THE MEDIA SETS AGENDA EVERY DAY :His mission to the International Press Centre (IPC) in Lagos-Nigeria that afternoon of January 11, 2022, was to pick some books and publications on political and election reporting for the purpose of a media research. That mission speaks volumes; that at close to 74 years of age, he’s a
THE MEDIA SETS AGENDA EVERY DAY
:His mission to the International Press Centre (IPC) in Lagos-Nigeria that afternoon of January 11, 2022, was to pick some books and publications on political and election reporting for the purpose of a media research.
That mission speaks volumes; that at close to 74 years of age, he’s a relentless pursuer of excellence in journalism and a consistent press freedom advocate, who abhors any form of violation of media rights. Thus, another assignment he is simultaneously engaged in is the development of a framework for effective self-regulation of journalism to ward off attempts by the government to introduce punitive legislation in the name of regulation.
“This is an ambush”, he enthused wittily in his baritone voice with reference to a text message earlier sent to him that we would seize the opportunity of this “August visitor” in January, for an interview. Not one to shy away from such a media engagement and mentorship, he agreed to speak without any hesitation to the team of IPC’s online news portal and media resource – The Nigerian Democratic Report – comprising Stella Nwofia, Adeola Olanrewaju, Omolola Arogundade, David Adeleke and Lanre Arogundade, the Editor-in-Chief.
“The media sets agenda everyday”, was the declaratory way he set the tone for the lively, informative and inspiring interaction lasting over two-hour period; with moments of reflection, laughter and somberness. “That is a question that touches my heart strings”, he said in response to another question of how he feels that 35 years on, the killers of Dele Giwa, the founding Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch, via parcel bomb on October 19, 1986, have not been brought to justice. He was thrilled that the question was asked by one of the young members of the team who was not born when the killing occurred, saying “it is a credit to her as a journalist”. He, consequently, seized the opportunity to disclose that a book: ‘Dele Giwa’s Granite Journalism’ will soon be published as a major contribution to preserving the legacy of the journalism Icon.
With a personal library that has over 5000 books, Mr. Ekpu demonstrated what it means to be a passionate reader by naming his favourite columnists in both America and Nigeria.And, talked about some of his achievements as a journalist.
To borrow from a parlance commonly used to describe great footballers, Ray Ekpu, former Editor-In-Chief of Newswatch magazine, former Editor of Chronicles newspaper, former President of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria and newspaper columnist, is a complete journalist. This interview serves as evidence.
– Lanre Arogundade, Editor-in-Chief, NDR
On the Media Setting Agenda for 2023
These days the media and journalists are sometimes blamed for the problems in Nigeria and there are those who feel we are not doing well in setting the agenda. 2023 is around the corner and I know the work you are doing relates to political and election reporting. Where are we in terms of setting agenda or what agenda will you say the media should set especially with the 2023 elections ahead?
“We are setting agenda every day. It’s not correct to say we are not setting agenda. Journalists are setting agenda for the country, except you want to have a conference and say agenda setting conference. But journalists by what they publish, and by what they broadcast are setting agenda every day. If there are two incidents, one in which a policeman beats up somebody and another one where somebody beats up a policeman, which one of them you report and how you report it shows you are setting an agenda. Are you saying that it is right for the policeman to beat up somebody who has done nothing? If you say you should report that Tinubu has met President Buhari and informed him that he is ready to run for the presidency of Nigeria and you publish it on the front page, you are telling the public that that is important enough. That story is important enough to stay on your front page. Where you put your story, whether it’s on a front page of your newspaper or the major headlines on your radio or television indicates the importance that you attach to what has happened. If you report that ninety people were caught yesterday at the airport with fake Covid-19 certificates you are setting an agenda. You are saying that corruption is occurrent, you don’t want it; you therefore put it on the front page.
We are setting agenda every day, and by discussing in the newspaper, on radio on television, what should be the shape of 2023 and who should be president – Is it a drunkard who should be President? Is it a wealthy man who should be President? Is it a woman who should be President? Is it a discredited politician who should be President? – by listing the important aspects, the important facts that you think the president ought to have, the important qualities of a president, you are setting an agenda. By discussing whether there should be power shift or whether there should be zonalization, you are setting an agenda. You see it in the newspapers, you see it on television every day, should power shift from the north to the south or should we just allow anybody who wants to run from any part of the country to run? When you try to answer those questions, you are setting an agenda. We are setting an agenda every day.
