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Free press is part of democratic culture media should guard jealously – NPAN President

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Yusuf

This year’s World Press Freedom Day, which is due tomorrow, reminds governments at all levels of their commitment to press freedom. In this interview with BRIDGET CHIEDU ONOCHIE and SADIQ OMOLAOYE, President, Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Mallam Kabir Abdullahi Yusuf, who is also the Chairman, Daily Trust Newspaper, gave insight into the impacts of the theme on stakeholders. He also spoke on the significance of hosting the event in Namibia 30 years after it originated from the country.

In an era of social media and its attendant unverifiable information in the public space, would it be easy to convince the populace about news information being a public good? 
Well, it is said that nothing good comes easy. We have to keep trying, especially the serious media. We have to earn the credibility and trust of people through our work. There is a lot of distrust of institution by young people because traditional institutions, including government, have disappointed many young people. So, the traditional media is also having its own challenges; it is not very fast and it is also, sometimes, very officious. So, there are reasons young people are migrating to other forms of media, sometimes social media. And they don’t care too much about the truth of the story.

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Sometimes, they want affirmation of what they are going through and they get it from social influencers and people like that and I can understand. But like I said, we have to try and do the work that should be done by educating, which is important, by informing which is also important and lastly, by entertaining. I think that way, we can draw back some of the audience to make them appreciate the real work of fact-checked information.

The annual commemoration of WPFD has its origin in Namibia. Is it coincidental that 30 years afterwards, the event is returning to the country, and what is the significance of the hosting, not only in Africa but in Namibia where the journey began?
Interestingly, I have a bit of a background on Namibia. I lived there for a year leading up to its independence between 1989 and 1990. It is a small country overshadowed by South Africa. I think it is quite significant if this day would be held there – one of the latest African countries to get its independence. One in which the information struggle for the right candidate contributed to liberating the people. One of the things I remember about Namibia is the role of the media in the fight against domination by Apartheid South Africa. There was a very strong media and it contributed to the struggle.

So, I think it is quite significant and probably not accidental that Namibia was chosen for the event. For us as Africans, what it does emphasise is that we have to create credible organs of dissemination of information. Namibia is a small and very poor country but they were able to do this and it has made them a fairly liberal society where the government is kept in check by a very free media and that has helped to make it a kind of place to hold this celebration unlike many countries which are dominated by strong men and people who keep power for ever until they are overthrown by somebody.

Yearly, Nigeria joins the rest of the world to commemorate the day. How will the event of this year influence the production, distribution and consumption of news information here? 
It is a reminder to us who are in the journalism business that the freedom of the press is something we should jealously guard. We should fight for it, promote it, we should be responsible about it and we should value it because it is part of the culture of democracy. We may be small part of the democratic institutions but we are the Fourth Estate. We are as important as the parliament, the executive and the judiciary.

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Often, we don’t take ourselves that seriously perhaps because, we are all struggling as a media to survive, pay salaries and do other things but it does remind us that we have a responsibility to society, to keep it well informed and to also keep those in power in check because without that, we may lose the freedom we all take for granted.

It is said that Nigeria has the freest press in the world. Do you agree with this position? 
Having been in journalism for a good number of years and having seen it elsewhere, I would say we have tried. This free press in Nigeria is not something that was given to us; it is something we fought for. And I think that says something about the nature of the Nigerian people and even the way the country is structured. No one group in the country can dominate the other. There is a balance and therefore, this creates room for people to tell the truth and people who want to practice journalism can do it without any oppression. So, if you compare us to many countries – I have served on the Board of International Press Institute based in Diana, I have gone on missions to some countries even in Africa like Egypt and Ethiopia – I think only a few like South Africa and to some extent Kenya have a free press. And this free press is because of historical reasons. The press was part of the struggle for independence, the press had to fight the military rule and the press has now developed the muscle to stand on its own in the democratic setting we have, to hold politicians to account and to do it without apologies. We get backlash but we fight back and that makes us truly one of the free countries in the world.

In spite of the hostile environment in which media industry operates, practitioners have remained resolute in their obligations to the society. Yet, sections of the society still perceive the media in bad light. How can this negative stereotype be obliterated?
That perception is probably partly true because not all the media is upholding that value I mentioned earlier. Some under pressure are also willing to compromise in order to survive. We do know that there is a lot of corrupt practices in the media. A lot of journalists are forced to be at the behest of those in power or those holding serious economic positions.

This is what is happening. I am not trying to gloss over the reality. But I am saying that the credible, respected media in the country are able to uphold the values of a free press. And because they do that, they are rewarded by society; they are rewarded by the economy and by the market. So, you can be credible, uphold the truth and still make it as a media company.

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That is what is encouraging many of us to try – that it is not only by being close to those in power or getting things corrupted that you can make it.

What is the place of stakeholders in ensuring that those within and outside government begin to see information as a public good?
Personally, I feel as media practitioners that we should help ourselves. There is nobody who can help us. Our image is poor.

A lot of people believe they can buy the media and a lot of people do that. A lot of powerful people in business and in government will call you and ask you to put certain information on the front page. Or they will tell you that they have an editorial or there is a story they wouldn’t want you to publish. If you listen to that, it is unhelpful. It doesn’t help you. I think the way to success, no matter how hard it is, is to be independent and serve your readers faithfully and transparently. And that means you have the readership and you have the advertisement. I am persuaded that the society and market will reward us if we do the right thing. It might take a long time but we will surely get the reward.

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