On April 11, 2020, the Chairman of the Lagos State Chapter of the Nigerian Union of Journalists, Dr. Qasim Akinreti sent out a write up calling attention of the public to the deplorable and dehumanising conditions under which journalists in Lagos State are working to provide timely, relevant and up-to-date information on the fight against the COVID 19 pandemic in Nigeria. It is believed that the save our soul call was done on behalf of Nigerian journalists using Lagos as a focus.
In the open letter, Dr. Akinreti first reminded the public of the nature of the job that is done by journalists. He said “journalists, like health workers, soldiers, Policemen, and other Security Agents, are integral part of essential service providers globally.” He further pointed to the essential products that are outcomes of journalists’ activities. He said they provide daily reports, analysis, interviews, public messages, documentaries and breaking news sometimes live at scheduled times on terrestrial, satellite and even social media platforms. In the fight against the novel virus, journalists make sure the information yearning of people is fulfilled by gathering, processing and making such available on the pages of newspapers, websites and even social media platforms.
However, he lamented the conditions under which journalists work especially during this pandemic. He said “despite these sacrifices, journalists in Lagos are hounded, harassed and disgraced by the security agencies. A studio manager of Voice of Nigeria was arrested on his way to the broadcasting station in ikoyi and later released after my intervention through the assistance of the police hierarchy in Lagos.”He further narrated “the Judiciary Correspondents were harassed during the coverage of Funke Akindele and his group arraignment in Court. The Journalists were even denied coverage of the court trial of Mr Gbadamosi and others. I was inundated with a series of harassment of my members and I also had a dose of high handedness of the security agents on my way to and from Seme Border and Badagry town.” As posited in the earlier paragraphs, that situation is not limited to journalists in Lagos alone. It is national. In Akure, a member of staff of NTA Akure was brutalized by men of 32 Artillery Brigade, Owena Cantonment, Akure in Ondo State. There were reports too of other harassment and even torture on the course of duty.
Despite the harassment, he decried the deliberate exemption of journalists from palliative efforts distributed to vulnerable Nigerians. To this, Akinreti said “it is rather unfortunate that the following people and corporate organisations have contributed the following to COVID – 19 pandemic taskforce across the country and forget the Journalists who announced and published the huge sums.” He then called to action veteran journalists such as Chief Segun Osoba, Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, Lade Bunuola , Ayo Akinkuotu, Dr Okey Ikechukwu, Dr Reuben Abati, and Prince Uthman Shodipe. He appealed that these senior journalists should come to the aid of the suffering Nigerian journalists.
One saddening thing in the open letter is the appeal to state governors across Lagos, Ogun, Kaduna, Kano, Rivers, Oyo, Akwa Ibom and Enugu to extend their philanthropic hands to journalists. The question is that if those who are supposed to keep these governors on their toes are beneficiaries of their largesse, will public trust in the journalists and their platforms not be jeopardised? He highlighted the meagre efforts of the Lagos NUJ to feed members in the newsrooms and provide sanitizer. Again, the question is if journalists in Lagos are having this kind of experience, how much more of others in Abia, Anambra, Osogbo and Zamfara. The neglect of journalists is across board and on a national scale.
What could be more pathetic and dehumanizing than the refusal of media organisation and owners to pay salaries of the journalists. According to him, “available statistics have shown that in Lagos, media owners, Specifically from The Champion, Vanguard Newspapers, This Day Newspapers, including DAAR Communications have failed woefully to pay salaries as at when due and fulfilled basic economic rights of Journalists.” What a way to treat those expected to say the truth and consider the public interest at all times? Specifically, Akinreti identified the culprits who are fond of owing salaries. “The Champion newspapers owner , Chief Emmanuel Nwayanwu, a leading political figure and an industrialist is owing journalists in his stable over 64 months of salaries and other emoluments.
Very disturbing, after he sold the “The Champion house”, he could not pay off our members. Her daughter equally has the effrontery to carry on the newspaper business secretly in the Ajao Estate without paying salaries too. She organized a media award sometimes last month to deceive Nigerians of social services, the Lagos NUJ was there to disrupt the event.”, he revealed. He further noted “we are even shocked that one of the best union friendly newspapers in Nigeria, The Vanguard could not pay salaries for about 6 months now. The management has continued to engage the union on resolving the problem.” He observed that “the story of This Day Newspapers will shock everyone, with huge profits made by the company and expansion to other areas of the media, salaries are not paid regularly until it is accumulated for months and later cleared.”
He was disappointed “despite the huge profits from political coverage in the time past, currently, DAAR Communications cannot meet basic economic needs of our members. Today, some retired members of the DAAR Communications are in court to claim their entitlements.” If this horrendous practice is thought to have been limited to private media owners, one would be surprised to also learn that “many Journalists have become veterans of poor status and suffering in silence. The retirement benefits of members in the Radio Lagos/Eko FM and Lagos Television are yet to be paid.” Yet again, the experience is not localized to Lagos alone, it is what journalists experience across the nation. This is a complete disregard for the respect and self-dignity of those that are manning the information superhighway. How could we justify the maltreatment being meted out to the men of the Fourth Realm of the Estate?
What will be the fate of ethics in the face of hunger and deprivation? How would they be able to defend the rights of the downtrodden when their own economic rights are marched upon. What justification do we have to condemn them for taking bribes and brown envelopes? What kind of watch dog do we think we are breeding under this kind of dehumanizing conditions? More needs to be done to address the problems of journalists in Nigeria. The national body has to come up with more creative ways to ensure journalists are insured against the vagaries of life.