I personally think power should move to the south and not because I am a southerner, but because it is the right thing to do. We’ve had powers shifting since 1999. A Northerner, General Abdulsalami Abubakar was in charge of the government as a military administrator, as a military head of state. He handed over to a southerner General Olusegun Obasanjo and Obasanjo when he finished his two terms of eight years handed over to a northerner, Musa Yar’adua and when Yar’adua died a southerner took over that is Goodluck Jonathan and when Jonathan lost it, a northerner took over, that is, President Buhari. We have been having power shifts since 1999. It should not be different in 2023. Those who are threatening to run from the north are just being mischievous. Well, let me put it this way: “this zoning, this power shift is not in the constitution. It’s a gentleman’s agreement, a handshake agreement but it has worked in Nigeria as a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society.
That is a fair deal. But of course, that does not deprive you or me of my right under the constitution to contest if I want. I put it this way, there should be power shift from the north to the south and anybody from the north who wants to contest can contest. I cannot say you shouldn’t contest but Nigerians must state their decisions. Is that what they want? Do they want a part of the country to control power eternally? Would that bring peace, unity and stability? Those are the factors that you have to look at in taking a decision as to whether power should shift or should not shift. I read a statement by one man from the north saying, “well we have the minority, we have the majority, we have the votes, we have the power”. Democracy works by numbers. Yes, democracy works by majority but that is not the end of the discussion. If you want to carry that through because you have the numbers; what of the other people in the south who have something else? They have the oil that fixes the country, if they say we hold on to our oil; what is going to happen? The south provides a bulk of the high-level manpower for this country whether its private sector or public sector you are talking about. So, every part of the country contributes something to the progress of Nigeria. No single part must take and hold on to political power forever.
On Saving Journalism Especially with the Advent of Social Media
What changes have you seen in the industry since you began practicing journalism?
“We have the Code of Ethics of Journalists in Nigeria. We call it the Ilorin declaration. I was one of those who signed that code of ethics. I was General Secretary of the Newspapers Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN) at the time. We signed this code of ethics in 1998 at Ilorin and that is what we are still using today even though I think that it is due for a review because at that time we didn’t have the craze that we have from social media. This has to be revised in other to accommodate those who are working on the social media.
I would say to you here that I am not condemning the social media. Social media has its advantages. Immediacy is one of the advantages. But those who are running it I believe ought to be trained in journalism first. Those who run social media platforms ought to be trained in regular traditional journalism, so that they understand both the canons of professional practice and the code of ethics. That is my view. I was chairman of the committee that was reviewing the constitution of the Nigerian Guild of Editors two years ago, and I said we must put it there that anybody who wants to be a member of the Guild of Editors, who wants to be called editor and is running an online organization or online platform must have some prior experience in the old (traditional media), or what some call regular media – print, radio, television – so that he or she knows what the rules are, what the canons of practice are, what the codes of conduct are.
The NPAN has not incorporated that in its own arrangement. The NPAN is trying to do some things to moderate the way the profession is practiced because I said to them at one of the meetings: if we don’t do something about the decline, the slide in the performance of the media and in the standard of our practice, somebody will do something soon and we will be sorry for ourselves, and you can see the National Assembly trying different things in the last two or three years. They’ve been trying some obnoxious legislation, but we keep fighting back. I said there will be a limit to how much we can fight back. Somebody might be able to push it through at some point. Secondly, even as professionals are we proud of what is happening in the industry? We want to be respected as professionals. Journalists used to be disrespected many years ago. Many years ago, before I got into the profession because most of the people who were practicing at that time were not well trained, they were notorious.
Journalists in those days were notorious for drinking and smoking and wearing native clothes. But there has been the change over the years. Daily times started employing graduates. Some of them with PhD. MKO Abiola and Concord newspapers started employing graduates, some with Masters, PhD and that brought a sea of change in the practice, a sea of change in the public perception of journalists. You also had journalists wearing nice suit and ties and wearing nice shoes and looking clean and respected. That era had come, and journalists stared getting respected as professionals in the society. That never happened forty, fifty years ago. So, we arrived at that point and now there is an attempt to take us back down. I think we should fight to stay upfront, to stay professional, to be nationalistic and to do the job professionally and ethically.”
Ways Conventional Media Can Remain Competitive in the Face of Social Media Challenge
You already touched part of this when you talked about the social media, but the reality is that the social media is providing some competition. What do you think the traditional media, or the conventional media should do better to remain competitive?
“They should establish their own social media platforms. They should have their own websites and publish everything. They should publish breaking news on their own websites and people are going to believe what is on the website of an established traditional media much more than they can believe on a social media platform established by a flag-by-night blogger who says he is a journalist. I have been asking my colleagues to establish a vibrant social media platform. Your website must be current up to the minutes, so you can compete effectively with social media. The beauty and the attraction of social media is that it gets out the news quickly.
