Read Blank NEWS Online Interview With Charles Ehiedu Aniagwu On World Press Freedom Day *Thought Provoking *Insightful *Point Blank

Nigeria (Blank NEWS Online) –By Albert OGRAKA: 

As the global community marked the World Press Freedom Day with the theme, Critical Minds for Critical Times, Media Role in Advancing Peace, Just and Inclusive Society on Wednesday, May 03, 2017, Blank NEWS Online brings to you a thought provoking yet interesting insight into the real business of professional journalism in this exclusive interview with Mr. Charles Ehiedu Aniagwu, Chief Press Secretary (CPS) to Delta state governor, Senator Dr. Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa.

*Charles Ehiedu Aniagwu


Que: Freedom of the press and expression are fundamental human rights which must be upheld. Do you think there is absolute freedom of the press in Nigeria?

Ans: Freedom of the press is not fundamental. Freedom of expression is fundamental. We need to separate them. For you to express yourself and be free is fundametal. Fundamental means that it is inalienable and they cant take it away from you but that of the freedom of the press, for you to write is not inalienable. Those other ones are given to you by God. The one of the press is your on volition. You either choose to become a practitioner or you are employed and somebody gives you responsibilities but to express yourself is natural.

Now having made that distinction, let us even ask ourselves what is the essence of the World Press Freedom Day. For us to be able to appreciate it, we must also first know the role of the media. If you narrow it down to Nigeria, as to what the media is, Section 22 of the Nigerian constitution is very clear. It says that the media’s responsibility is to hold government accountable to the people. It may not have provided for journalists but since journalists are the ones that operate the media, it invariably means that the journalist is in a vantage position to be able to hold government accountable to the people. Be that as it may, the question now is what is our responsibilities viz a viz the expectations of those we are going to hold accountable. The first responsibility is just as it is in John 8: 17 in the Holy Bible when Jesus Christ said for you to cast the first stone on the harlot, you must make sure that you don’t have blemishes. So in which case, you must come to equity with clean hands. Having said that, if you narrow it down to this year’s theme which talks about critical minds for critical times, the question is how critical are you in your mind? How informed are you to go to look at the critical times and what it takes to also report the critical times and what makes this time critical?

This particular time in Nigeria is critical because there is an attempt to emasculate these responsibilities given to the media by the present government. Examples abound of different aspects of non observance of the rule of law. And when we report the activities of government, we must take away sentiments that you see today. Let me give you one example of such sentiments. When the Federal Government released the Paris Club refunds to the states, the media joined members of the public to say that the Federal government have asked the states to use the funds to pay salaries without first of all looking at the powers of the Federal government viz a viz the constitutionally guaranteed powers of the state as an independent tier of government.

So the Federal government cannot become the headmaster that can just pick up a cane and say a teacher must teach in tthe classroom. The Federal government is not supposed to dictate for the the States how to spend the money that belongs to the state because that money belongs to the state. The Federal government can only advise on what the state is expected to do. The state is bound to define its priorities and apply these funds in line with its own priorities. But what did the media do? The media said they say you should go and pay salaries. What if everybody is about dying on account of Meningitis? Between saving the lives of the people and paying teachers’ salaries, which one becomes a priority to such state? Now assuming without conceding that we are not owing teachers’ salaries and the Federal government has advised that states should go and pay salaries, do we keep such money somewhere until such a year or time that we begin to owe salaries? The media needed to move away from the sentiments of members of the public who assume that salaries must be paid and then look at the powers of the Federal government to be able to advise because it is not a bail out fund.

Coming back to the essence of the World Press Freedom Day, it is also a day just like the Labour Day for us to remember our matyrs who have died in the course of the business of journalism because the business of journalism is to hold “Big Boys” accountable to the people and often times they don’t want to be accountable. These “Big Boys” are inherently dangerous in their own approach in most instances. I am using the word “Big Boys” because I am not talking about only politicians, even some businessmen, even some other persons who are in the work places who want to cut corners. The Media is the one who is supposed to expose them and make sure that they are accountable and sometimes for them not to be accountable, they do the untoward. The case in point is that of Dele Giwa. In the course of the press freedom day, you are able to remember the martyrs. In the course of the press freedom day, you are also able to look back on how well have you also have been able to exercise your responsibilities given to you within the context of social responsibility. In which case, how developmental are you in your reportage?

