Coronavirus: Who’ll bail media out?

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The ripple effects of the Covid-19 are shrinking virtually all the facets of the world economy and the media industry inclusive. In this report, TOPE SUNDAY writes that the media is in dire need of support.

Without mincing words, the Nigerian media is struggling for survival and is in dire need of help to stay afloat. This development is occasioned by the advent of one of the world’s most contagious diseases, coronavirus, also known as Covid-19.  Before Nigerians were restricted and locked down for five weeks in a bid to curtail the spread of the virus, the industry was grappling with several problems ranging from loss of revenue to lower sales.

Almost four months after Nigeria recorded its first Covid-19 case, the media has not yet recovered from the damaging effects of the pandemic. 

Media during lockdown

Aside from the state and federal governments’ media houses across the 36 states of the federation, the private owners and practitioners reportedly suffered both financial and physical assaults during the lockdown.

According to a report by Media Career Development Centre and published by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), the majority of the media houses are unable to meet their obligations. While some are still unable to pay, others pay a percentage of basic salaries, and there are indications of forced leave and possible lay-off of staff. The Centre reported that some of the A list media houses ranging from both print and electronic experienced salary cuts during the lockdown. 

Also, the media practitioners, aside from the non-payment of salaries were harassed and molested. A number of journalists in most of the Nigerian states were at the initial stage of the lockdown harassed by the security agents assigned to enforce the lockdown orders.

The Lagos Journalists’ League, like every other professional body in the media industry, bemoaned the harassment of journalists by men of the Nigeria Police Force while enforcing the lockdown. The League in a statement by its acting secretary, Enitan Olukotun, Acting Secretary, LJL, said the treatment given to media practitioners was barbaric.

The statement read in part, “These journalists who are rarely appreciated by the society work around the clock to keep the society informed and stabilise the polity by filtering false news. It is disheartening that many of our colleagues had to pass the night on major highways across the state with the attendant health and security risks.

“The high-handedness and overzealousness of policemen in enforcing the curfew is rather disturbing even when the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 had earlier given members of the fourth estate of the realm permission to move without harassment.”

It added, “The league draws the attention of the public to dangers inherent in news gathering and processing during this Covid-19 period. Some of our colleagues had contracted the dreaded Covid-19 virus whilst working to keep the society informed on the novel virus. It is, therefore, provocative to compensate our colleagues who are working in a very difficult condition with detention and harassment.”

Salary: non-payment, cuts

A recent report by the ICIR mentioned staff of Thisday, Daily Independent, Leadership, Tribune, The Guardian, and Vanguard newspapers as those media organisations worse hit by non-payment of salary.

According to ICIR, New Telegraph newspapers paid 80 per cent of the salary in April, Daily Trust embraced 50 per cent reduction option for those on level 13 upward; 30 per cent reduction for others, and annual leave has been cancelled.

The reduction, according to the report, also affects allowances and would last for the first three months: April, May, and June. It will be reviewed later this month.

It added that at The Nation, those earning N65, 000 below got full payment, while those earning above N65, 000 got half payment. The report also said staff of CoolWazobiainfo, a radio station, also experience a 30 per cent salary slash.

Sacked journalists speak

A staff of The Nation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Blueprint Weekend that she was relieved of her appointment as fall-out of the Covid-19 pandemic. She said at least 96 of them across all the departments of the paper were sent on three-month leave of absence.

She said, “There is a 20 per cent salary cut at The Nation newspapers. This is occasioned by the effect of Covid-19. As I am speaking with you, I have been sent on a three-month compulsory leave of absence. Though they told us that they will recall us when ‘things improve,’ but when will that be?

“I know that I have already lost my job because what will I be doing at home for the next three months? It is a reality because I may not be called back to work. But how will survive?”

Also, a male journalist formally with Punch newspapers confirmed that he was a staff of the company before the outbreak of Covid-19 in Nigeria. However, he refused to give further details about his ordeal, saying he had moved on.

Publishers’ reactions

A Senior Lecturer at the Mass Communication Department, University of Ilorin, Kwara state, Dr. Abdulrasak Adisa, told this reporter that the Nigerian media was shrinking before the outbreak of the Covid-19, adding that the pandemic only compounded their ordeal.

He said, “To say the fact, the Nigerian media shrinking has been happening before the coronavirus outbreak. We all can see that the symbols are already on the wall. But with the explosion of Covid-19 virus everywhere around us, many of the media establishments in Nigeria began to experience further hard times.

The publisher of Time Nigeria Magazine, Malam Abdulrahman Aliagan, told Blueprint Weekend that the media industry is worse hit by the ravaging Covid-19, saying that the print run had reduced drastically and adverts were not forthcoming.

“It is not a gain saying that the Media Industry in Nigeria is shrinking owing to Covid-19 pandemic. Without any doubt, almost every sector is affected but media industry bears much brunt. Today apart from the government media, no Nigerian media organisation is having it rosy, even before Covid-19. The media industry in Nigeria has not been having it funny and the Covid-19 made it worst.

