, November 1, 2019
Mr. Akpandem James is a Fellow of Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE.