Being a paper presented by Dan Agbese Editor-In-Chief, Newswatch Magazine at a workshop organised by the Rivers State Council of Nigeria Union of Journalists, Port Harcourt, March 4, 2010.
An ideal is a prize worth fighting for but it is not enough to prevent anyone from abusing his position in the news media. No reporter is an angel. All men and all women have a tendency to misuse their positions in ways that do no credit to their professions or vocations. Therefore, journalism, like medicine and law, does require a code of ethics to guide the professional conduct of editors and reporters. The first attempt to provide Nigerian journalists with such a code was made in 1978 by the Nigerian Press Organisation, NPO. The organised was made up of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria. The Nigerian Guild of Editors and the Nigerian Union of Journalists. It issued what it called Code of Honour for Nigerian journalists. The eight point code stipulates as follows:
1) That the public is entitled to the truth and that only correct information can form the basis for sound journalism and ensure the confidence of the people.
2) That it is the moral duty of every journalist to have respect for the truth and to publish or prepare for publication only the truth to the best of his knowledge.
3) That is the duty of the journalist to publish only facts; never to suppress such facts as he knows; never to falsify either to suit his own purposes, or any other purposes.
4) That it is the duty of the journalist to refuse any reward for publishing or suppressing news or comments, other than salary and allowances legitimately earned in the discharge of his professional duties.
5) That the journalist shall employ all legitimate means in the collection of news, and he shall defend at all times the right to free access, provided that due regard is paid to the privacy of individuals.
6) That once information has been collected and published, the journalist shall observe the universally accepted principle of secrecy and shall not disclose the source of his information obtained in confidence.
7) That it is the duty of the journalist to regard plagiarism as unethical.
8) That it is the duty of every journalist to correct any published information found to be incorrect.
This Code of Honour does qualify as a code of ethics for Nigerian journalists. It prescribes the limits of ethical standards. Its primary objective is to focus the journalist’s mind on his professional responsibilities to the society. Time will not permit us to examine the code seriatim. But let us look at the first item in the code in the context of our discussion here. It prescribes that the public is entitled to the truth. We need not ask, as Pilate did. What is truth? We do have a fairly good idea what truth is in certain circumstances. It is true, for instance, that we are gathered here at this workshop. It is also true that President Musa Yar’Adua is ill and has not been seen in public for more than three months. These truths are also facts. They cannot reasonably be disputed.
Yet, truth and facts are not so easily interchangeable. In the court of law, a man may swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He can then proceed with a straight face to tell lies. Truth is often a mixture of facts with processed opinions about issues. I personally prefer to speak of facts. Facts are more manageable in terms of reliability than truth.
One of the fundamental problems with reporting is that reporters depend almost entirely on other people. Other people give us the facts. Even if the reporter witnesses an accident, he is still obliged to confirm the number of casualties from police or hospital authorities. If his sources tell him lies, he invariably but innocently serves the public with the diet of lies so dished out to him. This is worse in a dispute. It is said that in war, the first casualty is the truth. It is the same in all disputes. In all disputes, the reporter is confronted with two sets of facts or truths. The first set consists of the facts as they are; the second set consists of doctored or varnished facts that may be strange to the truth but are nevertheless intended to serve vested interest. Political facts are sweeter than real facts.
Take the neglect of the Niger Delta for instance. There are certain basic facts that confirm that this neglect is a fact confirmed by devastated farmlands and the pollution of waters in the area. But have the federal government and the oil companies done anything over the years to remedy the peculiar problems of the area? Once you raise this question, you are instantly bombarded with all sorts of facts because here we are no longer dealing with facts as they are but facts as the parties to the dispute intend them for public consumption. Here is the challenge for the reporters and editors in this region. The challenge for them is to rise above the propaganda and dig diligently for the truth; how much was OMPADEC given and how much did it do? How much has NDDC been given so far and how much has it done to change the face of the region? How much have the state governments in the region received as their shares of the derivation fund and how much have they done with the money? These are verifiable facts. If the truth is known it may help to ease tension and volatility in the region.