Breaking news, it gets it out whether it’s right or wrong. It is the speed that is important to the social media but you as a traditional media can take care of the speed and take care of the important aspect of accuracy. You combine speed and accuracy on your traditional media, while the other one goes only for speed. Ray Ekpu is dead that’s it! Quickly it gets it out, but he is not dead. You put it on your social media, your website…….he is not dead. You provide more information. That brings accuracy. You haven’t lost speed, but you gained accuracy in addition to speed.
On How the Media Industry Can Help Improve the Standard of Journalists
Do you have any suggestion on how the media industry can make the standard of journalists in Nigeria better?
“They should be trained and trained and trained. There is a loss of interest in training. When we started, we were doing training for our own staff every year. There is a heavy loss of interest by organizations in training of all staffs and ensuring that they play according to the rules and many of the journalists today are becoming relaxed and they are beginning to perceive themselves as celebrities. I stopped in Ikeja to buy roasted corn and I was saying to the corn woman, I want this one. And then one guy on a motorcycle came and stopped and brought out his camera. I said, what are you trying to do? He said Ray Ekpu eating corn on the roadside. What am I that I can’t eat corn on the roadside? I said I am not a celebrity. I can’t go out and buy corn and eat like everybody else because I am a columnist? I am a very private person. My own friend Dele Giwa was an extrovert. I am an introvert. What made me famous was the death of Dele Giwa, the way he was assassinated. I was talking to every news medium that came. Then the proscription of Newswatch and that time I was Chief Executive and Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch and then the government just decided to shut down the paper and I was in the middle of it and people were coming to me and saying, can’t you see the government is coming closer and closer to you, you will be next why don’t you go out and practice. I said leave here and go and practice abroad? I was not going. I didn’t consider myself to be a celebrity.
The government has put me to jail six times, detention six times. I didn’t ask for those things. One of them was when I wrote an article about corruption at the Nigerian External Telecommunications. There was a corruption case of about fifty-four million Naira. I said government should take note that there is an alleged fifty-four million corruption case. They should worry about the place. Nobody should go set fire to it. It came out in Sunday Concord, and they came and arrested me. They said I knew something about it, and I went to court because of the issue.
We published an interview of David Mark after the coup that overthrew Shonekan, and Abacha took over. We published it in the Newswatch, and the government went crazy. They arrested me in Calabar. I was trying to come back to Lagos when I heard the story. Dan Agbese was arrested too. Yakubu Mohammed who was in Kogi where he went to see his mother was arrested. The three of us were locked up there. I sent a message to the fourth person Soji Akinrinade and told him not to stay in a place but to keep moving. They didn’t find him because he kept moving. We were charged for mutiny.
It’s an interesting journey, its part of the history of Nigeria. In this same country, journalists have been put in jail for speaking the truth. Under Buhari’s Decree 4, if you published the truth and it affects the reputation of the government or government officials you go to jail for one year. The law that was used in proscribing Newswatch was actually backdated. The journalists in this country have fought a lot of battles for the populace. Journalists, activists, lawyers, and some labour people. We have responsibility as a journalist to keep fighting. We have to keep fighting for press freedom, for freedom for Nigerians, for progress for Nigerians.
On Search for Justice 35 Years after Dele Giwa’s Death
It is now over 35 years that Dele Giwa died. What justice has been served and has the killers been found?
“That is a question that touches my heart strings. You are too young to know because you were not born at that time when he was assassinated 35 years ago and I’m sure you weren’t. But I am happy that you have read something, and you brought yourself up to date on something like that which happened many, many years ago. That’s a credit to you as a journalist. October 19, 2021 was the 35th year of his assassination. We, in Newswatch thought we had fought a good fight to do two things: ensure that the people who killed him are brought to justice and to ensure that his legacy remains in the purview of the public. We went all the way to Justice Oputa’s panel during Obasanjo’s reign, we submitted papers in Lagos, and in Abuja we made presentations and Justice Oputa’s committee submitted a report in which he said that the case should be revived because the Babangida government has a case to answer. That is where the matter is and from my own end, I have just finished editing a book in his memory. Let me just tell you what the book is about as we are just about publishing it. A section of the book was a compilation of some of his best articles published in the Daily times, in the National Concord and in Newswatch magazine. We have two major interviews granted to Radio Nigeria and Vanguard Newspaper and then the third section contains articles by fifteen of some of the best writers available in Nigeria today who made comments on Dele Giwa’s journalism and so on. I just finished editing it and in the next couple of months, we should publish it and get it in into the public space. That is what we simply said will be a major contribution to preserving his legacy. The name of the book is: “Dele Giwa’s Granite Journalism”.
