by Femi Owolabi
‘What I object to, to be straight about it, is journalists who take the position that they are purer than all other people.’
– Jim Lehrer
Sometime in February, at an interactive session– in Ikogosi Warm Springs Resort– with Kayode Fayemi, governor of Ekiti State, one of the participants– as many raised-hands jostled—was picked by the moderator to ask the governor his question. Nicholas Ibekwe, he would announce as his name. With an aura of confidence, he added, “I work with Premium Times.” His voice carried so much energy and his question[s] was punchy. Nicholas appeared as the pugnacious type. You would notice this immediately he began to talk, gesturing more frankly. Where I sat, a close distance to his seat, I nodded in admiration. This guy should replace one of those journalists who babysit Goodluck Jonathan during the presidential media chats. It is not certain if Goodluck will survive Nicholas.
There was something I was going to ask Nicholas after the session.
A month earlier, Nicholas’ Premium Times published an investigative report, Inside Nigeria’s Ruthless Human Trafficking Mafia. It was a report that overwhelmed one with sadness. A few days later, however, critical observers began to expose the faults in the story everybody had bought. The most vocal of these observers was the literary critic, Ikhide Ikheloa. “This story is a faabu,” Ikhide, on his Twitter and Facebook timelines, screamed morning, day, and night. He would eventually produce an article, Tobore Ovuorie’s story: Fact or fiction? The critical pieces of evidence Ikheloa provided in that piece to suggest the story a fiction, are too weighty to be discarded. He ended with the line; ‘There are many reasons to confront this story, its veracity being the least, but still a crucial reason to deal with it. The credibility of a nation is pretty much gone, but once our journalists lose their credibility, it is all over.’
Day in, day out, Ikheloa would not relent. In every of his Facebook post, he pulled out the Managing Editors of Premium Times– Dapo Olorunyomi and Musikilu Mojeed– by the nape of their neck, to apologize to Nigerians for publishing what he called a fake story.
Later that evening in Ikogosi, as participants trooped to the poolside, where we go to lounge, I hastened my movement to meet Ibekwe who was ahead.
“Someone is discrediting an investigative report by Tobore Ovuore, one of your reporters at Premium Times,” I opened the conversation with Nicholas after we had exchanged handshakes. “He calls your bosses out every day in his Facebook mentions to whip them. I don’t like the way Ikhide is going about; rubbishing your newspaper which had become a household name, being a reliable news source.”
I needed a point from Nicholas (the man I had seen as a no-nonsense journalist from Premium Times), which I intended to use in a Facebook post to rebut Ikheloa’s criticism.
Nicholas looked at me, almost dismissively. He, however, managed to tell me that he knew nothing about all that. We couldn’t talk further as I left his side. That was the first and only time I had seen Nicholas Ibekwe.
If you do not know Nicholas Ibekwe, he is currently the most talked about Premium Times journalist who ‘exposed’ the bribery deal between popular Nigerian pastor, T.B Joshua and the journalists who went to his Synagogue Church of All Nation, where a collapsed building killed many. I have followed Nicholas’ tweets as they were consistently retweeted into my Twitter timeline. He is angry about many things; that Lagos Governor Fashola met with Joshua behind closed doors, and after the meeting, dodged reporters, and perhaps his most prioritized anger; how Joshua offered N50,000 bribe to each journalist at the press conference of September 14. He soon released a recording of the bribery deal he had alleged. And then, on the 23rd of September [yesterday], he eventually came out with his story: “Why I exposed T.B. Joshua for bribing journalists.”
So, why did Nicholas publish the audio? “…when I woke up last Saturday morning and saw the picture of President Goodluck Jonathan shaking hands with a grinning TB Joshua with headlines like ‘Jonathan consoles TB Joshua,’ I said damn it! I couldn’t stomach this blatant impunity.”
“Journalists shouldn’t be seen or heard telling the prime suspect they would write ‘just like you said’ after he offered to buy their consciences with N50, 000,” he also said.
