The baby and the bath water

By Ray Ekpu   |   29 December 2015   |   4:00 am  

NewspaperSOME people are not only barking at but also actually biting the apex body of the watchdog institution. The watchdog institution is the press and the apex body is the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN). A combination of the bark and the bite can do incalculable harm to this huge umbrella that has shielded the press from biting sun and torrential rain in the past. I, therefore, ask the combatants not to throw away the baby with the bath water.

What are the facts of the matter? Between June 6 and June 8, 2014 some military men and state security personnel impounded newspapers belonging to members of the NPAN in Abuja, Oyo, Ondo, Edo, Ekiti, Delta, Niger, Kogi, Kano, Kaduna, Plateau, Benue, Imo, and Enugu states among others. The newspaper owners suffered losses in sales and advert revenue and in business goodwill.

The military authorities claimed that they got information that newspaper vans were used in carrying arms and bomb making materials. And in spite of their elaborate searches and seizures, they found no arms and no bomb-making materials. This serious allegation, it turned out, had no basis in fact. This is always the prelude, in this country, to something devious. Remember it is the same arms allegation that they made against Dele Giwa before he was knocked off. It was appropriate for the newspapers to think that the government was probably planning something sinister against the press and was using the arms false alarm for its action.

The newspaper owners were contemplating multiple litigation against the security agencies and the Federal Government. The President, Goodluck Jonathan, decided to step in and resolve the matter. He invited the NPAN executives to a meeting at the State House, Marina, Lagos, on June 12, 2014. At the meeting, the President apologised for the infraction of press freedom and the loss of money by the publishers. At that meeting, the Federal Government and the NPAN agreed to settle the matter out of court. The NPAN members were to be paid compensation for their losses. Members were requested to submit a statement of their losses for consideration. Some submitted a claim of a few thousand naira while some others quoted theirs in hundreds of millions of naira. With no easy way to verify these claims the NPAN leadership accepted the offer of a flat rate of N10 million per affected newspaper. For the 12 newspapers the total came to N120 million.

At the meeting with the President, there were three schools of thought (a) some members thought the matter should end there since the President had apologised for the infraction (b) others thought they should still go to court (c) the majority thought forgiveness was out of the question and that litigation would be long, costly and time consuming. This group won the day. They preferred a reasonable settlement by way of compensation. Of course, going by the way decisions are taken at meetings those who preferred compensation were in the majority. That position, therefore, became the position of the NPAN even if some of the other members disagreed with that decision. They were bound by the philosophy of collective responsibility, to accept it and not kick against it publicly. That is the golden rule of meetings. When you join an association, you invariably surrender part of your individuality and part of your sovereignty to the organisation. That is the only way organisations can work seamlessly. Of course, even though the decision on compensation had been taken those who did not support the idea had a right to opt out of the sharing arrangement. Their decision in that respect must be respected.

I believe that the decision to accept compensation was correct. Compensation is the equivalent of a fine paid by the Army and the Government which can be sited in future as evidence of their bad behaviour. Secondly, no institution must be allowed to unlawfully disrupt people’s businesses and walk away without being punished for such irresponsible behaviour. This can lead to impunity. Thirdly, the idea of going to court was good but the court process here goes on forever. And even if you win in court, the Federal Government never pays. My colleagues in Newswatch and I won a case of illegal detention against the Federal Government nearly 20 years ago, the government never appealed against the judgment and never paid the fine. As you read this, that fine remains unpaid.

Some critics are concerned that the money was paid by the office of the National Security Adviser particularly since as of today that office smells very badly. I suspect the money was paid from there because the Army and DSS were the culprits. But how was the NPAN to know where the money came from? In any case, does anybody who is being owed money ever ask the debtor where the money he is being paid came from? Even if the NPAN knew the source of the money, why should that matter to it since the President was aware of the transaction and could direct any appropriate agency to fund the project.

I decided to participate in this inconvenient conversation like a dove with the peace reed for three reasons. One, I had the privilege of being both the Secretary General and President of the NPAN some years ago. Two, I have 42 years of professional practice packed under my belt and I plan to go nowhere. Three, I am proud of the heroic fights that the NPAN had fought on many fronts for the profession. Without the NPAN, the profession would have been possibly crushed by various military governments. I wish that no division should deprive the profession of the wisdom and selflessness of those who have managed the affairs of the NPAN since its birth on December 16, 1962, in the office of the West African Pilot in Yaba, Lagos.

Some of the epic fights include those against the mass media commission and press court of the Abacha era, the licensing of newspapers aka registration, proscription of media outfits and illegal detention of journalists, unscrupulous beat associations, imposition of value added tax on newspaper cover price, in addition to the tax on publishing inputs, Decree 4 enacted by the Buhari government when he was a military dictator and various other battles for press freedom.

Worthy of note is its establishment of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ) which in later years fell into the hands of a ruthless, avaricious cabal that stole the place dry and ran it aground. The NPAN waged a relentless battle for several years to retrieve the carcass of the institution from the teeth of this monstrous cabal. Now that institution is one of the pre-eminent journalism monotechnics in the country, a great dispenser of journalism skills.

I was saddened by the fact that the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) had decided against conventional and unconventional wisdom to sink its teeth into a matter that it knows little about. Worse of all, it did not seek to crosscheck from its senior partners the veracity or otherwise of the information thrown into the public space by various combatants. I wonder also whether they did not consider the incongruity of employees (NGE) attacking their employers (NPAN) in public. On the other hand, the NPAN has never, as far as I know, confronted the NGE in public even though it makes its own mortal mistakes. That is also why the respectable carriage of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) in this matter is worthy of commendation.

The truth is that the NPAN is the leader of this industry. The NPAN president is the President of the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO). The NPO comprises NUJ, NGE and the NPAN.

Of the three organisations, the NGE is the most fragile. I was one of those who contested for the presidency of the NGE in Minna, Niger State in 1982 when the NPAN bought over the Guild. From that day, the Guild died and never resurrected until 10 years later. A few years ago, in Ibadan there was a tense atmosphere with respect to the Guild elections. I had to summon the elders of the profession to a meeting. With their wisdom, we saved the Guild from premature death. And this year at Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, the Guild nearly broke into bits because of elections. I was the chairman of the election panel and had to summon various elders of the profession to a series of meetings to save the Guild. The wisdom of the elders and my refusal to succumb to all kinds of ethnic and regional pressures saw us through that difficult period. So how can an organisation that has been saved several times by its elders who are members of the NPAN be sniping at the feet of its benefactors? Apparently, they have never heard of espirit de corps or they simply want to prove to Nigerians that they are an organisation that is independent and can tweak the beards of their bosses.

Of the three organisations, the NPAN is the most stable. It has its own problems from time to time but it finds the wisdom and the courage to deal with them and move on with its life. It is amazing that this 53 year-old organisation has only had eight presidents: Lateef Jakande, James Olu Aboderin, Segun Osoba, Moshood Abiola, Ismaila Isa, Ray Ekpu, Ajibola Ogunshola and Nduka Obaigbena, while Sam Amuka, that fountain of wisdom, has remained its life president. That is stability.

People in the media believe in robust debate. Their profession calls for the robust exchange of wit and argumentation even in matters that affect them. They also assume a moral high ground and believe that like Caesar’s wife everybody should be above reproach otherwise the public may say “physician heal thyself.” Fair enough.

My appeal to everyone involved in this conversation is: Sheath your swords now and think of the greater benefit of a united NPAN so that we do not, out of arrogance or a sense of higher moral superiority, make the mistake of throwing away the baby with the bathwater.



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