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Should Lai Mohammed’s N3.5m revelation have been left off the record?
By ‘Fisayo Soyombo
“JOURNALISM entails a high degree of public trust. To earn and maintain this trust, it is morally imperative for every journalist and every news medium to observe the highest professional and ethical standards” — Preamble, Code of Ethics for Nigerian Journalists (1998).
For three days in March 1998, some of the country’s finest journalists, plus newspaper owners and other stakeholders, gathered in Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State, to forge what till date remains the most recent version of the ethical code guiding journalism practice in Nigeria. The Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), the Nigerian Press Council (NPC), the Nigerian Union of Journalists NUJ), the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigerian (NPAN) were all represented. The ensuing document was an upgrade on the one in existence since 1979.
Exactly 20 years on, Kwara State returns to the summit of a delicate yet thrilling debate about ethical journalism, not because another gathering of journalists has been convoked but because a son of the soil has fallen victim to the relative obscurity to which the 1998 document has fallen.
On Thursday, Lai Mohammed, the Kwara-born Information Minister, was seen telling reporters in a viral video that the government was spending N3.5 million monthly to feed Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, the Shi’ia sect leader who has been in detention since December 2015. In the six-minute-fifteen-second video, Lai can be heard four different times saying the information should be kept “off the record”. In an instance, he specifically says: “This should be off the record… I am only giving you all this background information so you know how to write your story.”
Lai’s off-the-record revelations were passed on to the public by internet platform, Oak TV. Following Lai’s cry of betrayal, Oak TV delivered a letter of apology to the Minister, and claimed to have sanctioned “all the team members involved”. The only problem is Nigerians won’t stop discussing the incredulity of feeding a detainee with such humongous sum. Of more journalistic and scholarly importance, however, the debate rages: should Oak TV — and the legion of media outfits that jumped on it — have published the video?
Before delving into the debate about the propriety of publishing the video, it has to be said that something is fundamentally wrong with this so-called regime of change if it truly spends N3.5million monthly on an accused for whom it has disobeyed a court order for his release, and at a time the government can’t just muster a measly N30,000 as minimum wage for workers. Maybe some will also argue, perhaps rightly so, that Lai got his comeuppance in the end — for being such a notorious inventor of propaganda for the selfish interests of the then opposition party and a cynical manipulator of information to the benefit of the now ruling government.
Still, should that video have been published? The answer — and it is not hard to explain — is no. Section 4 of the Ethical Code, tagged ‘Privilege/Non-disclosure’, states clearly: “(i) a journalist should observe the universally accepted principle of confidentiality and should not disclose the source of information obtained in confidence; (ii) a journalist should not breach an agreement with a source of information obtained as ‘off the record’ or as ‘background information.’” Not only did Lai say “off the record”, he particularly clarified he was only offering the journalists background information for their stories.
Although they haven’t expressly said so, most of those arguing for the spilling of the video can fall back on other sections of the Ethical Code. In the second, titled ‘Accuracy and fairness’, the code says “the public has a right to know”. A part of the document’s preamble also states: “In the exercise of these duties, a journalist should always have a healthy regard for the public interest.”
Is there, therefore, a clash of interests between the public’s right to know and the journalist’s respect for off-the-record information? No. Combining these two provisos would mean something like: ‘the public has a right to know, but through any means other than the publication of off-the-record information’. And this is possible. In this specific case, the answers are not set in stone, but there are a number of possibilities.
One — probably the least desirable and surely not in a video — would be to state Lai’s claim but attribute it to a Federal Government source rather than him. In any case, according-to-a-source stories are a permanent fixture in Nigerian journalism. Another would be to take Lai’s claim to the Interior Minister or the Director-General of the Department of State Service (DSS), both of who should know; whether they say yes or no, it’s a story. Yet another is to attempt to force the information out of the government with an FoI request, with failure to respond gifting the journalist the liberty to announce Lai’s claim even without revealing the source. The possibilities are limitless. Lai’s revelation, in fact, can be the springboard for investigative reporting to ascertain the cost of feeding or generally caring for a DSS detainee or an EFCC detainee or a prisoner. Or for El-Zakzaky himself!
The wide publication of the Lai video also raises a string of worrying questions about the practice of journalism in the new-media age. One that personally bothers me is the growing transformation of the media to an entity that sees itself as useful solely for news dissemination — what’s happening to educating the readers? What’s happening to analyzing, interpreting and processing the raw news so that readers are better placed to make informed decisions with them? This shrinking of robust journalism is one reason Lai’s revelation was not considered valuable beyond its news mileage.
It is also wondrous how the media is comfortable with setting a certain standard for the rest of the society yet lowering it for itself. For example, over the past two weeks, the media has been vociferous in its criticism of the Army for gunning down dozens of Shi’ites in Abuja. That criticism is valid because the Army’s Rules of Engagement (RoE) state clearly when and how a soldier can apply fire. There must be “grave danger” to the life of the soldier; and even then, “fire must be aimed and controlled”. The RoE forbid “indiscriminate firing”. All these the Army flouted, and for this it was roundly criticized by the media. How then can the media fall short of the rules of its own rules of engagement?
I have been taken aback by arguments reprimanding Lai for saying on camera something he didn’t want published. Baffling thought pattern, actually. As long as he wasn’t on live TV, and knowing the taped videos would still be edited pre-publication, he acted within reasoning. A few months ago, I taught an investigative journalism class during which a participant questioned the morality of undercover reporting; he just couldn’t understand why a journalist would obtain information in an environment where he isn’t known to be one. In one of my answers, I shared a finding from Borno State during an undercover adventure in June 2016. But first, I asked that my disclosure should be off the record. And the cameras were on, too. During that trip, I found myself in a certain room where there was access to the official — not the press-release manipulations — number of the total number of soldiers who had been killed by Boko Haram in just the first six months of that year. And boy, were the numbers staggering! I gave the figure to the class but I again impressed it on them that this information couldn’t be made public. All I wanted to prove to the class was this: there are certain information you will never have unless you go undercover.
That this debate has existed at all is one more reminder of how the disruption of journalism practice by technology is not all gains. In more intellectually-conscious climes, last week’s off-the-record drama would spark scholarly incursions into the changing values of 21st-century journalism. It would trigger intense concerns about the gaping hole of self-regulation that must be filled if the media must bountifully harness the pluses of Internet-driven media explosion. Personally, I remain worried that while the audience for journalism is larger today than it was, say, a decade or two ago, the mindset is remarkably smaller.
Soyombo, former Editor of the TheCable and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), tweets @fisayosoyombo