I hadn’t listened to the audio. But in Nicholas’ story published in Premium Times, the audio was reproduced. I reached for my earpiece and gave that audio a rapt attention. Four minutes or there about. Perhaps I didn’t get the real thing, I played it again. And then, again. Time wouldn’t allow me, I would have transcribed here. Only first-class thinkers would agree with me. That audio I listened to has nothing to do with a bribery deal. Wait, you can call for my head later. Go back to that audio and listen again! In the audio, we hear Joshua announcing some 750k; to be shared, 50k each to journalists, to fuel their car. Some ask questions about the issue at hand, and Joshua– in a tone that depicts sobriety– answers them. And, as they round off, Joshua asks, ‘So, what are you going to write?’ and they all laugh at what seem a sarcastic remark from Joshua. I laughed, too.
In his story, however, Nicholas argued, “He clearly meant for the money to influence the reporting of the event, ‘So what are you going to write?’” he had asked. That makes it a bribe. Simple.’
Your head is in the air. Such is the problem when you are highly opinionated. By what logical conclusion do we pronounce that bribery?
Let me quickly state that it is wrong for Governor Fashola and President Jonathan to be seen patting Joshua’s shoulder over the collapsed building that was largely his fault. And of course, this is not an attempt to write in defence of Joshua. If you care to know, I may soon renounce my membership of the Pentecostal movement, following many atrocities within this Movement that do not stand well with me.
We are only stupid to assume 750k is money enough a bribe from T.B Joshua to hush journalists. The story was already in the mainstream media. I have watched NEMA PRO on Channels TV lamenting the difficulties they were having with T.B Joshua’s church authority. All had become clearer that there was illegal addition of storeys to the building which eventually resulted in the collapse. And even Joshua himself knows that the ‘hovering craft’ tale is not buyable. So, why exactly would he bribe journalists with 750k?
What is my point? That 50k is appropriately called honorarium. If after the announcement of that 50k for journalists to fuel their car and that Nicholas had rejected, he was then called back to further negotiate an increase, then it becomes a bribe! They are desperate about hiding something! Oxford dictionary helps us with the definition of an honorarium: ‘A payment given for professional services that are rendered nominally without charge.’ T.B. Joshua is no fool to think 750k is okay to bribe journalists so the story is not exposed. That is simply honorarium, and it follows the tradition of the church.
On the other hand, Oxford dictionary says this about bribe: ‘A sum of money or other inducement offered or given to bribe someone.’ Is Nicholas insinuating that 50k to fuel his car poses a bribery threat? Is it that Nicholas couldn’t have accepted that 50k and still go ahead to publish his investigative findings? When such honorariums are doled out, no journalist is held by any obligatory terms to accept. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the story, I, as a [freelance] journalist may accept or reject such honorarium. It would take the next lifetime to have me bribed so I won’t expose a story. If you decide to force the ‘honorarium’ on me, I will take it. I have a network of friends whose stomachs are an empty tank of beer. They will beer with that money and that story you are desperate in hiding from the public would have a smooth ride to the press.
Many people are aware of my affiliation with the APC, and admiration for Kayode Fayemi. The report I did for The Scoop after the Ekiti governorship election did not, in a single sentence, favour APC and the party’s flag-bearer, Fayemi. My editor was worried. He wanted a balanced feel in the report. “Do you mean you couldn’t find anybody who spoke well of the APC candidate?” he asked me before pushing the report for publishing. I knew I could not write it with the bias I have for the APC.
In the May 1994 edition of the American Journalism Review, Alicia C. Shepard writes; ‘Critics say that taking money from groups falling under a reporter’s purview raises all sorts of potential conflicts of interest or, at least, the appearance of one. The money also raises questions about a reporter’s objectivity.’ So, like Nicholas, if I were at the meeting with T.B Joshua, I would have rejected the honorarium offer. But, I will not refer to it as bribe.