“So many media organisations have downsized their work force, particularly, the print and broadcast media. Before Covid-19, some of the media organisations were not paying salaries, but it got worse with Covid-19. The print run reduced drastically and advertorial placements are not forthcoming.

“So, with all these, the media industry in Nigeria is badly hit. As a publisher, I know what I am saying. I run both print and online. Without anybody telling me, I dropped the print version to face online. Private media organisations are not finding it funny with Covid-19, some of us have to close shop when they could not get business doing again,” he said.

Another publisher, Hajia Bukola Odogun, of Kwara Trends Newspaper and Trendy Events Magazine, said the lockdown and worldwide looming recession have resulted in the hike in the cost of production of newspapers.

According to her, “Lockdown and worldwide recession have led to cost of production of media content to skyrocket during the pandemic.”

Bailout

Arguing for the survival of the media in the Covid-19 era, Aliagan said bailout for the industry is the way to go, adding that the funds when provided would help the profession to contribute optimally to the socio-economic growth of the country.

Aliagan, who is also the immediate past secretary-general of the Nigerian Guild of Investigative Journalists (NGIJ), laid more emphasis on the privately owned media houses, saying that their survival is very key to active journalism in the country.

He said, “Nigeria media industry needs bailouts to survive, originally, apart from government media, even government is seeking for intervention fund, how much more privately owned media. It will not be out of place to provide bailout for Nigerian media industry, particularly the private media, both print and broadcast.

“Also, even the online media needs government’s intervention to contribute meaningfully to the socio-economic growth and development of Nigeria. My experience, as a publisher is not funny and I can see it portends danger to the future of the Nigerian media industry.

“I will continue to say that before the advent of Covid-19, the Nigerian media industry was not finding it good, but the Covid-19 made it worse. Many staff have been asked to go, I want to believe that the number of unemployment created as a result of the pandemic, Nigeria media contributed significantly to it.”

Continuing, he said, “The point is that we have to continue to push for the survival of the industry but it is our constituency, it is our calling. We don’t have any other thing we can be doing; we are convinced and resolute that there is no alternative to the survival of the industry. We must keep it floating, because we have to survive ourselves, if we must survive, then what we are doing must survive.

“It is only when it survives that our own survival can be guaranteed. At this juncture, I want to call on the federal government to create conducive atmosphere for the Nigerian media industry to not only survive but also thrive.

 “Government must help private media organisations with an intervention fund, as subventions are being given to the government’s owned media organisations, government should design an intervention fund to rescue the privately owned media organisations because, they have larger number in terms of workforce and that is the area-sector where the real journalism is taking place.

“For the government-owned media organisations, government should give them the free hands to operate professionally, they should inject funding too as well as good package for journalists.”

Also, the Kwara Trendy newspaper publisher collaborated Aliagan’s position, saying the media needs bailout to keep afloat, to continue its function without which mankind would be plunged into ‘darkness,’ and called on the government to do the needful to keep the Fourth Estate of the Realm afloat.

“With the raging coronavirus pandemic and shrinking economies, the media needs bailout to keep afloat, to continue its all important function without which mankind would be plunged into ‘darkness.’ Lockdown and worldwide recession has led to cost of production of media content to skyrocket during the pandemic.

“So many people are involved in the content production in the media; downsizing may not be an option. Governments in other climes give businesses bailouts in form of grants, payment of overheads for specific periods to ease the effects of the lockdown. Nigerian government should do the needful to keep the Fourth Estate of the Ream afloat.”

Still on the bailout

In spite of the hard times that the Nigerian media is experiencing, Dr. Adisa kicked against government giving bailout to the media, arguing that the idea may take editorial independence away from the media owners and in return bring up the problem of conflict of interest.

Rather, Adisa said, “With all cities under lockdown and restrictions, the daily and weekly publication patterns of newspapers have been disrupted. Fewer and fewer newspapers are published. Now, the question is what should be done? In my view, as much as we all know that newspapers outfits are in serious need for support, I wouldn’t agree that the support should come in the form of bailout from the government.

“I am skeptical about the option of the Nigerian government bailout and funding newspapers with public funds as the gesture may turn journalists into string-puppets which will practically take away the editorial independence and bring up the problem of conflict of interest.

“I know some developed countries such as Canada are helping with bailout to subsidise staff salaries. But given the level of respect for freedom of media in such countries, it may be practicable. However, here it will become an opportunity for politicians to have inroad to the control of media. So, rather than bailout in form of cash, I will prefer the support in the form of tax break for media houses.”

On how the media will survive the pandemic era, he said, “I will want print media to intensify efforts in online publication. Also, the public need to be attracted to what newspapers publish by dwelling more on investigative and stimulating stories; the more of these, the more patronage. And the more patronage, the more buoyancy of media outfits. If I may say, unlike in the past, newspapers and other media are no longer going extra miles to bring exciting news and scoops.”

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