Journalism practice in Nigeria is frustrating amid poor remuneration, government regulations
Chris Isiguzo is the National President of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ). He was recently reelected at the Union’s conference held in Umuahia, Abia State. In this interview with RAUF OYEWOLE, he speaks on the ordeals of practising journalists amid government regulations and poor remuneration.
As an experienced journalist, what is your assessment of journalism in Nigeria?
Journalism practice in Nigeria is akin to getting water from white stone. It is a difficult terrain, and the environment is not conducive. If the environment is not conducive, it affects the output. There is an economic difficulty; you have ownership difficulty and government incessant interest. You have the issue of censorship and data challenges. If a professional is economically imperiled, you don’t expect him to abide by ethical codes and rules. You attack the economy of a journalist when you don’t pay him, as at when due and that’s epileptic remuneration. You also attack the economy of a journalist when subjecting him to slave labour. Most journalists today are freelance journalists — they are not in regular employment. And what it simply means is garbage-in and garbage-out, the rules of engagement don’t exist. His economy has been attacked, he runs on a pay as you go.
Then, you cannot be preaching professionalism to such a character. The take-home of a journalist in some countries is far better than the take-home of a General Mabager in an oil company. The environment is not friendly. Another major challenge of journalists is digital attacks. When this happens, it brings psychological drawbacks. After all, he is just a social worker. And society is not there to help you. Also, when politicians own the media, you ponder to their capricious wings. Government censorship is another factor, now you talk of National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and Nigerian Press Council (NPC) — those issues come into play. Security and safety of journalists is another issue; to what extent are journalists safe? When we talked about journalists being frontline workers, it could be seen during the global pandemic where health workers were given hazard allowance, how many journalists got? When you sum these up, you could see that the environment is not as friendly as it ought to be. Recently, Journalists Without Border said getting involved or practising in Nigeria is a dangerous vocation. They must have also summed up all these variables and came up with that sad conclusion.
With all these challenges that you have highlighted, what do you think is the way out?
Well, that we cannot give in the face of this avalanche of challenge because society looks up to us as journalists to rescue it from the dungeon of the problem. The media has become the last hope of the common man today. It is an obvious reason. We will not give in. We will continue to give the best from the difficult situation.
What is your reaction to the National Assembly’s move to regulate the country’s media operation?
Nobody is afraid of being regulated, even the Nigerian Press Organisation that is made up of Nigeria Union of Journalists, Nigeria Guild of Editors and the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria are not afraid of regulation. What we are saying is that: Let the stakeholders be involved in this discourse and address the issue. Instead of addressing it from a particular angle –from a government perspective or the media perspective. The media has agreed that it has a challenge of fake news and hate speech. These things are threatening the very fabric of this country. We cannot keep mute while the house burns. Let the government bring its ideas and the professionals bring theirs so that we can amend the necessary laws. Let’s agree and be on the same page so that there won’t be mutual suspicion. I’m happy that the sponsor of the NPC Amendment Bill, Olusegun Odebunmi, has also announced that it has been suspended to give room for more discussion. That’s good.
How does the Union plan to address the issue of harassment of journalists by state and non-state actors?
Our colleagues should know that there is no immunity for unruly behaviour. When you behave like someone that does not have professional etiquette, society will also treat you in that light. But if you present yourself as a respected person, I can assure you nobody will molest you. I want to appeal to the state and non-state actors that we are all doing the same thing for this country. All we want is to build a country that works. A conducive environment, an environment that attracts investors. We do it from a different angle, the security men do it from different angles but we all have the same target. We should not be seen antagonising others. Let us see ourselves as equal stakeholders
In 2020, during the COVID-19, many journalists contracted the virus while some lost their jobs. Are you making an effort for their compensation?
We have consistently been appealing to government and I’m still using this medium to appeal to the governments at all levels. At the peak of that health crisis, we engaged the government because it just appeared that the media is the worst hit in the whole thing. An appreciable number of journalists lost their jobs. We also lost some people, who died in the process. We urge the government to rescue the media because if the media collapse, it means there is a problem. There will be information blackout. We need to see and treat journalists as front-liners. The journalists were seen at the forefront of every activity during the lockdown. They are seen moving around to educate the public.
