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Re-enacting Henry Townsend’s Iwe Irohin 160 years after in Abeokuta

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Scores of scholars, from the academia and professional journalists from the media with a handful of veteran journalists gathered in Abeokuta Ogun State, Nigeria for two days (September 3rd and 4th) brain storming on issues of “National Interest, Freedom of Expression and Governance in Africa”. An emotion – packaged theme of the conference.

It was at the well-attended sixth annual conference of Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria (ACSPN), that the speakers delivered, though thought- provoking papers on the performance of Nigeria media and the consolidation of democracy, with special references and emphasis on 160 years of newspaper journalism in Nigeria.

The Conference commemorates 160 years of the advent of “Iwe Irohin”, the bi-lingual weekly tabloid of Rev. Henry Townsend of the C.M.S mission Abeokuta 1859 – 1867.

The programme of the conference was tightly packaged and gave room for a diversity of academic and professional discourse on many issues that are currently troubling Nigerian mass media, as well as issues of national interest. The topics were numerous and they provided participants with the opportunities for fertilization of ideas. The debates featured; freedom of expression, the new media, development communication policy, gender issues, advertising, public relations and national interest, film and broadcasting; journalism media and communication. Sitting and listening to the discussions on the various issues on old and contemporary media was a great pleasure to every one that attended the conference.

The issues of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, fake news in social media, and problems of on-line journalism were dominant at the conference as the findings from some scholarly studies became instant topical matters for discussion at syndicate level of the conference. At syndicate levels participants were able to provide adequate knowledge on all topics.

As Eniola, K. (2014) once put it during a paper presentation at Joseph Ayo Babalola University, Ikeji-Arakeji, “research are some of the core functions of every academics, and they are intended to increase knowledge or to solve contemporary problems”

The ACSPN conference provided Nigerians with many research-based solutions to the problems facing the country’s press freedom issue and challenges facing the people’s freedom of expression.

For instance, the issue of national identity which was the lead paper by a distinguished scholar, Prof. Popoola, raised a number of problems facing us today, especially the challenges inherent in who defines national identity. So, also was the paper titled “Democracy at 20 In Nigeria: coping with Anti-Press Laws And violent extremism Against the media”. This paper written by three academics, Tayo Popoola, Olubunmi Ajibade and Vincent Obia, of the department of Mass communication, University of Lagos, exposed the dangers and travails which the media and journalists have passed through in the last 20 years of uninterrupted democracy in Nigeria. The paper which was presented at the group session of the conference reveals that the period of 20 years, 1999-2019, have been tough for media professionals when one examines how journalists and media operators painfully cope with anti-press laws. The paper laments that this is contrary to popular expectations that civil rule would promote press freedom. The ten-point recommendations, put forward by the researchers, to stem the tide of violent extremism against the media in Nigeria, should be made available to government by the organizers of the conference. The President should have a copy of this document in his office.

It should also find a space to occupy in the minds of state governors who see themselves as the Lords over the governed, rather than seeing themselves as servants to the people.

Media professionals have part of the blame by denying themselves of the advantages of press freedom. Many of them practice journalism under self censorship.

Many journalists have abandoned their professional roles as builders of society through ethical participation in providing society’s information needs without compromising their integrity.

I am referring to acceptance of gratification and gifts by some section of Nigerian journalists. It is our professional duty to give critical appraisal to key ethical issues relating to journalism.

Even through the standard of journalism education has risen with the number of training institutions, at the same time, the standard of journalism practice has fallen. This is a serious issue to be addressed by Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ). To me, NUJ is currently more active in labour unionism than in eradicating the unethical manners being displayed by young journalists in the media.

In a 2018 study on the perceptions of mass communication students in three Nigerian universities on journalism practice and brown envelope, this writer, sought to know whether the respondents consider it inimical to their profession to demand and accept gratification. Out of the 150 students interviewed 69 per cent agreed that it is inimical to their profession, but 50 of the respondents see gratifications to journalists as hospitality on the part of news sources.

This is where NUJ and members of Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria and the Nigerian Guild of Editors should come together, sleeplessly, to iron out this disgraceful challenge facing the profession.

I recall that in our days in the Daily Times and Nigerian Tribune newsrooms of the 1960s – 70s, any reporter who was caught in a brown envelope situation after covering his or her assignment, got an instant dismissal. This was the foundation of good ethical journalism laid down by Jose, Jakande, Odunewu, and their likes.

The UNESCO’s Model curricula for journalism education for developing countries recommends that in teaching journalism ethics, schools should create an Ethics journalism ethics, schools should create Ethics of journalism Laboratory where students can recreate and face ethical dilemmas similar to those found in newsrooms. Departments of journalism should adopt this as a remedy to the current situation.

Returning to the deliberations at the ACSPN’s conference at Abeokuta, the issue of “Fake News” and “On-Line journalism practice” were intensely debated by all the participants and some papers that were presented and a book written on the subject provided some insight into the numerous challenges facing society as a result of show of unprofessional journalism by untrained online “journalists”. A paper presented by Ogedengbe, K, and Kolawole, S, ex-rayed the problems and prospects of “On line journalism practice in Nigeria” and they conclude thus: “Everyone can claim to be exercising freedom of expression while passing themselves off as journalists. The users are also not always able to distinguish the difference as long as they are getting served. These challenges offer an opportunity for professionals to stamp their feet on the online space by offering quality journalism that plays by the rules and offers professional treatment of news on a consistent basis.”

The conference, to me, came at the right time, when our journalism practice is suffering from some curable diseases, fake news, and all kinds of unethical mannerisms.

