The Tide Has Survived The Tyranny Of Politics-Ray Ekpu

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The Print Media: The Way Forward, being a lecture  delivered by Ray Ekpu at the 40th Anniversary of The  Tide in Port Parcourt on Friday December2, 2011.

Protocols

A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been here without wearing a bullet proof vest.

But Port Harcourt has changed. The guns have fallen silent. The militants have dropped their weapons and picked up their work tools or school bags. White men and women can move about freely without fear of being kidnapped and millions of dollars demanded as ransom.

The city itself which at some point was dubbed garbage city has regained its proper nickname Garden City or as we used to call it when we were young and rascally, Port Highlife.

There is a tremendous effort in urban renewal. Flyovers are springing up ready to tame the demon of traffic gridlock; men and machines are working in partnership to change the landscape and make it a personable city to come to for a vacation.

To make my visit sheer joy, The Tide, one of the state government owned newspapers that was launched in the early 70s is marking its 40th birthday, signaling that it had weathered the storms of the past; it has defied infant mortality and it has become a full grown adult. I look back at the past and I see the corpses of virtually all the state owned newspapers including the Nigerian Chronicle in Calabar where I cut my journalism teeth. Most of those papers have since been buried in shallow graves and because of the way they died they have even been  denied the favour of yearly in memoriams in which Nigerians love to flatter the dead by saying they are “gone but not forgotten.”

It is my pleasure, therefore, to salute the board, management and staff of The Tide for being able to survive the tyranny of our politics and economics, especially the politics and economics of publishing, I congratulate you and wish you many more  years of service to journalism and Nigeria.

As you do know, the first known newspaper in Nigeria, Iwe lrohin, was set up in Abeokuta, Ogun State, on December 3, 1859 by Reverend Henry Townsend, an Anglican missionary. The paper’s main mission was to evangelise the natives through western education, champion the cause of improving the welfare of the Egbas, and to start a campaign for the extirpation of colonialism. The colonial government did not like the tone of the paper and caused Townsend’s recall to Britain in 1862. Apparently to please the colonial authorities in Lagos, the paper started making a shift in its editorial policy which did not go down well with the Egbas and barely eight years after its establishment, some Egbas went and burnt down the premises of the paper.

The Anglo African, edited and published by Robert Campbell, was the immediate

successor of Iwe Irohin but because of its pro-government stance, the Anglo- African survived for only two years, 1863-1 865.

However, from 1880, the scene witnessed a rash of publications established by nationalists dedicated to the extirpation of colonialism and the enthronement of self rule.

The colonial government responded like a wasp to this upsurge and the trenchant attacks on the government.

It rolled out the 1903 Newspaper Act that sought to regulate the setting up of newspapers.

In 1909, the government enacted the sedition law to curb the excesses of the fire eating editors of the time. The first person to be tried under the sedition law was James Bright Davies, the 68 year old editor of the Nigerian Times, who had written an editorial condemning government policies of Negrophobism and other policies that threatened the prosperity of Lagos. Horatio Jackson, son of the Liberian trader and printer, who founded the Lagos weekly Record, was also tried and jailed for sedition when he was editor of the paper. In 1917, the government decided to give more teeth to the 1903 Newspaper Act by including several stiff clauses including one that imposed a fine of £100 for failure to submit editorial materials for censorship.

Three things were noticeable during this period within the press community

(a) The newspapers were privately owned

(b) The journalists were either politicians who turned journalists or journalists who became politicians

(c) The papers were trenchant, fearless and independent having been burnished on the field of battle.

According to Prof Fred Omu, a well known journalism historian, the appearance on November 22, 1937 of Nnamdi Azikiwe’s West African Pilot whose motto was “show the light and the people will find the way” marked the beginning of a new era of ideological and combative journalism anchored on a campaign against racial superiority and domination. From an initial print-run of 6,000 copies the pilot was selling 20,000 copies 13years later. Azikiwe was then encouraged to introduce the idea of group newspapers. From 1940 and for the next 20 years, he founded the following papers: Eastern Nigeria Guardian (Port Harcourt 1940); Nigerian Spokesman (Onitsha, 1943); Southern Nigeria Defender (Warri, 1943); Daily Comet (Lagos, Kana, 1944). Eastern Sentinel (Enugu, 1955); Nigerian Monitor (Uyo, 1960) The influence spread and the industry grew. The Nigeria Daily Times founded in June 1926 was acquired in 1948 by the Daily Mirror Group of London. The paper, then became simply Daily Times and by the benefit of modem technology the paper improved tremendously in quality. Similarly in August 1960, the Amalgamated Press of Nigeria Limited, Publishers of the Daily service, Sunday Express and Irohin Yoruba went into partnership with Thomason International of Toronto, Canada, to publish a new Newspaper to be called the Daily Express. As a result of this partnership, the Daily Service, organ of the Action Group, was transferred to the stable of the Allied Newspapers Limited established by Obafemi Awolowo of the Action Group in 1959 along with the Nigerian Tribune, Irohin Yoruba, C.O.R. Advocate (Uyo), Mid-West Echo (Benin), Middle Belt Herald (Jos) Northern State (Kana). Eastern observer (Onitsha) and Borno people (meant for Maiduguri but published in Jos due to accommodation problems in Maiduguri.