What plans do you have for members in terms of training and retraining?
The issue of training and retraining is key. The way the practitioners of the 1970s and 1980s did is not the way it is done now. The world is dynamic and information is moving at the speed of light unlike 20 to 30 years ago.
Today, information moves faster on social media.
Training of members is an area where I can score myself an appreciable percentage because I’m not taking it lightly. Even at the peak of COVID-19, we were doing hybrid training — both online and offline. We did it with Taiwo Obe; a journalism clinic. We did one recently on health; how to manage our organs. It was done by doctors from India. We have done a lot of training virtually and physically, I believe that a stagnant journalist is poisonous to society. Then, midgets were used, today android phones do that. Even wrist watches, pens and others serve several purposes.
Your three-year tenure is going to an end, would say that you have performed to the expectation?
Yes, I will say I have spent less than two years in office –I have not spent three years. It is no fault of anybody because the year 2020 was a total shutdown across the world. That was the situation that we found ourselves in but did not relent. My campaign then was to rescue the Union. You cannot rescue what is work and formidable. We started by having an interface with stakeholders. In doing this, I led the exco of the Union to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, we sat down with him, we discussed some of the things I have said here. Before then it hadn’t happened in a while. When we came on board, the salary of journalists was a thing of when it comes but it is no longer like that. When we came there was no mobility at the Secretariat, all that we had were grounded, today, there is none that is not working. When we came on board, the only means of identification of journalists — a non-journalist in the name of a consultant did identity card production. Today, NUJ now has a domain name, we now print our ID cards by ourselves –it is no longer in the hands of an outsider. We can tell you the number of ID cards that we have out there. Today, if I’m being asked to give an account of my stewardship nobody will say we owe him. We just finished what people described as the best National Conference organised by the Union in its history, in a time like this when it is difficult for anybody to fund anything. We did it. We don’t joke with our meetings, these are constitutional issues. When we came in we prioritised the welfare of our members, when we came we discovered that some media outfits were owing a huge amount of salary, the employees wanted us to go for picketing but we said no we have our strategy of getting things changed. I’m glad today that most of them have paid off their backlogs. Yes, it is not yet Uhuru. The Union is still a work in progress. We may not have been where we planned to but we are certainly not where we were. And the journey continues.
Some councils are having issues where some have approached the court, can you tell us what you are doing about that?
Well, if you have like 100 children and two or three decide to be prodigal — to go bunkers, yes, you make efforts to get them but it doesn’t mean that you have raised unruly children because you still have 97 that are behaving well, right? As we speak, the situation in Benue is just because of the recent election, they didn’t agree but I must tell you that the situation 20 years ago is not the same now as people are becoming wiser and desperate for power. Social media has its good and bad parts —it has also not helped matters because people now have access to vent. Once someone rejects an outcome and puts on WhatsApp it spreads faster. When an industrial court ordered the arrest of NUJ president, VP, Secretary and others over purported contempt, people who shared the same opinion started celebrating but they didn’t understand what it meant. What it means is that, there is one man that personified the Union, that’s the NUJ president. The moment the president is held, the Union is held and members who are celebrating are held.
We have told them that we are law-abiding citizens; we have respect for the court. We do not know of any court order. If we had known there wouldn’t have been an election because we must respect the court decision. There was nothing like that. The election was held on the third and the court order was issued to us in the night. There was no way we would have known. We are not seers. When we received it, we told our lawyer to appear on the adjourned date.
Are you contesting in the next election?
There is something they called aspiration and desire and there is what they called ambition. If you look at them critically they might look the same but they are not the same. Three years ago I had a desire. I had an ambition three years ago; this time around do I have a desire? Do I have ambition? Do I intend to aspire? Do I have that bid and move to aspire? Well, we will look at time as it evolves. As it continues to evolve we will continue to assess our desires. If they continue to fall in tandem with the collective interest, there is nothing wrong with having a desire but if they are not in line with the collective interest, there is also nothing wrong in keeping a desire.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.