The globally recognized Associated Press, AP, recognises this honorarium thing. On its website, under the heading, AP News Values & Principles, we read this: ‘Associated Press offices and staffers are often sent or offered gifts of other items—some of them substantial, some of them modest, some of them perishable—by sources, public relations agencies, corporations and others.’
‘Sometimes these are designed to encourage or influence AP news coverage or business, sometimes they are just ‘perks’ for journalists covering a particular event. Whatever the intent, we cannot accept such items; an exception is made for trinkets like caps or mugs that have nominal value, approximately $25 or less. Otherwise, gifts should be politely refused and returned, or if that is impracticable, they should be given to charity.’
End of discussion? I know some would say this is an attempt to euphemistically rebrand bribe as honorarium. If you are of this thought, I borrow the words of Nicholas and I throw them at you, ‘I can’t help you if you can’t decipher that. I am a reporter not a brain surgeon.’
Well, bribery is a criminal offense. And if Nicholas insists this is a bribe deal, he shouldn’t hesitate in writing the lawyer, Femi Falana, on the need to take this case up.
It is no news, that journalists in Nigeria are underpaid. Nicholas, in his story, admits this. According to www.payscale.com, a [USA] journalist earns an average salary of $36,834 per year. According to me, a Nigerian journalist’s pay in a year is around $6,000. It is not totally a bad pay. What is bad is the delay and irregularities in the payment. While I was covering Osun election, I interviewed an academic, Babatunde Bakare, at the Bowen University. I didn’t know him from anywhere. After the interview, he asked me how I was surviving as a journalist. I told him I have other things that I do that pay my bills. Even though I wasn’t seriously investigating any story, I was just seeking the opinion of an academic on the election, Babatunde felt obliged to give me something to support my transport and logistics. He would later tell me that until his recent appointment as an academic, he was a senior producer/scriptwriter for one of Africa’s largest TVs, AIT. And he wasn’t paid salary in the last ten months he had worked with AIT.
I also stopped taking Sam Nda-Isaiah’s presidential ambition seriously the day I heard he owed his reporters at Leadership Newspaper, four month salary. It took a Twitter/Facebook protest to get Sam to bow to his employees’ demands. These delays, irregularities, underpayment, are not justifiable reasons to accept bribe. No, they are not. These reasons, however, justify the collection of an honorarium, such type that does not mean you should report a black story as white.
Nicholas, then, advises journalists to ‘explore other related and legitimate means of making money like researching, writing, and editing reports for NGO…’ This is the silliest of all advices. Journalism is a professional job. The burden of researching, investigating a story, is already time consuming. News are time bound, and Nicholas risks his job with Premium Times if he fails to beat deadlines for the kind of ‘pending stories’ he mentions in his piece. I make money as a private academic researcher. The months I have more than two research jobs, I suspend my journalistic activities. And the day I become a full time journalist, I should resign as a researcher. Journalistic work is enough work to get enough pay if things were right.
As I conclude, I should raise an issue. After the three day media/blogger interactive forum in Ekiti in February, participants were each offered 50k honorarium by the organizers. My name is Femi Owolabi. I received the N50,000 (of course it never influenced my subsequent criticisms. Many who also accepted the money had asked Governor Kayode Fayemi harsher questions during the forum and even wrote critically about his policies after we had left). However, Stanley Azuakola, the editor of The Scoop and Chinedu Ekeke, the editor of Ekekeee in their separate critical reports, revealed that they politely rejected the N50,000. Out of about thirty participants, Nicholas Ibekwe inclusive, I am yet to read of any other apart from Stanley, Chinedu and Stanley Achonu (the Operations Lead of BudgIT), who didn’t take that N50,000 honorarium. It is, therefore, logical to believe that Nicholas Ibekwe, who now accuses his fellow journalists of bribery when it was honorarium, received such in February in Ekiti.
If he didn’t receive that money, here is my apology in advance.
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