At independence, the three regional governments – North, East and West felt the need to set up newspapers of their own. In 1960, the Eastern Nigeria Government upgraded its Eastern Nigerian outlook into a daily and renamed it the Nigerian outlook. In 1961, the Federal Government set up its own paper, the Morning Post. Three years later the Western Nigeria Government established the Daily Sketch and just before the January 15, 1966 coup, the Northern Nigeria Government set up the New Nigerian.

As states were created, more state owned newspapers sprang up. There was the Nigerian Observer in Bendel State, Triumph in Kano, Renaissance in East Central State Nigerian Standard in Benue Plateau, Chronicle in South Eastern State and as more states were created more newspapers mushroomed: Pointer in Delta, Eko Today in Lagos, Statesman in lmo, the Nigerian tide in Rivers, the Ambassador in Abia, the pioneer in Akwa Ibom, Hope in Ondo, Benchmark in Ekiti, The Voice in Benue, Herald in K wara, Legacy in Zamfara, Trumpeter in Bauchi, Newsline in Niger, The Path in Sokoto, National Light in Anambra and Daily Star in Enugu etc.

The 60s and 70s became, as it were, the golden era of public ownership of  newspapers. AIl of these newspapers, some of them set up by military governments and some by civilian governments were aimed at bringing government closer to the people and the people closer to the government. When I left the editorship of the Nigerian Chronicle in December 1980, the paper was selling 100,000 copies a day. The Sketch in Ibadan, the Renaissance in Enugu, the New Nigerian in Kaduna and the Herald in Ilorin were respected government papers in those days because they showed a lot of professionalism and courage. I remember that The Renaissance owned by the East Central State Government allowed its pages to become a parliament of sorts in which Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe took on Governor Ukpabi Asika in a robust exchange of diatribe in a debute that came to be known as “No condition is Permanent”

This was because of the liberal attitude of Governor Asika as well as the courage and professionalism of the editors of the Renaissance.

In his Newswatch column of April 8, 1985, Yakubu Mohammed, Deputy Chief Executive of Newswatch who was Associate Editor of the New Nigerian in the late 70s, indicated the courage of the editors of the New Nigerian. He reported that during the burning of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’ s Kalakuta Republic in 1977 by the  “unknown soldier” some editors had gone round various newspaper offices in Lagos urging the editors not to publish the story and that all the editors had agreed to the conspiracy of silence. However, The New Nigerian and the Punch Published the story. According to Mohammed, in 1978, there was a collision between a Nigeria Airways F28 and an Air force plane. The Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Major General Shehu Musa Yar’ Adua, had directed editors during his monthly press briefing not to write editorials on the incident. His reason was that if they did, international aviation authorities would ask Nigeria to separate military and civil airports. The New Nigerian defied the order and wrote an editorial condemning the incident.

Infact, Mamman Daura who edited the New Nigerian in the 70s said that much in a lecture he delivered at the Scandinavian institute of African Affairs, Helsinki, in 1970 He said: “The New Nigerian has not been subject to sustained government interference; indeed, we are by common consent more independent than the commercially viable and independent Daily Times. We have been able to withstand government pressure more successfully than they are” That may be true and one can attribute this to the quality of the men who edited the paper. But more importantly, The New Nigerian was owned at the time by all the Northern Governments and it didn’t seem such an attractive proposition for anyone running a government at the centre to attempt to take on a paper owned by the North. Its growing strength and audacity may be the reasons why, in 1975, the Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed’s Government decided not just to interfere but to take over the New Nigerian and the Daily Times.

