Former Ogun State Governor, Chief Olusegun Osoba, has been in the news in the past few days for various reasons. The first was the announcement of his decision to join the All Progressives Congress (APC) party. That is not the subject of this article. What is of interest to me is what Osoba reportedly said at the first quarterly National Executive Council (NEC) meeting of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) at Ikeja, Lagos, about 10 days ago.
Osoba said at the forum that journalism was on the edge of annihilation because of the challenges posed by new media. He said journalism as a profession was not only threatened but the media were also endangered. He said: “We are on the brink of extinction and the media is on its way out.”
He said journalists must respond vigorously to the challenges of new media and counter not only the threats posed by technological changes that have transformed journalistic practices but also the dangerous activities of people he referred to as “quacks”. Let me quickly clarify that it is not new media that is responsible for the emergence of impostors in journalism. Rather, unprofessional practices have arisen because of what people do with technologies.
A similar sentiment was expressed in the early days of the telephone when people grumbled that the telephone was responsible for an upsurge in crimes in society. The telephone as a technological artefact did not commit crimes. People used the telephone to engage in sharp practices.
Worried by the impact of fake journalists on the profession, Osoba said: “For most of us in the profession, we must check the actions of quacks and everybody claiming to be journalist; they are not members of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ)… We should not allow this profession to be corrupted by few individuals, who are turned to tools in the hands of some people for their own interest… NUJ as a body needs to see that they are in charge, otherwise Internet would be turned by some people to avenues of blackmail, which are perpetrated by non-professionals.”
Osoba asked the NUJ leadership to be more practical in handling unprofessional conduct by fake journalists, who pose as professionals. He urged the union officials to check the activities of certain bloggers on the Internet. This is a huge task for the NUJ officials to undertake. Unfortunately, Osoba may have portrayed himself unintentionally as someone who is intolerant of free expression of opinion on the Internet.
To be clear, quacks have always interfered in journalism and by doing so, they have hampered professional journalistic practices even before the emergence of the Internet. Specifically, it is not the Internet or new media that encouraged the rise of quacks. Quacks constitute a nuisance to other professions as well. They exist in medical practice, in the legal profession, in engineering, in advertising, in public relations and in the building and construction industry. In fact, every professional association has had to grapple with the activities of conmen and women. Journalism is not an exception.
Journalists and their unions must find a way to deal with quacks. Osoba made a valid point about the irritation that impostors cause to professional journalism practice. But it is not right to suggest that new technologies may be responsible for producing quacks in journalism.
The Internet was designed as an open and democratic platform for free expression. All classes of men and women are free to express themselves on the Internet in the tradition of Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression – and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any medium and regardless of frontiers.” However, the freedom that people have to express their views on the Internet, just as the freedom that applies to comments made in the public domain, is not absolute. Even on the Internet, there are laws that apply to free speech. Such laws limit what people can say and get away with.
While the Internet grants people the freedom to express their views, there are laws that govern Internet use and what people can say or not say on the Internet. In various parts of the world, people defamed or libelled on the Internet have successfully taken legal action. It is, therefore, misleading for anyone to assume they can publish anything about any person, no matter how damaging, and get away free because the publication was made on the Internet. That is not so.
In a more pointed warning, Osoba said: “We may also get to a stage whereby nobody will buy newspapers anymore. We should be ready to get to that time when newspapers would be free and only be sustained by adverts.” This view is not new. Following the advent of the Internet and other digital technologies, there were widespread suggestions that technological transformations would signal the death of mainstream media. More than two decades later, those predictions have remained unproven.
There is no question that new technologies, such as new media, have profoundly affected the way journalism is practised across cultures. These changes have posed serious challenges to traditional forms of journalism, including existing business models of journalism. New media have also altered the nature of the relationship between professional journalists and ordinary citizens. For these reasons, journalism and communication scholars have argued that the egalitarian and open appeal of the Internet has spawned all genres of news, including, in particular, different forms of news reporters.
As the channels of news reporting, production, and dissemination have widened in this digital age, some people have wondered whether these transformations have diluted the perceptions of journalists and editors as gatekeepers. As everyone knows, ordinary citizens are now able to gather, report, produce and distribute news, photos, and videos, roles that are traditionally associated with professional journalists.
New media are gaining popularity in Africa, as in other parts of the world partly because mainstream print and electronic media lack credibility because they are seen to be undemocratic. In his address, Osoba did not seem to point to the shortcomings of traditional mainstream media that may have harmed their credibility and rating in the public domain. Nigerian journalists cannot operate as if nothing has changed in ways they collect, report, and produce news.
Mainstream media in Nigeria – both privately owned and state owned – have lost the respect accorded to them essentially because of their poor reporting traditions, their unwillingness to change and their failure to reflect the realities of journalism in the 21st century. Indeed, mainstream media have lost their esteem because they lack professionalism, and because they no longer serve as a platform that enables minorities, less privileged people and the voiceless in our society to express their views freely. These are issues that ought to concern Osoba. When media abandon their social responsibility in society, other channels of communication, particularly those outlets that serve the needs of citizens, rise to fill that gap.
It is not necessarily new technologies that have threatened journalism in Nigeria but the shortcomings of the local media. Public distrust of the media is growing because the media are no longer seen as credible channels of news and information. Citizens who are denied reliable sources of news find in the new media a veritable replacement for mainstream media. That explains why citizens are using new media to break free from the blemishes of traditional media.
Local media are losing their support base because they are perceived to be élite-oriented in content and presentation style. This is precisely why Karin Barber argues that, “In Africa, ordinary people tend to be invisible and inaudible… Newspapers, radio and television offer a magnified image of the class that controls them. Not only does the ruling élite make the news, it is the news – as endless verbatim reports of politicians’ speeches, accounts of élite weddings and birthday parties, and the pages and pages of expensive obituaries testify.”
In Nigeria, as in other parts of the world, minority groups and less-privileged people use new media to communicate information about their conditions to people across the world. Take, for example, the Niger Delta region where the struggles for resource control and proper environmental management have forced environmental activists and militant groups to use new media to communicate their plight to the global community.
If journalists are threatened by technological changes, the best way to respond is to uphold the ethical principles that encourage truthful, accurate, fair and balanced reporting. When journalists report fairly and accurately and reflect the truth, they are more than likely to survive the challenges of modern technologies. However, I should point out that upholding the principles of journalism is not sufficient to guarantee that technological changes will not affect the way journalism is practised. The times are changing and so journalism must respond to changes in society and in the profession.
Rather than regard new media as threats to professional journalism practice in Nigeria, new media should be seen as an opportunity for journalists to reform, to renew their practices, and to explore innovative ways of reporting, producing, and distributing news. Journalists cannot continue to operate in the same old-fashioned ways.
As the saying goes, when one door closes, journalists should construct new doors that serve the interests of the public. If journalism in Nigeria is threatened by new technologies, it must be because editors and journalists are averse to change. When new media threaten and undermine traditional ways of doing journalism, journalists must respond positively by creating other credible channels of news and current affairs reporting that will satisfy the news needs of their audiences.