Nigerian Journalists and ‘Brown Envelopes’

By ELOR NKEREUWEM

“Why is it alright for us to shout on the mountain tops about what politician has stuffed money in his cap but make it a taboo to speak of the corruption and rot in our industry?”
Before last weekend, the question of Nigeria’s underdevelopment, to my mind, revolved around the infrastructural and economic backwardness that is overwhelmingly apparent in our country. Last weekend, at the CNN Multichoice African Journalist 2012 Awards in Lusaka, Zambia, my perception of the true state of my country took a drastic turn.
It was a turn for the worse.
I have been a journalist for just under four years, a larger part of which was spent lambasting government establishments and politicians for ruining our country and failing to utilize Nigeria’s rich endowment in a manner that would affect the so-called ‘masses’.
I was shamed this weekend in Lusaka when I realised that the very industry in which I work is no better than the government, Federal and State, which we so delightfully and lavishly condemn.
I was one of the 34 finalists of what is generally regarded as one of the most prestigious journalism awards on the continent. Having sat through sessions and watched as my Kenyan and South African colleagues garnered almost all the awards on offer, and having failed to win in my category (losing to South Africans), one lesson boomed through my mind: as much as the Nigerian media tries to project an image of sophistication and superiority, we are, at our best, mediocre.
I must at this point concede that one Nigerian, Ahaoma Kanu, went home with a trophy for the Tourism Category. I must also point out that the nomination for the awards in itself is a huge honour and four different nominations for Nigeria is a testament that we are not so far behind.
That said, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Nigerian journalists can barely measure up with their Kenyan or South African counterparts. Kenya has swept the overall prize for two years in a row. For this year, a look at the sheer sophistication and number of the entries from this East African country is sufficient testimony of the quality of journalism practiced there.
The Nigerian media cannot boast of this. The reason for this is apparent. The Nigerian media is unable to function efficiently and independently because journalists are financially dependent on the very persons they are supposed to be watchdogs over.
How is it possible to ‘truly’ report the not so flattering truth about a person who feeds you? How is it possible to genuinely pursue real stories about real people when one knows that at that boring, mind-numbing ‘press conference’, there is an assurance of a few thousand naira or more?
How is it possible to sincerely write investigative and enterprise stories in that beat that one has been assigned to when such a story might hurt so-and-so director or ‘oga’ and subsequently affect the financial benefits or travel opportunities that accompany the beat reporter in the Nigerian environment? How is it possible for an editor or publisher to consider running those stories which may affect his relationship with that top politician and eventually affect his income from advertisement not to speak of the other ‘dashes’ that he gains from such valuable associations?
I will be the first to speak of the shame that overwhelms me when I see my colleagues rushing for the ‘brown envelopes’ that are usually on offer at press conferences and other events. I will be the first to say that I am ashamed when I hear of journalists begging or blackmailing errant politicians or persons in the private sector for financial favours.
Much more worrisome than the existence of these shameful vices is the fact that it has become a taboo to speak of this subject in the industry. Why must we speak of the very issue that ruins Nigerian journalism only in hush tones or never at all? Why is it alright for us to shout on the mountain tops about what politician has stuffed money in his cap or of what politician has divorced his teenaged wife and married a 14-year old to replace her but make it a taboo to speak of the corruption and rot in our industry?
Is it the case that the Publishers and Editors of the various news organizations do not know that their reporters actively take bribes which have now been nick-named ‘brown envelopes’? Is it conceivable that editors take a share of these financial favours, the same way the journalists accuse the police officers of doing? Is there no shame or pride or dignity to be found in reporters or editors?
Which brings me to the fundamental question; why do Nigerian journalists take bribes?
One argument is that journalists are poorly paid. The truth is that ‘poorly paid’ is an understatement. A colleague once told me that one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country, head quartered in Abuja, pays its junior reporters about N30,000 ($187) per month. Difficult as that is to believe, other news organizations are no better. The range is between N20,000 and N40,000 ($124-$247). One or two pay about N70,000 ($432)- these ones are the high flyers.
It is therefore conclusive that more than 80 per cent of the journalists in the country do not earn enough to pay their basic bills.
The response to this line of argument is usually that the news organizations do not earn so much and cannot afford to pay more. I argue that this is only partly true. There is also the argument that journalism is not a profession to be entered into to gain wealth. If this is true, this burden of ‘working without a mind for profits’ ought to be shared among publishers, editors, and reporters alike. It makes no sense to urge a reporter to live in penury while the publishers and editors live in luxury, after all, based on the argument of journalism not being for profit making, a newspaper should be more concerned about acting as a watchdog than in making profits as a business.
Publishers and editors also throw in the argument that reporters are allowed to bring in advertisement sales and get paid commissions. It is shocking that it is not immediately apparent that there is a huge issue of not just ethics but conflict of interests here. Why is it that in countries where advanced journalism is practiced, a huge gulf between the marketing and editorial departments is deliberately created?
It is hard to understand why publishers in Nigeria do not see the need to create this distinction. Is it reasonable to expect that a reporter will report objectively without bias, if need arises, on a body that he earns commissions from? In any case, why would a news organization not simply hire professionals to bring in adverts and then convert the commissions to a salary hike? Why burden the reporters with not just doing his job but seeking income for himself and the organization?
The way I see it, the Nigerian media industry sets up a reporter to be corrupt; first by making him susceptible to taking bribes and second by turning a blind eye when he does. From the point where a rookie makes an entry into journalism, in most cases, he is groomed to accept financial favours. It therefore becomes a huge task to make decisions about the ethics of the profession or morality when he or she has fully grown into maturity.
Having said that, I believe that the decision to either fit into a mould created by society or to create a standard for oneself based on globally accepted norms is a personal decision. As much as we may argue that journalists are prone to taking bribes because of their poor remuneration, the truth is that it is greed and the desire for more than we can legitimately acquire that pushes journalists to take bribes. If a person cannot take a gun to rob another person because he does not have enough, he ought not to take a bribe because he does not have enough. Both are criminal acts; if you are religious, both are sins.
Whatever way one may choose to explain the Nigerian journalists’ penchant for bribes, the fact remains that the corruption in the Nigerian media will continue to affect the performance of the individual journalist. International competitions make the mediocrity of our work apparent.
At this point, news organizations must wake up; journalists must wake up. Enough of hiding our heads in the sand; enough of becoming defensive when we are faced with our own failures. If there is a cloak of corruption that has enveloped this country, the media must be the first to shake it off and be who we are supposed to be.

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