That decision can be regarded as a backhanded tribute to the strength and professionalism of both papers. Infact, specifically on the New Nigerian, Mr. A.I. Howson -Wright, a notable press historian, had said, during the 10th anniversary of the New Nigerian: “over the years, it has on the whole sustained its readers with a diet of bold and well – informed and lucidly argued editorials and balanced news coverage.” The two newspapers along with other government-owned newspapers are either dead or dying largely because of interference, low capitalization, poor management, low credibility and the robust entry of well-funded, professionally run private newspapers. I shall return to this presently. Alhaji Lateef Jakande, a veteran newspaper man and former Governor of Lagos State, had tried to explain the low longevity of State Government newspapers when he wrote a foreward to the book,’ Not His Master’s Voice written by Peter Ajayi, a former editor of The Herald. Jakande said: “The lesson to be learnt is that a government owned newspaper can only survive if allowed to run as a commercial enterprise” Very true but this is also true of privately – owned newspapers. Today, you cannot find at the newsstand such private papers as Prime People,Vintage People,Crown Prince,Mr, Quality, Akapa’s Choice, Classique, Thisweek,Viva, President, Newbreed, Financial Post, Nigerian Economist,Democrat,Today,The third Eye, The Post Express, Daily Sketch, TNT, Hotline,Citizen, TSM,Sentinel, The Reporter, National Concord,African Concord, African Guardian, The Satellite, the Trumpet, Searchlight, The Eagle, The Horn. Daily News, The Outlook, The Sunray National Post, Guardian, Express etc.

The universal truth is that for any newspaper, private or public, to survive, it must be well Capitalised and must be run along professional, commercial lines with a keen eye on the bottom -line.

The 70’s and early 80’s witnessed a resurgence in the private newspaper industry.

That was the period when the Punch, Concord, Guardian and Vanguard came on stream followed closely by the establishment of Newswatch, a weekly news magazine, by four journalists ‘Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese and Yakubu Mohammed. These former editors came from a background of academic and professional training and experience. Their aim was to publish an authoritative magazine in the mould of Time and Newsweek, two popular American magazines that had a solid reputation for thorough investigation, analysis and elegant writing. This marked the beginning of serious magazine journalism.

Today, we have about half a dozen or more. Of note was the grand entry of the Guardian newspaper into the market on February 27, 1983 as a Sunday newspaper and on July 4, 1983 as a daily .The paper, jointly sponsored by Alex Ibru, a businessman and Stanley Macebuh a journalist of the intellectual tradition, was an instant hit.

The paper sought to publish stories in a balanced and fair manner and to comment with solid reasoning and argumentations, thus, elevating the tone of public discourse. The Guardian remains, till this day, the most authoritative Nigerian Newspaper.

It can be said that the current mushrooming of newspapers and magazines is a direct product of the relative successes of the newspapers and magazines of the 80’s and 90’s.

The second reason for this proliferation has been the onset of competitive politics and electioneering and the need for the politicians to reach their constituents. Also, the battle for gender equality has given the newspapers the latitude to cover women’s activities and interests more than ever before. Unfortunately, this coverage has been largely tilted towards women fashion, beauty and how technology can assist to be more beautiful with very little attention paid to their career development and the contributions they can make or have made towards national development and renewal.

It can be said without any fear of contradiction that the Nigerian press, especially, the print media, have contributed substantially to the development of the nation. In particular, one can mention the media’s robust fight against colonialism, military rule, and bad governance by military and civilian administrations, corruption, tribalism, sit-tight overtures by our rulers and other sundry sins. In recent times, the removal of the Speakers of House of Representatives, Ibrahim Salisu and Mrs. Etteh and the Senate President, Evans Enwerem, for offences bordering on misconduct can be attributed to the crusade mounted by the press.

During the Sani Abacha era, the politicians showed exemplary cowardice by five of their parties endorsing General Abacha for the presidential elections whereas the press stood in solid opposition to the gamble at great personal risk. For the first time, the words guerrilla Journalism crept into our lexicon as journalists showed resilience and cunning by publishing their newspapers and magazines from different parts of the city of Lagos week after week.

During the last few months of President Obasanjo’s reincarnation, there was a feverish attempt by his political jobbers and sycophants to extend his tenure beyond the constitutionally sanctioned two terms. Monies changed hands, advertorials dominated the media, and spirited attempts were made by hirelings to railroad the country into a constitutional crisis if they did not have their way. But for the courage of the Senate President, Senator Nnamani, the African Independent Television and the print media, the country would have been on the fast lane to its political Golgotha.

