Ken Ugbechie

Don’t get snookered. This is not about whether Rotimi Amaechi, the Minister of Transportation, reads Daily Trust newspaper. It is about Amaechi and the show of shame by soldiers at three offices of Media Trust Limited, publishers of Daily Trust newspapers and other titles in Maiduguri, Abuja and Lagos.

For those who still can’t classify him, Amaechi is a big beneficiary of the lucrative Nigerian politics. Before his incursion into politics, he was the public relations officer of the private clinic (Pamo Clinics) of Dr. Peter Odili, a former governor of Rivers State. He was guided into politics by Odili, now his estranged political godfather. Beyond the avuncular hand of Odili, Amaechi’s involvement in student unionism at the University of Port Harcourt also helped his harvest of fortune in politics.

For much of last week Amaechi and the military trended in the media space. Free-talking Amaechi is a reporter’s delight. Journalists like politicians who talk and talk. Amaechi is top on the bill. He’s a nice guy who loves to talk, sometimes foolishly. It was no surprise that an audio where he dismissed President Muhammadu Buhari as a dullard who does not read, where he dismissed Buhari as agent of pain whose three years reign has brought more tears to Nigerians and as the harbinger of hunger and poverty, grabbed the headlines.

They were the unkindest things to say about a man you are selling to Nigerians to vote in again for another four years. It is colossal betrayal of the trust Buhari had in Amaechi. It is a stab in the back of a man you genuflect before him in vainglorious humility and conceited eye service. In one moment of public persuasion Amaechi says Buhari is the best man for the Presidency, a God-send, a man of messianic relevance and symbolism. He sells Buhari as a man without blemish. Yet, behind Buhari, Amaechi scoffs at the President as a promoter of pain and architect of Nigeria’s blooming poverty index. That’s betrayal. That’s chameleonic character. It is not to be associated with a leader.

A leader is a man of his own convictions. He does not mutate from white to black. He’s not bipolar. A leader, a good one, is slow to speak, temperate in temperament, lucid in language and not given to ambiguity. Amaechi is given to too much ambiguity. He’s given to character mutation. You don’t really know where he stands. If Amaechi could utter the unprintable things he said about Buhari before journalists, albeit off-the-record, you can now excuse him for turning against Odili, his godfather; you can excuse him for walking out on his former party, the PDP; for plotting against former President, Goodluck Jonathan and always mouthing from the soapbox that PDP, a party he was a part of for 16 years, achieved nothing.

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But Amaechi was just unlucky this time. He’s just the fall guy in a crowd of Buhari sycophants. Perhaps, the real Amaechi was the one who spoke to journalists reeling out all the character flaws and deficiencies of the same man he adores openly with feigned military loyalty. Whereas all that he said about Buhari and his reign tallies with prevailing public opinion, it still does not make Amaechi any less than a traitor. He simply betrayed Buhari.

Yet, there is something more troubling about the leaked Amaechi audio. It is sad that journalists no longer respect the sacred tenets of journalism. Journalists are privileged professionals. They are the only professionals empowered by law to pry into the affairs of people especially public actors the likes of Amaechi. Only a journalist starts the day with breakfast in a governor’s lodge and ends it with dinner in the Presidential lodge. Such are the privileges available to a journalist amid a minefield of risks. But no journalist worthy of his honour should abuse such privilege. Amaechi prefaced his loose talk with ‘this is off the record’, meaning it should not be made public. Off-the-record means it is for your ears only. The journalist who released the audio erred in this regard. It is an exhibition of rascality and gross misconduct. When a source pleads ‘off-the-record’, journalists should as a matter of responsibility respect that. No journalist tells all he or she knows, sees and hears. It is a privilege but it comes with responsibility. News reporting feeds on trust. When your source trusts you, he feeds you with more information. This is why the most effective reporters are neither flippant nor garrulous.

While Amaechi was grabbing the headlines, the Nigerian military was writing its own story. Soldiers invaded the premises of Media Trust Limited, publishers of Daily Trust newspaper and other titles and arrested two journalists. Reason? The newspaper’s story of that day was an affront on national security and a breach of the Official Secrets Act, says the military. The military was right. The story was too detailed and laced with hard facts on military operational strategies against terror in the North East. A good story, no doubt, but such story is for the eyes of the editors only. Herein is the dilemma of the journalist. He walks the tight rope. He must at all times strike a balance between the people’s right to know and national interest/national security.

Yet, while Media Trust erred in dishing out explicit details that would undermine reconnaissance and infantry operations of the Nigerian troops against the insurgents, the military was highhanded in the manner it handled the matter. Simultaneously invading the offices of Media Trust in Maiduguri, Abuja and Lagos with fully armed soldiers, ransacking the offices and carting away desktop computers and laptops brings back the sad memory of military brutality that hallmarked military rule in those days. The military ought to have opted for a more civil way of inviting the relevant journalists for questioning to enrich its investigation. Taking the gestapo option only makes the journalists to take a hardline. There have been talks about moles in the military. The Media Trust scoop would help to unravel such moles but that is only when you have treated the journalists fairly, respecting their dignity.

With the way the soldiers annexed the premises of Media Trust, I doubt if the reporter would be cooperative enough to avail the military details of his scoop which the soldiers badly need to unravel the myth of moles in their midst. If I were the Army chief, I will make the reporter my friend. I will never harass him. A reporter who could dish out such detailed information about military operations with accuracy sure knows more. The only way to win him over and deploy the intelligence at his disposal is to befriend him, not intimidate him.

The media is a partner with the military and other security agencies. Seeing the media as the enemy next door does not bode well for anybody. I guess editors at Media Trust may have learnt a lesson from their error but the bigger lesson should be learnt by the military: Always treat the media with civility and respect. Then and only then will you harvest unlimited goodwill which the media is ever willing to offer.