Recession In Nigeria: Whither The Media

[ctt template=”5″ link=”2cEkw” via=”no” ]the simplest indicator that a country has gone into recession is when its GDP declines in two consecutive quarters.[/ctt]

[ctt template=”7″ link=”ivIb4″ via=”no” ]the free encyclopedia, “recessions generally occur when there is a widespread drop in spending (an adverse demand shock).[/ctt]

BEING A PAPER BY EMMA AGU, PUBLISHER, ZEST TRAVELLER MAGAZINE AT THE BIENNIAL CONVENTION OF THE NIGERIAN GUILD OF EDITORS AT THE LAGOS AIRPORT HOTEL, IKEJA, LAGOS ON APRIL 29, 2017

Courtesies: His Excellency, Chairman, President….

When I was informed about my choice to give this talk, the first question that crossed by mind was: why me of all people? I felt that the Nigerian Guild Editors (NGE) could well have found an economist or one of the popular critics to handle the subject matter, someone who would be detached enough to critically appraise the role of the media in the recession saga. My conflict got compounded when I read the NGE release where I was described as a quintessential “media expert”, then, wait a minute, “political lobbyist”! I said to myself, this is beginning to take on the colour of a trap.

On a very serious note, I am very grateful to the executive of the NGE for inviting me to give this talk. Actually, the subject matter is one that ought to engage the media even after the third quarter when the CBN tells us, Nigeria will begin to exit the recession. It is our prayerful wish that this forecast holds. Let me also congratulate the President, Mrs. Funke Egbemode for the effective manner in which she has steered the affairs of the Guild since the mantle of leadership fell on her at the Port Harcourt meeting of the body.

Chairman, Sir, the theme of the convention, “A nation in recession: Whither the Nigeria Media”, is very auspicious not just for its topicality but because it provides the media, the NGE, the opportunity for some long-overdue soul-searching. That is to say that I see two distinct, yet interwoven, planks on which to examine the topic.

  1. What has been or should be the role of the media in the recession?
  2. How has the recession affected the media as a branch of the socio-economic architecture of the country?

THE MEDIA & RECESSION

It is apposite to make a clarification here: To commend the appropriateness of the convention theme should not be taken to mean that the media has suddenly taken on a new role. No. In fact, it still falls within the broad basket of its traditional roles of informing, educating and entertaining the readers/viewers. Perhaps what is striking about the present situation is the sheer magnitude of the challenge. A recession is not an everyday occurrence: it is not like football matches, legislative or court sittings, shopping, a picnic or going to movies. It is a highly disruptive phenomenon that is usually big, pervasive and disorienting and for most of human history, happens at long intervals to the extent that most often, several generations of a country may never witness it. By the same token, some journalists may live their lives, ply their trade and disappear from the scene without experiencing a recession in their country. That is why some of us in this gathering, this convention, could be witnessing a recession for the very first time. So what are we talking about?

RECESSION

I am not an economist. But the economists I consulted told me that the simplest indicator that a country has gone into recession is when its GDP declines in two consecutive quarters. This is indicated in a general contraction of economic activity-investment spending, capacity utilization, household incomes, employment and business profits all decline substantially. In some places, this takes over a period of twelve months; the economy simply slows down, something like the traffic snarl commuters experience on the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos! That is why we have to commend Governor Ambode for the huge infrastructural work of his administration, an effort that I am told has significantly enhanced the ease of doing business in Lagos. We can only begin to imagine the great relief commuters will feel when the Fourth Mainland Bridge is completed.

According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, “recessions generally occur when there is a widespread drop in spending (an adverse demand shock). This may be triggered by various events, such as a financial crisis, an external trade shock, an adverse supply shock or the bursting of an economic bubble. Governments usually respond to recessions by adopting expansionary macroeconomic policies, such as increasing the money supply,  increasing government spending and decreasing taxation.”

RECESSION IN NIGERIA: WHITHER THE MEDIA

Given our experience, it is obvious that the recession in Nigeria was triggered by an external trade shock: the sharp drop in the price of crude oil, the country’s major export item. For many years, the dangers of being a mono-cultural economy had been well articulated at conferences, in the legislative houses and other fora at home and abroad. Time and again, governments had pledged to implement policies aimed at diversifying the economy and broadening the country’s forex base. To that extent, this economic tsunami did not happen without a warning: the signs were always there; the symptoms manifested for all to see over a long period of time. So, what happened? What did the government do? What did the media, as the constitutional watchdog do? Is there a passing chance that this unfortunate pass could have been averted if the media had performed its duties differently? I shall return to this latter. But the point needs to be made that the effectiveness of the media as a tool of socio-economic engineering is circumscribed by its own internal survival issues, at times, contradictions. It is like looking in the mirror!

THE LOOKING GLASS

Talking about the looking glass, the mirror, I seek the indulgence of the Chairman, to recall something of interest, to this discussion, that took place in 2003. The Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) had threatened to shut down about eleven media houses over non-payment of salaries. The list cut across the entire media spectrum: electronic-radio/television as well as the print segments. After about six hectic hours of engaging each other, the stakeholders got the NUJ to sheath its sword while the defaulting media houses were given a deadline to work out how to meet their obligations. I remember the event very well because apart from being, at the time, the managing director/editor-in-chief of Champion Newspapers Limited, I was the also the general secretary of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN). Mr. Ray Ekpu was the president while the chairman for today’s event, Mallam Kabiru Yussuf, was the deputy chairman.