The four-way test also in the media, as to whether is it for the common good? In which case, even if you want to expose corruption and such exposé can drag the government into the mud and finish the entire society, you keep it. There is a theory that talks about to report and be damned. Do I just report? It doesn’t matter what happens or do I first of all look at it to see if it is for the good of the majority? All those things come in when you are doing your press freedom, to be able to remember the milestones. What are the impediments? How do we cross them? What are we not doing properly and we are able to draw attention to it? What step do we need to take to improve? How do we also remember those who have paid the supreme sacrifice so that others who are alive are not intimidated by what must have happened to those who passed on?

Que: Which are the areas you think that media personnel can improve on in the discharge of their duties?

Ans: The most important thing is for us to be confident. That is what we lack at the moment. There is a dearth of confidence on the part of the journalist. No thanks to poverty. A situation whereby a journalist wants to ask you questions and he first of all look at whether the question will make him make more money or will it make him not to make more money. That brings about self defeatism in the first place and having been defeated in terms of your self esteem, the ability to churn out with the necessary question that would now conform with your requirements as stated in Section 22 of the Constitution becomes already compromised because you have now engaged in self sensorship. Once you begin to self sensor yourself, you are not even able to ask the necessary question. Self confidence is the number one important step.

Number two, the journalist must also, like the critical mind be well informed. Some journalists have locked up their mind and become parochial in their approach to how they view things and do not want to use an expanded lens to have a much more focal view of the subject matter. That is also another challenge. But a much more interesting challenge is the challenge now posed by citizen journalism. Thanks to the proliferation of ICT, especially in the area of the Internet which have made it possible for people to take advantage of the New Media to report without subjecting such report to the crucibles of editorial principles and those reports are based on sentiments. It is not a crime to the extent that these are some of the latitudes allowed in a democratic setting. It is a challenge because most journalists now go to the New Media to take reports and then flash it as if that is the true position. That principle of cross-checking the facts is now buried. It is also a major challenge that we need to take à look at.

Que: Apart from some of these shortcomings in the eyes of the public, the media is also a catalyst which promotes information and strategies that helps socio-economic and political developments as well as peace and integration. Would you say they have operated within reasonabe ethical standards?

Ans: There is one particular adage which says, you don’t go into a rotten mouth and begin to look for healthy teeth. The mouth is rotten, expectedly the teeth within that buccal cavity is also expected to be rotten. How do I mean? The journalist operates within the context of the society that is rotten, that is plagued by these many other social adversities. That being the case, it means that the journalist is not exempted from that plague that has gotten the better part of the politician, that has gotten the better part of the teacher who leaves the children in the classroom and begin to sell things by the roadside in the form of private practice, and gotten all facets of our society. What has that done to the journalist? It means that the journalist have also gradually abandoned what is expected of him to hold the government accountable.

Be that as it may, to a reasonable extent, the journalism profession in Nigeria have also helped in the entrenchment of democratic principles and norms in Nigeria because journalism in this case, is like Christianity where you have the Churches. Individuals have had cause to say there is proliferation of crime in the midst of growing spiritual base of practitioners. The question is, if there were no Churches, what would the society have been? So, if there were no Journalists, what would politicians and those saddled with the responsibility of governing would have done? Perhaps, they would have become much more corrupt in terms of the use of power. Dont forget the views of A. V. Dicey and then coupled with the issue of Montesquieu in terms of separation of power. In the case of A. V. Dicey, it was very clear in terms of the Rule of Law that absolute power corrupts absolutely. So, if there were no media practitioners, most powerful people would have become so drunk because in politics, morality is first of all pushed to the background. It becomes more of exigencies of the time and when such exigencies clash with your own desire to progress in a certain direction, the tendency is that you would want to give much more strength to the one that favours you. But with the position of journalists and media practitioners at large, those notoriety are able to hold back a little because they are also interested in maintaining their integrity even when they are thick, they want to be painted clear. To that extent, the activities of the media practitioners have also helped for us to have a saner society.

That could we benefit from much more intuitive position on the mouth of the journalist? Yes, we could. It is work in progress. I believe that if we progress along that trajectory, we are most likely to have much more progress in the entrenchment of democratic principles and ethos.

Que: The media, as the Fourth Estate of the Realm monitors performances of institutions and report activities of governments but often times some of the practitioners are improsoned, maimed or even killed in the line of duty. What do you think can be done to check these actions against practicing journalists?

