Monday, 2nd October 2023

Birth of the Ombudsman

By Ray Ekpu
11 April 2023   |   3:53 am
On Monday last week the Nigeria Press Organisation (NPO) set the tone for the birth of a new era of accountable journalism practice. The NPO is made up of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ).

On Monday last week the Nigeria Press Organisation (NPO) set the tone for the birth of a new era of accountable journalism practice. The NPO is made up of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ).

However, in setting up the National Media Complaints Commission (NMCC) whose other name is National Ombudsman, the NPO also worked with journalists in the broadcast and online media to achieve an industry-wide consensus. Since the Code of Ethics of the profession was inaugurated in Ilorin in 1998 there has been no positive development in the industry that can be compared with the inauguration of the Ombudsman. The President of the NPO Mr Kabiru Yusuf and all the fellows who toiled day and night to bring this heart-warming development about deserve a full cup of adulation.

Since 1977 when the then Head of State General Olusegun Obasanjo brought an obnoxious Nigeria Press Council decree that the media kicked against there have been various efforts by subsequent governments to muzzle the press. There were two Press Council decrees by General Ibrahim Babangida the last of which was the Nigeria Press Council Act No. 85 of 1992. This was amended in Act No. 60 of 1999 by the General Abdulsalami Abubakar government. The media rejected it because of its oppressive and punitive clauses.

Then came General Sani Abacha’s National Mass Media Commission and Press Court against which the media offered a robust response because of its potential for the annihilation of the media. Can you imagine that a separate court was to be set up to try the media men and women as if they were common criminals who needed to be singled out for preferentially harsh treatment? And if these attacks on the media occurred during the military you had a right to expect that the media’s freedom will get the support of National Assembly members who are products of a democratic system brought about by the rigour and vigour of the media who fought along with some patriotic persons to drive the military boys out of the scene. If you thought so you were wrong. In the last eight years or so the National Assembly has been the hatchery for oppressive media legislation which the media have had to fight against almost every year. And in several cases the legislation was clandestinely smuggled into their chambers for discussion without the media’s knowledge or invitation to submit their views for consideration.

So the arrival of the National Ombudsman at this time is a most welcome development. It will kill the distrust of the public and also boost public confidence in the media. It will also keep the media men and women on their toes as far as their practice is concerned.

The only media establishment that, on its own, established the office of the ombudsman was the Daily Times under Alhaji Babatunde Jose. Alhaji Alade Odunewu was appointed as the Ombudsman for all the 13 publications in the Daily Times Group. However, some years ago the NPAN appointed a retired judge as an Ombudsman. Some members of the Association kicked against it because the office of the Ombudsman is different from, and not a substitute for, a law court.

Before now the NPAN had ordered its members to appoint an internal ombudsmen in their various media to deal with disputes or conflicts that may arise between their editorial staff and the public. Such ombudsmen are also expected to ensure that their media organisations keep to the canons of journalism practice; keep their news organisations honest and accountable to the public for news reported, and ensure that the public’s right to know is protected by them.

The composition of the National Ombudsman is awesome. It is peopled by men and women of experience in journalism, law, scholarship and a high level of integrity.

They are: Mr Emeka Izeze, Chairman, is a former Editor in Chief and Managing Director of the Guardian newspapers, Mr A.B. Mahmond, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and past President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Professor Chinyere Stella Okunna, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academics) of Paul University, Awka and a media scholar, Dr Hussain Abdu, a development specialist and Country Director, Crae International (Nigeria), Ms Dupe Ajayi-Gbadebo, a journalist, lawyer and arbitrator; Mr Lanre Idowu, Editor in Chief, Diamond Publications Limited and Founder Diamond Awards for Media Excellence (DAME), Mr Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda, Ms Eugenia Abu, broadcaster, author and columnist, and Mr Segun Odebunmi, Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on

With a gathering of such eminent persons from various fields the public should expect nothing but fair and unassailable adjudication. The body is an alternative dispute resolution mechanism which will use its collective wisdom to tackle disputes brought before it. It will have to be guided by two journalism tools (a) the recently revised and approved code of journalism ethics (b) canons of journalism practice. These canons are encapsulated in the acronym FOBAC, that is Fairness, Objectivity, Balance, Accuracy and Completeness.

The range of what people may be expected to complain about will include articles in newspapers and magazines in Nigeria or materials broadcast on radio or television as well as online that a person believes affects his or her unfairly. They are also expected to look into reports filed about the conduct of a journalist that is objectionable and adjudicate on them. Since there are lawyers on the board it may be wise for them to look into legal issues if the combatants agree since it takes quite an inordinately long time to settle cases in our courts. Legal expenditure is also humongous if one is to traverse all the courts all the way to the Supreme Court. A group such as this is absolutely important at this time when the social media artists are poisoning the waters of professional journalism which brings a bad name to the media generally. There are very many one-person news organisations where news is fabricated and dished out to the public. They erroneously call what they do citizen journalism but journalism is a profession guided by rules of practice and ethics. It is not a one-person orchestra.

No one person organisation can dish out information that can pass the journalism test. Journalism is a rigorous profession which needs a long line of reporters, line editors and editors to check and cross-check what is being served to the public. That template has been severely watered down by social media activists who prefer speed to accuracy in their so called news dissemination. The social media anarchists are the most prominent purveyors of fake news and hate speech because most of them are untrained in journalism. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has just announced that it had recorded 22 incidents of hate speech during the recent elections. This was revealed by Mr Hilary Ogbonna who is the Project Coordinator of Mobilising Voters for Election (MOVE) of the Commission. That is a serious accusation that does no credit to those who were the conveyor belts of these pieces of hate speech.

The coverage of the elections by various media fell short of reasonable expectation. There were several cases where the media fanned the embers of disunity and discord and a few cases of profiling too.

The worst aspects of the election coverage were the opinion polls. Almost all the opinion polls as published violated the rules of the Nigerian media code of election coverage. The rule says that “a journalist shall ensure due diligence and exercise restraint in reporting the findings of election opinion polls by clearly stating the context, particularly those who commissioned and conducted the poll, the specific questions that were asked, the number and diversity of people interviewed and the limitations and margin of error of the poll.”

Also the code states that “a media organisation shall make use of objective methodologies that neither favour nor exclude particular groups and interests in conducting election opinion polls.” In these respect it is obvious that all the media that published or broadcast the opinion poll results fell short of the requirements for the dissemination of such poll results. Most of the polls had very limited samples in a country of more than 200 million people and 174, 000 polling units. The media ought to have done better than they did.