The issue of salaries was not the only problem that media houses had to contend with. Virtually every operational variable was in dire stress, you can say distress. The gravity of the problem varied from organisation to organisation; it is even possible that a few were immune to the crisis but I do not have all the facts to be categorical in my claims.

I have recalled this incident to place this presentation in its proper perspective, that is, that the media in Nigeria had started experiencing its own recession long before the country was officially declared to be in recession in 2016. Predictably, the situation could only have gotten worse. If there is any exception, it probably would be the social media which, with its unique and unchallenged rules, is capable of defining its own survival parameters! So, we are faced with the following posers:

  • With such a long history of distress, what should we expect from the media in this period of recession?
  • What role should the media play as an agent of economic recovery?
  • How should it play its constitutional role of serving as a watchdog to those in authority, of holding government accountable to the electorate?
  • Where should the media draw the line between legitimate professional action and desirable political restraint?
  • What is the nexus between the state of the media and its ability to discharge its obligations as enshrined in the constitution, on the one hand, and the profit motive, the raison d’être of any business enterprise, on the other?
  • If the media has been sick, has long been afflicted by the recession virus to the extent of suffering from what I call Recession-Induced Syndrome, (RIS), should we trust it proffer the elixir for ridding Nigeria of its Self-Inflicted Recession (SIR)?

The last point deserves some further consideration against the background of empirical evidence. The first is the utterances of past public office-holders which show palpable culpability of the political class in the events that precipitated the recession: In spite of warnings, we refused to save for the rainy day. The second factor is the stubborn insistence of the political class on retaining a political structure that encourages laziness, breeds cronyism and retards the exploitation of other resources outside of petroleum. Even as we meet, and in spite of the best efforts of the government, it goes without saying that unless the political structure is re-ordered to encourage geo-spatial competition, many of the efforts aimed at revamping the economy will end up as palliatives waiting for the next round of recession.

MEDIA PERFORMANCE

That the media in Nigeria has played an important role as an agent of public enlightenment and advocacy is a well-acknowledged fact. Government programs such as inoculation, population census, elections and efforts at achieving the millennium development goals, MDGs, etc, have always received concerted coverage by the Nigerian media. This reputation, as we all know, is rooted in the history of the anti-colonial movement not to forget the post-colonial struggle against military dictatorships. It is instructive that even now, the media has not shied away from addressing the recession and related issues. It has reported the news, analyzed the situation and often made recommendations on the path to economic recovery. That is as expected.

This moment in history enjoins the media to:

  • Provide a platform for vigorous intellectual exposition and distillation of the strategies that would facilitate exiting the scourge of recession.
  • Apprise the public of the strategies and opportunities that exist for managing scarcity which is the hallmark of a recession.
  • Publicize positive government policies targeted at rolling back the recession.
  • Provide a feedback platform whereby the government will gauge the pulse of the people.

 

Furthermore, in a period such as this, part of the media’s role should be to give hope where there is despair, encourage sobriety where there is anxiety and to preach courage where there is fear. How to achieve this in the midst of unflattering reports of huge sums of money orphaned away in lonely flats, of insecurity of lives and property, of inflammatory statements by those whose actions or inactions make them vicariously liable for the economic crisis is part of the challenge of the media. If some of those now parading themselves as saints of the republic had, like Caesar’s wife, lived above suspicion, if the right economic steps had been taken, the chances are very high that the country would not have been hit by the recession. I raise these points, not to indict any person or group of persons but to underscore the caution the media needs to exercise as we engage in the search for the truth, no matter how subjective the truth turns out to be. In other words, for the media to play this role effectively, it should strive to insulate itself from the highly divisive turf wars of the politicians and their associates, and that includes the political lobbyists! Can the media rise to the challenge? Can it muster the highest levels of professionalism and dispassion, unencumbered by narrow proprietary interests, partisan political cleavages and the personal interests of editors, that are required to place nation above self, society above profit and immediate benefit above future economic boom? I am not exactly proud to quote foreign political figures but most often, it is difficult t resist the timeless words of the late United States of America President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Confronted with a similar situation that called for the highest patriotic instinct, he said:

“Let us not seek the Republican or the democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our on responsibility for the future.”