All these and other problems confronting Nigeria’s media were duly tabled, discussed and solutions proffered at the conference. Even intermittent references to “Iwe Irohin….” by the legendary C. M. S. Missionary, Rev. Henry Townsend which he established in Abeokuta 160 years ago, (December 3rd, 1859), provided the participants with the vividness of how the media should function in society.

The Abeokuta CMS Missionary newspaper, though was a religious organ, devoted its pages to serve society’s interest and even confronted the colonial government and its policies when such policies were anti-social reforms. The “Iwe Irohin” on which the Abeokuta conference rested its sixth annual conference, continues to remind us, professionals and academics in journalism practice and journalism education, that journalism is a friend of the people and society, not a parastatal of government. The conference reminds us that the role of journalism is society includes securing democracy.

As Lai Oso (2012) once asked “Press and Politics in Nigeria: on whose side?” In that paper delivered during Lagos University’s inaugural lecture series, seven years ago, Oso paid attention to some of the factors which motivated the pioneer journalists in their critical onslaughts on the colonial administration. He then emphasized’ “It is my belief that we cannot adequately understand the media without situating them within the socio-historical context within which they exist. These factors produced, mainly by the dynamics of the colonial and post-colonial situation, have to be taken on board in any discussion of the performance of the Nigerian mass media during any period since 1859 when the first newspaper was established”. This statement corroborates the normative theory which, according to Folarin (1998:19) locates media structure and performance within the environment in which they operate. In its days, “Iwe Irohin” did its best to tackle the foreign policy of the British as it affects Lagos colony and the Egba ascendancy. It sided with the people in many of its publications even though Rev. Townsend was cautioned against his newspaper’s critifcal editorials both from Lagos and London. His newspaper insisted on social responsibility until it ceased to appear in 1867 as a result of socio-political revolt which resulted in the expulsion of Europeans from Abeokuta.

Down memory lane, we find, “Lagos Weekly Record” of John Payne Jackson publishing all political events, speeches, and government’s actions and editorials on colonial governance, uncompromisingly. The newspaper maintained its vigorous opposition to the government whenever the colonial government ‘misbehaved’ to the people, especially on unpopular legislations.

According to Olukoju (2014), “The newspaper’s regular columns ‘Weekly Notes and Comments’ were a must for Lagos readers of that period, because it captured sundry events as they took place”. Jackson edited Lagos Weekly Record from 1891-1915 passing the mantle to his son Horatio Thomas Jackson who edited the newspaper from 1815 to 1930. They were both men of incisive intellect.

The Lagos, Daily News (1925), the African Messenger (1921) and THE COMET (1933), the West African Pilot (1937) and Nigerian Tribune (1949) and many of their types form the typology of no-nonsense journalism practice in the history of Nigerian Press.

This is the message that this recent conference at Abeokuta has communicated to the contemporary media landscape and the media operators, governments inclusive.

The ACSPN has said it aloud that enough is enough; journalists and media operators need to operate professionally, and not on the ticket of “he who pays the piper… enough of topsy –
turvy journalism”. Nigeria, needs to encourage and promote socially responsible media for economic and political growth of society.

Before I drop my pen on the table, I will suggest that any time the Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria is holding such an elaborate conference, the organizers should invite veteran journalists who are still intensely involved in journalism practice to come and tell their reportorial stories of yester years. This will provide a confluence of experience and professionalism to future participants, and upcoming journalists.

Although this was ably demonstrated by His Royal Majesty Oba Olufemi Ogunleye, the Towulade Akinale, Arole Olowu, who inspite of wearning his relatively heavy royal golden crown, stood up at the conference and treated us to his Daily Times newsroom exploits of the 1970s; samething with Araba Tola Adeniyi, the Abba-Saheed columnist of Daily Times, and former managing director of Daily Times, and the broadcast journalism specialist, Aremo Taiwo Alimi, who took us down memory lane in broadcast journalism. They took participants down to memory lane of Nigeria’s journalism practice, both print and broadcast media.

Mention should be made of the commitments and great efforts made by some professional journalists, in the persons of Niran Malaolu, and the three ‘Lanres’ of Nigerian Press: Lanre Ogundipe, Lanre Idowu and Lanre Arogundade, who were among the ubiquitous active organizers and participants at the conference, along with their northern counterparts. They were all marvelous people of remarkable journalism skill.

What about the accomplished academics, in attendance? Prof. Lai Oso, President of ASCPN; Prof. Umaru Pate (absent with apology); Dr. Kola Adesina; Prof. Abigail Ogwezzy – Ndiska, Dr. Oloruntola Sunday and Dr. Tayo Popoola of UNILAG; Prof. Bolanle Idowu Akeredolu-Ale, Prof. Stella Chinyere Okunna, Prof. Victor Ayedun –Aluma (UNIJOS), Prof. Bayo Oloyede, Prof. Rotimi Olatunji and Prof. Adebayo Fayoyin, of UNFPA, Johannesburg and the first ACSPN Diaspora visiting fellow, to name a few of the participants from the academics. The list of academics at the conference is inexhaustible. They deserve the commendation of the Nigerian media for putting up a great journalism and communication workshop.

One of the highlights of the Abeokuta conference was the launching of a compilation book or anthology on “Fake News And Hate Speech”, edited by Nosa Owens-Ibie, Majority Oji and Joyce Ogwezi with foreword by Winston Mano. It was a well – attended conference that has created some ripples on our media landscape.

Duyile is a lecturer at Elizade University, Ilara-Mokin, Ondo State. He was director of Nigerian Institute of Journalism, (NIJ), Lagos and former editor of the defunct Daily Sketch, Ibadan in the 70s.


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