Let us look at another aspect of the first item in the code of honour. The freedom of the press to serve the public the truth to which the code says it is entitled is severely restricted by a number of factors. A publishable fact must pass the test of its being in the public interest. Who decides that and on what basis? The editor, of course, does not quite often on grounds of universal convention. All of us guard our private lives. We believe that our privacy must not be invaded because what we do in private lives in nobody’s business. Is the private life of a private individual of public interest? By convention, we tend to leave people alone unless and until they cross the boundary and deny themselves the right to their own privacy.
It is said that a public officer has no private life. This may well be so, but even here public interest draws the line. It is not everything we know about the private life of a public officer that is publishable. Convention imposes on us the obligation to protect the integrity of a public officer under certain circumstances.
Some facts offend the laws of the land. We cannot publish such facts because publishing them is deemed not to be in the public interest. If we do, we pay dearly for our indiscretion. Here I draw your attention to the laws of libel, sedition, pornography, national security and official secrecy.
Another set of facts the press cannot publish concerns those facts whose publication would be injurious to public safety, public morality and national defence. If Nigeria is at war with another country, the movement of its troops would be a fact but the public is not entitled to know that because its publication would compromise national security and put the lives of our troops at risk.
There are even more difficulties that confront the reporter in carrying out his daily duty of serving the public with the truth to which it is entitled. These difficulties or constraints fall into two broad categories – internal and external. Internal constraints refer to a) proprietorial interests, b) personal interests and c) self-censorship.
Brigadier-general Samuel Ogbemudia, former military governor of the old Mid-West Region, once put it quite nicely when he said no government sets up a newspaper to criticise itself. Despite the sometimes high-minded mission statements of proprietors, all of them have vested personal, economic, religious and even ethnic interests in setting up newspapers or radio and television stations. They expect journalists working for them to fully protect those interests at all times and at the same time advance them, even at the expense of their business revivals.
Journalists are human beings. We all have our personal interests and those of our friends to protect and even promote. Those interests do tend to exert some influence in the way we do our job. This is usually evident in self-censorship. We restrain ourselves from publishing facts known to us about issues and event because doing so would compromise our interest or those of our friends.The external constraints are (a) inducements, (b) pressures from individuals, groups and organisations and (c) laws and administrative decisions. Remember the brown envelope syndrome? Those who invite reporters to press conferences know what they must do – they must induce the reporters with money to publish their stories. Reporters and editors are also induced to kill stories when their publication would affect certain vested interests. The more pernicious aspect of this constraint is found in a situation where editors and reporters are induced or to be more polite about it, persuaded to publish damaging stories about individuals and organisations. Here the public is not served the truth and by the time the truth is known, the damage has been done and someone’s integrity has been called into question.
All of us face pressures from our friends and communities to give the public some varnished truths. Sometimes we are even blackmailed to do this. And truth becomes the casualty.
Legal and administrative constraints are hurdles in the path of the reporter’s efforts to give the public the truth. Governments in Nigeria from the colonial times to the present, have systematically run the ring around the Nigerian press. Prince Tony Momoh has detailed the various laws specifically directed at constraining the press. There have been eighty or so of these laws. Perhaps, the most notorious among them were the Newspapers Act of 1964, decree 11 of 1976 and decree four of 1984. the more dangerous of these constraints during our long winter of military rule were not the laws, draconian as some of them were, but that what was not an offence became an offence at the whims of the military men and journalists were punished for them. A good case in point was the publication by Newswatch magazine in April 1987 of stories that dissected the report of the Samuel Cookey panel on political reforms. The Babangida administration took offence and banned the magazine for six months. The magazine committed no offence because the report was a public document and its publication did not endanger national security in any way. If anything, the magazine sought to promote public discourse on the political future of the country.
To be continued