On Legacy after Many Years of Being an Influential Journalist
‘Being one of the most influential figures in journalism, what legacies do you think can be attributed to you?
“I have reported for forty-eight years. I have written many stories, which have been published by ten newspapers in Nigeria, four newspapers in the United States, and the journal of democracy. Putting my stories in the public domain is a legacy. What kind of legacy should I have other than writing my stories? I write my columns every week, published by three newspapers and a number of social media platforms. That is legacy if you are looking for legacy. Some months ago, some guy came to me. He said I would like to write your biography. I said to him what would you put in the biography? He said you have done a lot. You’ve been president of the Newspaper’s Proprietors Association of Nigeria, the president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, etc. But I said those are offices that came circumstantially. That is not my own idea of achievement.
I have been given an award as International Editor of the year when I was thirty years old. I was given an award as one of the ten outstanding young persons in the world when I was thirty-nine and I was the only black face at the ceremony in Sydney, Australia, the rest of the nine people were white people. I thank God for the level that I have reached in this profession, because I never thought I will get here. I am from a very poor, very poor family and I just said I wanted to be a journalist. My father said I should be a lawyer, I said I don’t want to be a lawyer; I want to be a journalist even when I did not know what it was to be a journalist. I was in primary school and my father was subscribing to Eastern Nigeria Outlook. My father was a member of the Customary Court of Appeal. Customary court of appeal was an intermediate court between customary court and magistrate court. He was in the middle. He will go to court; I will go to school. I will come back and receive Eastern Nigerian Outlook. That was the paper in the eastern region at the time published by the eastern regional government. I will collect the newspaper and I will read it. I was in primary five, what you call standard five. In those days a primary school boy could read the newspapers. I was reading the newspapers; I was reading, and I was seeing all the big English by Nnamdi Azikiwe. I was memorising them in those days in my primary school. That was the beginning of my saying I want to be a journalist; I want to write like Zik, and that idea never left me.
When I went into secondary school I will go and report football match. I will go and report, write it in my grandfatherly handwriting and go and paste it on the board and my colleagues, students will go and read it. I used to call myself “press man Remy”. I put it on the board. That was the beginning of actually practicing what I thought was journalism. And when I left secondary school to higher school – I did higher school for two years – I started a magazine in that school called ‘The Nightingale’ and called myself editor-in-chief.
The school was Holy Family College. One of those famous catholic schools in the eastern region at Abak and you see something, something that is not happening today in Nigeria. I was not a catholic but a protestant. I went to a catholic school, and they made me a prefect. I wasn’t a catholic but each morning I would join them and attend mass; I would get people in my dormitory to come out and attend the mass. They didn’t discriminate against me, they appointed me a prefect. When I talk about my past today, I tell my children I went to a primary school. In a Standard Five and Six in a public primary school, I stayed in the hostel. Today you have to have a lot of money for you to put your child in a primary school that has a hostel. A lot has happened that was good for this country; a lot has happened that has eroded that goodness from this country. I sympathize with you young people because you haven’t seen those good times that the rest of us saw. They used to have something called PWD – Public Works Department. Every street in this country was thoroughly cleaned and paid by the colonial masters.
When I wanted to go into the university – you have to apply to each university individually – I applied to Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), I applied to University of Ibadan (UI), and I applied to the University of Lagos (UNILAG). At ABU, I was admitted for English, at UI, I was admitted for English, and at University of Lagos I was admitted for Mass Communication. I chose Mass Communication because one lecturer who was in the school where I was teaching after my higher school said to me not to study English because as a graduate of English, they were not paying him like a teacher. He said if you study English, you are going to be nowhere. If you want to be a journalist, they will not employ you as a journalist. If you want to be a teacher, they will not employ you as a teacher. Why don’t you go and study mass communication and get straight into a profession? I found that advice very useful. I got into the University of Lagos and studied Mass Communication.
On Favourite Columnists
Some people see you as their favourite columnist but who are your own favourite columnists?
“In America, H.L. Mencken and George F. Mills; in Nigeria, late Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, former Editor of Daily Times; Peter Pan (Peter Enahoro) and Dan Agbese. I am also fascinated by Reuben Abati’s column because he is very intellectual and I like columns that go in that direction. It means that such columns are directed at decision makers – people who have to take decision. I enjoy his column and I also enjoy Sam Omatseye’s column – very intellectual, very literary. I enjoy his approach to reporting. I enjoy Professor Adebayo Williams and I also like the way Niyi Osundare writes. They were columnists for Newswatch. In the sports arena, I enjoy Chuka Momah’s columns. He was also one of those we chose to write for Newswatch”.