Ans: Thank you very much. You are very correct but first of all, like I said earlier in terms of critical examination of also the responsibilities of the media, there are certain facts we must tell ourselves. When a media practitioner also progresses in error because he believes that he has a responsibility to hold the government accountable, he fails to realize that he must come to that equity with very clean hands. In a number of instances, media practitioners, believing that that sole responsibility of holding the government accountable have been vested in them by the laws of the land progress in the direction that is untoward, unprofessional and begin to malign the credibility and integrity of these individuals just because they hold public office and when you malign the credibility of an individual because you think you are a media practitioner, you are also bound to be subjected to the crucibles of the legal process.
That is to say that it is not everybody that is imprisoned is imprisoned unjustly. The media practitioners have not also been immune from these legal processes if they progress in error, whether it is using the law of libel or other such laws, we are also expected to operate within certain frame recognised by the law.

Having said that, there have also been instances of those in authority taking the powers in their hands and then not wanting the media to report issues the way they are because reporting the way they are may either bring them down or would do something that might not be palatable either to their integrity or to those they think they love. So, to that extent there is risk. There is usually a very thin line with having to hold people accountable and having to report based on the conviction that you are really doing that and not for your own selfish reasons.

Sometimes, people just wake up and say there is oppression, that in the last one year, 20 journalists have been killed. We must ask ourselves a question. If they threw a bomb when you are filing a report and you die, is that oppression? There are other people who died in the course of that bomb. You are only just unfortunate to be at the scene. So when they count the number of journalists who have lost their lives in the course of the profession, they must be able to draw the difference between those who died their natural death in the course of the action because other persons were affected and they couldn’t have been exempted because they are journalists and those who were shot because they are doing some form of probing. But often times, we jam all of them and say in the last one year we lost these number of journalists. It paints a picture that is not too clear and too current.

Que: Would you say the media have fared well under the Governor Ifeanyi Okowa’s administration?

Ans: Very well. The media has fared well and the reason for that is not in terms of whether we have given them the necessary welfare. Its in terms of allowing them that media space. Hundred percent, we have allowed the media space even to the extent of allowing those who could not report facts. We just assume that that is their own level of understanding and we have always done it too to try to clarify the issues with a view to getting them informed and assuming they are not actually intending to be mischievous because if somebody wants to be mischievous even when you are correcting him, you are only wasting time because he already know the facts but just want to be mischievous. To that extent, we have done well in encouraging the free space under which the media practitioners can effectively operate and maybe carry out their business.

In terms of the other welfare packages, we may not pat ourselves in the back because our resources have been so dealt with, going back to the issue of healthy teeth in a rotten mouth. So if we don’t have the money to do the things we needed to do, the journalists and their welfare cannot also be an exception. But in this last two years, I can beat my chest and say that we have done much more reasonable than anybody can imagine. Today, as we speak by the Grace of God, the Nigerian Union of Journalist’s Press Centre is almost completed within a space of two years of Governor Ifeanyi Okowa’s administration and that is a state that have existed for more than 24 years. Before we came in, they didn’t have that. Today, as we speak, a number of Chapels are beginning to have much more conducive Secretariat and that wasn’t the situation when we came in. So its a question of us having left the shore and the ship is sailing smoothly.
We may not have gotten to the harbour but the fact is that every other thing is going to the positive direction and we are optimistic that if we continue along that trajectory, we are likely to make more progress.

We must also commend the practitioners in Delta state. They have been very wonderful. They have shown a lot of cooperation that inspite of the hard times, they didn’t take the frustration on us and we are hoping that God willing, we are able to also meet them half way so that it becomes a win win situation for all of us.

Que: As a media practitioner, what is your word of advice to journalists operating in Delta state?

Ans: Fisrt of all, they must remember the responsibility of a journalist and that we are to take advantage of the Constitutional powers of the mass media and hold government accountable in the most sincere manner without elements of mischief. We will also continue to seek for their cooperation and understanding in view of the economy that we have at the moment that is seriously recessed. We are also praying that the journalists continue to give us the opportunity of either collaborating or refuting positions from any quarter, whether they are the positions of members of the ruling party or citizens who want to exercise their democratic rights to criticize or to cast aspersions. Once you are able to do that, you would have been able to justify the legally assigned rules of a journalist. That is, holding government accountable to the people.

*Gov. Ifeanyi Okowa (right) and CPS Charles Aniagwu

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