Recent publication of ‘off the record’ audio/video in utter disregard for the long standing ethics of the journalism profession has raised questions about adherence to ethic by practitioners. SAMSON BENJAMIN examines some of the incidents and implications on the journalism profession.
For three days in March 1998, some of the country’s finest journalists, including newspaper owners and other stakeholders, gathered in Ilorin, the capital of Kwara state, to forge what till date remains the most recent version of the ethical code guiding journalism practice in Nigeria. The Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE); the Nigerian Press Council (NPC); and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ); the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigerian (NPAN); were all represented.
The ensuing document was an upgrade on the one in existence since 1979. The officials who signed the Code were Mr Lanre Ogundipe, National President NUJ; Mr Ray Ekpu, General Secretary, NPAN; Mallam Garba Shehu, President, NGE; and Alade Odunewu, Chairman, NPC.
Specifically, Section 4 of the Code: Privilege/Non-disclosure states that “a journalist should observe the universally accepted principle of confidentiality and should not disclose the source of information obtained in confidence and a journalist should not breach an agreement with a source of information obtained as ‘Off the record’ or as ‘back ground information.”
Exactly 20 years on, The Ilorin Declaration as the Code is often referred to, particularly, the ‘Off the record’ aspect of the professional ethics has been called to question in Nigeria in recent times in matters involving, the Minster of Transportation, Hon. Rotimi Ameachi; the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed; as well as Governors of Borno state, Kashim Shettima; and his Ogun state counterpart, Governor Ibikunle Amosun.
The Director-General of the Buhari Presidential Campaign Organisation and Minister of Transportation, Hon Amaechi, has been in the eye of the storm following a series of leaked audio recording, where he was allegedly criticising President Muhammadu Buhari.
The audio clip, which could not be authenticated by Blueprint Weekend, was posted on Twitter by Reno Omokiri, a former aide to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan.
In the clip Amaechi purportedly said, “This country can never change, I swear. The only way this country can change is in a situation where everybody is killed.
“This country is going nowhere. When Magnus (Abe) was Secretary to the Rivers State Government (SSG), I told him that this country is hopeless and helpless and he told me, ‘Oga, stop it’. This cannot be coming from a governor.
“But two months in Abuja, Magnus came to meet me and said, ‘I agree with you; this country is hopeless and helpless. All they do in Abuja is to share money.
“I have already written to the governor of Katsina state and I don’t know why he has not replied to give us the land in Daura for a university in Daura. The next university would be in my village. There is a popular saying while we were growing up, that charity begins at home. Will my own begin abroad?
“The president does not listen to anybody. He doesn’t care. You can write what you want to write. Does he read? I was flying with him in the aircraft and we saw a news report where a goat seller was complaining that he couldn’t sell his goats during Sallah because of Buhari’s administration. And the President said what’s my business with goat sellers?”
The context in which Amaechi made the statement was unknown, just as the person or people the minister was talking to was also not stated, the minister has since denied the audio stating that he was not aware of such audio. “Nothing. I am not aware of any audio recording,” he responded when he was asked for comments on the audio which went viral some days ago.
Lai Mohammed gaffe
Similarly, Minister Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, was also caught on tape saying that it costs the Nigerian governments N3.5 million a month to feed Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) otherwise known as Shiites.
The statement, he reportedly made ‘off the record’, went viral on social media following the decision of a Kaduna court to deny the IMN leader bail.
El-Zakzaky and his wife have been in detention following their arrest in Zaria, Kaduna state, in December 2015, as part of backlash of clash between members of the sect and the Nigeria Army.
They were first arraigned on May 15, 2018, on charges bordering on alleged murder, culpable homicide, unlawful assembly, and disruption of public peace, among others.
They were subsequently denied bail severally while El-Zakzaky’s followers have continuously protested against the continued detention of their leader leading to violent clashes with security operatives, especially the Police and the Army.
According to the minister, “the issue of whether, where he is, let’s keep it off record. He is in a residence and eating; I mean, it costs the government N3.5 million every month to feed him. We don’t want to inflame passion. IMN is a different kettle of fish.”
In the six-minute-fifteen-second video, Lai could be heard four different times saying the information should be kept “off the record”. In an instance, he specifically said: “This should be off the record… I am only giving you all this background information so you know how to write your story.”
Lai’s ‘off-the-record’ revelations were, however, aired on internet platform, Oak TV. However, the TV station subsequently delivered a letter of apology to the minister following his cry of betrayal, even as Oak TV claimed to have sanctioned “all the team members involved.”
According to the letter, all those involved in making the video public have been sanctioned while the station pledged to tighten its gate-keeping. The action of the TV station, notwithstanding the apology, sparked debate about journalism ethics.