When you consider the various hurdles put on the way of the media by the various governments from the colonial days to the present, it can be said that the Nigerian press has been very resilient. The hurdles range from oppressive legislation, prosecution, persecution proscription to imprisonment, brutalisation and assassination. A few examples will suffice.

The most sensational crisis that the press faced in the 70’s was perhaps the Minere Amakiri case. Amakiri, a Port Harcourt based reporter of the Bendel State owned Nigerian Observer, had filed a story in 1973 on a teachers’ strike which was looming in the Rivers State. His editor in Benin thought his story had all the ingredients of a Front pager and gave it the right treatment. Amakiri must have jumped up for joy when he saw his byline on the front page .However, unluckily for him, the story was published on the 315t birthday of the Rivers State Military Governor, Alfred Diete-Spiff When the Governor saw the story the champagne glass may have fallen down from his hand. He promptly hit the roof. He ordered his ADC R.M Iwowari to give Amakiri a clean haircut, “no bill sent, with an old rusty blade” He was stripped naked and given 24 strokes of the cane on his bare back. There was an uproar within the media and outside it. The crusading Lagos lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi, took up the matter in court. The court awarded damages to Amakiri.

There was an interesting episode in September 1991 involving the editor of the Nigerian Observer, an Edo State Government owned newspaper.

The Editor, Tony Ikeakanam, had decided that the photograph of Nigeria’s First Lady, Mrs. Maryam Babangida should adorn the front page of his paper and so he put it there. The lady, who was considered by many as elegant and glamorous, thought that the photograph was unglamorous and did not show off her beauty appropriately. She pulled the right strings and the next day the poor editor was demoted, because he had demoted a First lady by publishing a photograph that was unflattering of her. Now, I ask you all to decide who was guilty: the cameraman, or the camera, or the photograph, or the paper which it was printed or the chemical used in processing the photograph or the printer or the newsprint or the newspaper editor or all of the above.

Some of the pressures on the press have been fatal. On October19, 1986, Dele Giwa, first editor in Chief of Newswatch, was-sent a parcel bomb on a Sunday morning. As he opened the letter, the bomb exploded and killed him. Since then many other journalists have been killed in very bizarre circumstances, thus making the practice of journalism the next thing to being at the war front.

There have been other pressures of less fatal but nonetheless dehumanizing or disconcerting nature. When I was editor of the Nigerian Chronicle, I had to publish a story about St. Margaret’s Hospital, Calabar. The military Governor, Col Paul Omu, had gone on a tour of the Hospital and found many pregnant women lying on the bare floor. Bed space was the problem. He awarded a contract for the building of a new block and before the project was completed he was posted out of the State. A naval officer, M.A.B Elegbede, was appointed Military Administrator. The  contractor completed the building, locked up the place and took the keys away hoping that would force the government to pay him. My reporter did a story on the project and I slapped it on the front page of the Nigerian Chronicle.

The Military Administrator sent for me. On getting there, I met the Commissioner of Information, Chief Horace Ekwere, in the Governor’s outer office. He asked what I thought might be the reason for our being summoned. I said it might be in connection with that day’s front page story of our paper. He said he didn’t think so after all the story was true.

A few minutes later, we were ordered into the Military Administrator’s office. He barely responded to our greetings but simply brought a copy of that day’s Chronicle and dropped on the coffee table, turned to me and hollered: “Did the contractor pay you to publish this?” I simply told him, calmly, that it was a true story to which we thought we should draw the government’s attention.” That answer probably angered him more and he spouted: “Who are you working for?” I kept quiet and he turned to the Commissioner: “Why do you allow these boys to publish any nonsense they like” The Commissioner replied: “I have been speaking to them, your Excellency” 1 took it that the Commissioner had a right to lie to keep his job and I did not bother to contradict him. After a stony silence, the Administrator left us and went into his inner office. I waited for a few minutes and told the

Commissioner that I had to go back to work because I didn’t think he would come

back to us. I left while the Commissioner waited. We never heard from the Administrator again on the matter.

In 1983, I had written an article titled, Sodom and Gomorrah, which was published in the Sunday Concord. It was an analysis of the evolving trend whereby public buildings where there were cases of corruption were torched in order to obliterate the evidence. The article was on the Nigerian External Telecommunications (NET) which had recorded a huge case of corruption. I had warned that it was needful to protect the building from possible arsonists.

To be contd