Problems Of Ethics And Journalism In Nigeria


This is the concluding part of the paper presented by Dan Agbese, Editor-In-Chief, Newswatch Magazine at a workshop organised by the Rivers Council of Nigeria Union of Journalists, Port Harcourt, March, 4, 2010. the first series was published on Friday, March 24, 2010.

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 interests. 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 and 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 is 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 rivals.

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.

I have used one of the eight items in the Code of Honour to show that the enactment of the code of ethics by a professional group does not necessarily pave the way for a more honest public service by its members. The bad news is that these constraints are facts of life. They have been with us since the world began and they will be with us until the world ends. But the good news is that in spite of them, generations of editors and reporters have continued to perform credible service in informing, educating and entertaining the public. These constraints should not, therefore, frighten anyone from doing his duty to journalism and serving the vital information needs of the public.

Let me also point out one fundamental fact about the Code of Honour under discussion. The observance of the code appears to be left at the door of the conscience of individual editors and reporters for two reasons. Firstly, it provides no sanction for infringements. Secondly, it makes no provision for policing the code. This is not the case with doctors, dentists and lawyers. The lack of these pillars of enforcement is a weakness in the Code of Honour. Perhaps, that is one good reason why this generation of editors and reporters hardly know that the code even exists.

The Murtala/Obasanjo military regime tried to police the news media with the promulgation of decree 31 of 1978. The decree established the Nigerian Press Council to foster a) “the achievement and maintenance of the highest professional and commercial standards by the Nigerian press, b) review development likely to restrict the supply through the press of information of public interest and importance and advise measures necessary to prevent or remedy such developments; and c) inquire into complaints about the conduct of the press and exercising in respect of the complaints powers conferred under this decree.”

The decree provides for sanctions in the case of item c) above. The decree, of course, ran into a storm kicked up by journalists who raised objections to some of its provisions. The council was roundly ignored for more than ten years. In the end, what we eventually have is a press council without powers to sanction erring publications.

A further attempt to police the media was made by decree 59 of 1988 that set up the Nigerian Media Council during the Babangida administration. Its functions were similar to those of the Nigerian Press Council but were clearly more extensive. Again journalists raised issues with some provision of the decree. As matters stand, the watch dog has no dog watching over its conduct.

Ethics are important because they prescribe acceptable codes of professional behaviour. But in itself, an ethic code of conduct can of itself do nothing. The responsibility for serving the public rests squarely on individual reporters and their editors. As I see it, the challenge facing us has less to do with our failure to abide by the ethics of the profession. The challenge is to do a good job of informing and educating the Nigeria public. To do this, we must commit ourselves to two fundamental objectives.

Firstly, we must be better informed than the public we seek to serve. An uninformed or a poorly-informed reporter is a dangerous creature let loose on the land. What often passes for exclusive stories are fiction dressed as facts in the press. Perhaps, the desperation imposed on the press by the imperatives for survival in these difficult times has made this inevitable. Still, it is not an excuse. The less we do our job well, the less we impress the public and the more we damage our reputation and integrity as professionals. The barely literate analysis in our newspaper impresses no one. The discerning read it, chuckle and dismiss us of hand.

Secondly, we must sharpen our editorial judgement. Good editorial judgement is a function of both experience and broad-mindedness. The rush to publish has left a lot to be desired in our editorial judgement. We need to hasten slowly because what is published can never be unpublished.


Dan Agbese