Also, a leaked audio conversation purportedly between the Borno state Governor, Kashim Shettima, and the Ogun state Governor, Ibikunle Amosun, in June 2017 set the online media abuzz. In a lengthy conversation, they allegedly plotted how to drastically reduce the Igbos in Nigeria in a way that they would not be allowed to have influence in Nigeria’s economy, politics, security and much more. Both governors had vehemently denied the audio conversation in separate press statements.
Ethics vs public’s right to know
The publication of these audio and video recordings has brought to the fore the age long debate about the right of the public to know and journalism ethics.
Most of those arguing for the spilling of the audio/video fall on the sub-sections of the Ethical Code titled: Accuracy and fairness. The sub-section states that: “the public has a right to know”. Also, a part of the document’s preamble also states: “In the exercise of these duties, a journalist should always have healthy regard for the public interest.”
Is there, therefore, a clash of interests between the public’s right to know and the journalist’s respect for off-the-record information?
An Associate Professor, Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, Ismail Ibraheem, said there falls short of age long ethics that have served the profession so well in the past years.
According to him, “Off the record information are basically detailed and often sensitive information that sources provide to journalists to make them better understand the context of a particular issue.”
He rhetorically asked: “How would journalists feel if they are also being compelled to disclose sources of information they are not willing to disclose?
He explained that trust is a very important virtue in journalism and where the virtue is compromised, the entire profession is put at risk.
Similarly, a retired Assistant Director, News, Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Alhaji Idris Akanmu, said in journalism parlance, when the three words, ‘off, the, and record’ are used in that order, it simply means that a specified information being made known to journalists by a news source should not be made public.
According to him, sometimes, some news sources request for ‘off the record’ on some information revealed to journalists because of varied reasons which is either the life of the interviewee will be in danger, the news source may lose his or her job, the information released if made public may negatively affect the family life of the interviewee, damage the name and reputation of the source and or cause similar adverse impacts, “hence the need to keep the information away from public domain.”
Akanmu also gave reasons why some journalists comply and others don’t in cases of ‘off the record’ matters. He said, “those who favour such being used advance many reasons, such as, unless an agreement has been reached before, that the interview is ‘off the record’, journalists or media houses are loyal to their listeners, readers and viewers…but not politicians or political leaders, that the expression ‘off the record’ is not in itself legally binding as long as the said information is in the public interest.”
He explained that to journalists who comply with “off the record” plea, they hinge their reasons on the fact that it is morally wrong to betray trust.
“When trust is betrayed, it tarnishes the image of that journalist and the organization he or she represents. Therefore, they want to maintain their own reputation, and to ensure future access to information,” he said.
Akanmu, who reported for NTA from Ghana for many years, said experience has shown that journalists in government-owned media keep “off the record” trust than their counterparts in the private media establishments.
He noted that while government media guard against controversy or disunity in the polity, private media on the other hand, mostly, are commercial-oriented and dance to the tune of their proprietors.
However, an Abuja-based newspaper publisher, who did not want his name mentioned, stressed that though: “the minister was not forced to talk on the matter and the recording was not in secret the reporter should have respected the intention of a news maker.”
He also reprimanded Lai for “saying on camera something he didn’t want published.”
Poor remuneration and unethical practices
On his part, Programme Director, Media Rights Agenda (MRA) Mr Ayode Longe told Blueprint Weekend that Poor wages and remuneration of journalist is an incentive for unethical journalism in Nigeria.
He said: “poor remuneration prevents journalists from living a decent life. And there is a strong relationship between miserable salaries and allowances paid to journalists in Nigeria and journalists’ failure to uphold their professional codes of practice.
“Journalists work for profit-oriented media organisations that earn huge revenues every year yet the media owners have no regard for the welfare of journalists who generate revenue for their businesses.
“Essentially, when journalists receive low salaries and allowances, it impacts negatively not only on their welfare and wellbeing but also on the quality of journalism that is produced for public consumption.”
Speaking further, he said: “It is not only in Nigeria that journalists earn low wages. In Fiji, India, Indonesia, and other developing countries, poor remuneration has led to exodus of experienced, educated, and talented journalists to other industries that offer higher pay. When experienced journalists leave the industry, the outcome is inexperienced and low-skilled journalists who take many years to train and groom.
“Low wages tempt journalists to engage in unethical practices that allow them to supplement their incomes so they can feed their families, clothe them, and provide accommodation. In this environment, journalists are unable to uphold the professional code of practice. This is how low remuneration adversely affects ethical conduct and, therefore, undermines quality journalism.”
Similarly, the Chairman, NUJ, Akwa Ibom Council, Comrade Patrick Albert, said entry process and poor pay package are responsible for lack of professionalism in the industry. According to him, “If the issue of entry into journalism and poor welfare of journalists are not vigorously enforced, unethical practices among journalists will persist.
“Most professions are able to pay better because there are entry requirements that are rigorously enforced. There are many who are formally trained as journalists but the profession will admit anybody at all even if you are not formally trained as a journalist and that is even becoming more so now with social media platforms, with blogs.”