The nation will benefit immensely if the media imbibes Kennedy’s timeless words but also conveys same to the government of the day, that after nearly two years, the blame game should be over, that it should begin to take responsibility for its own actions and inactions. On this, I make bold to say that, notwithstanding unremitting opposition attempt to dismiss the administration as non-performing, the facts on the ground prove otherwise. These include:

  • Monetary policies such as the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN’s) Anchor Borrowers Program that has boosted agriculture especially rice production and the successful implementation of the TSA policy which has aided the fight against corruption
  • Security: Degrading of Boko Haram, paving the way for the restoration of economic activities in large parts of the north east
  • Constructive engagement with Niger Delta militants thereby paving the way for oil production to rise from 900, 000 barrels per day to 2.2 million barrels per day. Without this, Nigeria would have been in a worse economic situation
  • Restoration of stability to the petroleum sector with the uninterrupted supply of petroleum products
  • Steady developments in the transportation system as evidenced in the single-minded pursuit of railway development
  • The benchmark performance in the aviation sector where the government, through the successful completion of the rehabilitation of the runway of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport has demonstrated that it is possible for a project to be completed on schedule
  • In spite of observable and worrisome implementation drawbacks such as disobedience of court orders, trial (including conviction!) by media and the incomprehensible arrest and detention of suspects before concluding investigations, the anti-corruption campaign of the federal government can be said to have recorded good success. For sure, the campaign needs an overhaul to divest it of rights abuses and engender greater public confidence. Yet it goes without saying that this is a project around which the media must create a stakeholder aura if the recession is not to become a permanent way of life in Nigeria.

 

Mr. Chairman, at this juncture, I will like to advance a few points for consideration as it affects the house cleaning exercise the media should undertake to effectively play its watchdog role and as viable business enterprises.

  1. Professionalism or Trade Unionism: I know that I am treading on very dangerous grounds. However, after thirty-five years of practice, starting from my national service days with The Nigerian Standard newspaper in Jos, Plateau State, my experience dictates that the elevation of trade unionism over professionalism has not augured well for journalists and, by extension, the media in Nigeria. Nigerian journalists must make a choice. Professionalism is the path to knowledge, respect, and efficiency. To insist on trade unionism will continue to retard corporate growth, diminish individual ambition, breed quackery and erode respect. Like the accountants, lawyers, and engineers, journalists in Nigeria should go the professional way. This entails a qualifying exam, a code of conduct and a set of sanctions for breaches of the code. By extension, it is in the interest of the media to have an effective media council that serves as an arbitrator in disputes.
  2. Performance based reward system. Times change, people change. After a thorough reflection on the letters of appointments which place more emphasis on the master-servant relationship rather than building stakeholder environments that create an ownership mentality and attitude, I am of the strong conviction that this breeds aloofness and at times, unethical conduct. I think there is the need for media owners and journalists to reflect upon this; at some point, after many years, the salaried worker’s motivation begins to decline and with it, the fortunes of the company. It is not only Nigeria that needs to be restructured: media ownership in Nigeria needs to be restructured to guarantee stakeholder disposition which is a necessary condition for business survival.
  3. Small is beautiful: Many a Nigerian medium is “national”. So, you have “national newspapers”, “national radio stations”, etc. The more I seek to relate the presumed scope of service delivery and profitability, the more convinced I am that many outfits would have been more profitable as provincial, regional or even niche-based media. If you relate this to the recession, I will think, for instance, that a newspaper that has carved a loyal readership base within a geo-political zone will be more effective as a tool for managing the recession in that geopolitical zone. Besides, as obtains in other businesses, the earlier the media in Nigeria begins to subscribe to the time-honoured strategy of mergers and acquisitions, the greater the chances of surviving situations such as recessions.
  4. Capacity Building: This is not the place to wash our linens in public. If you asked many a journalist the last time he or she attended a capacity building program at the instance of his/her organisation, you will be shocked to your bone marrow at the response you will get. So, on what intellectual or professional basis is the person reporting in a rapidly changing environment? This, perhaps, is one of the benchmarks that should drive the incoming leadership of the NGE. The Guild should establish mandatory, periodic professional enhancement and capacity building program as the accountants and engineers do. If these other professional groups need it, I will think that journalists who are entrusted with mental conditioning would need it the more.

CONCLUSION

The chairman, His Excellency, Colleagues, Ladies, and gentlemen,

Journalists work under serious strictures in every clime. Nigeria is not different. We are grateful to former President Goodluck Jonathan for assenting to the Freedom of Information (FoI) Bill which has eased the rigour of obtaining information from their custodians. I am sure that someday, the members of the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) will see the wisdom, if only by way of gratitude, of inducting him to their respective fellowships. Also commendable is the decisive step taken by President Muhammadu Buhari to restore the accreditation of leader of the representative of the Punch following its withdrawal by the chief security officer of the President. We should all be guided by the understanding that freedom of the press is the inalienable right of all. Without it, the whistleblower policy of the Federal Government will not be as successful as it is; whistleblowers are also journalists. We urge the President to continue along the same path.

To my colleagues, let us not forget that to whom much is given, much is expected. These are challenging times for our country. President Buhari’s 1983 statement that we have no other country than Nigeria should remain relevant and should guide our practice. As we conduct our elections today, various interest groups will not just be waiting for the outcome; they are also interested in the process. With 2019 around the corner, this election may well determine whether editors will have the moral high ground to serve as watchdogs over the conduct of INEC and the political parties. I trust that editors will prevail.

On that note, I thank the President, Madam Funke Egbemode and her colleagues on the executive of the NGE for the honor of nominating me to give this talk and pray for a successful convention. Thank you for listening.

Emma Agu, FNGE, FNUJ

 

 

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