By Odoh Diego Okenyodo
Growing up, we had a cousin who was deft at ensuring the meat in the soup for dinner would always get into his mouth alone and nobody else’s.
We ate in groups, according to age brackets, each group to a tray and a plate of soup containing all the portion of meat for that cluster. If it was amala for dinner, which was always at a dimly lit part of the day, he was sure to substitute all the balls of meat with a bolus of amala. He also managed to chatter away while eating the meat and using his witty conversations to distract you guys from the fact that your portion of meat was travelling somewhere aside from down your own throat!
At the end of the meal, when it was time to share the meat, since meat was supposed to be eaten at the end as a prize for eating, someone would first discover the breaking news. ALL THE PIECES MEAT HAVE TURNED INTO AMALA! Surprisingly, it was always a surprise to everyone, and the most surprised would be–you guess!– the one who did it!
The situation with Nigerian journalism is kind of like this and someone needs to rescue it, particularly rescue the practitioners, the employees of media sharks who give no shishi about the fate of either journalism or those who make it. And, unfortunately, very few journalists seem to bother, in so far as they find another victim to inflict their frustrations on by extracting something from.
The journalists are often the ones caught with the smoking gun and they are the first to be blamed, just like the law enforcement agents on the street extorting tips from road users, while they risk being victimised or redeployed if they fail to remit returns up the supervisory ladder.
In the case of the law enforcement agent, their bosses need to receive those monies to repay for what was spent on getting their appointments from nomination to confirmation. They have to pay back the huge loans which often amount to billions of naira. In turn, those in the Legislature and the Executive who ask for these kickbacks justify them on the basis for of the huge amounts spent on electioneering as people were asking the then aspirants to “give shishi or no vote”.
These are the things we do not talk about, but we all know they are facts. We expect persons who have been forced to commit crimes and who have been thrown into debt to suddenly have ‘milk of human kindness’. Milk? Not even zobo tea do they have, as you can see.
Media owners think of the business nowadays in crude and shrewd terms of a kobo giving birth to billions of naira. It does not matter whose ox is gored, and the major oxen gored are the media workers. A few of the workers in strategic locations are able to extract some returns for themselves in their working lives but they have to keep doing it and remain relevant until old age since kickbacks are not recoupable as pensions.
Nevertheless, the case of journalism is slightly different. The majority of media owners do not have to go into the kind of mandatory, publicly imposed expenditure that most elected persons are made to shoulder. Of course license fees are exorbitant and the government can do a lot about them, but in comparison, there are specified fees and those fees can be regulated or legislated downwards or upwards when needed. That is unlike when traditional rulers or other institutions arbitrarily demand sums of money in return for votes and jittery contestants desperately have to comply with them or risk damaging their their reputation and votes. The decision to give or not give often is made like ransom payment, so you would understand.
Media owners think of the business nowadays in crude and shrewd terms of a kobo giving birth to billions of naira. It does not matter whose ox is gored, and the major oxen gored are the media workers. A few of the workers in strategic locations are able to extract some returns for themselves in their working lives but they have to keep doing it and remain relevant until old age since kickbacks are not recoupable as pensions. They largely are not insured against the vagaries of old age in the ways they should. Few media organisations are paying their workers regularly. Many times, they are owed many months, or even years, but they are expected to show up for work, handle cameras and microphones and produce content for their audiences to watch, listen to or read. Those in administrative or production positions, who have no connections or interface with guests often are left to their own devices. In some media organisations, they muddle up logistics, ensure there is no power in the generator, or no make up kits, all in bids to be involved in whatever is extorted from guests.
Media workers, therefore, lack job security. Some suffer the worse forms of workplace harassments ever known. Their stories are dropped or they are denied important trainings, and there is no one to protect them, nor speak for them, they who speak for other workers, or amplify the voices of other workers.
Some media owners who are former journalists even argue that paying workers regularly and on time is not good practice. They contend that media workers need to be owed salaries and emoluments to get the best out of them. Sad. If journalists squeal, they are let go, and the institutions of the state that have become powerless against the media owners that claim to be watchdogs can say nothing. Media workers, therefore, lack job security. Some suffer the worse forms of workplace harassments ever known. Their stories are dropped or they are denied important trainings, and there is no one to protect them, nor speak for them, they who speak for other workers, or amplify the voices of other workers. That is the state of the degeneration I am addressing. This is the case of “Physician, heal thyself,” right?
Well, not quite the same. Much of what media workers suffer rest squarely on the shoulders of something the government is able to control. If an organisation coughs up N250 million for a network license that expires in five years, that is N50m per year on what does not add any direct value to the operations or the news. That fee could be N10, and it could be N250k and life wouldn’t come to a standstill.
The Nigerian Guild of Editors and other unions and NGOs have decried this in the past, but nothing has changed much. The National Broadcasting Commission thinks the fees are just marginal. They live in a different world. They do not have to pay for diesel that is approaching N1000 per litre at breakneck speed, nor buy equipment that are constantly breaking, constantly changing, and constantly disappearing in the hands of hungry personnel. If the license fee is cut drastically to about a million naira per annum, perhaps it will do a lot for the welfare of those who work in the media. Theoretically, if greed is held at constant 0.
But that is only a matter of conjecture if other things are not taken care of. Who ensures that every media worker is insured? Of course, the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) Act should insure all workers, but are they enrolled with their organisations making remittances on their behalf? If they are not enrolled and remittances are not being made, they are not covered. All should be done to ensure that media workers are covered by the Employee Compensation Scheme. The government can enforce that as a special case of an industry that needs protection as guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution Chapter 4, Section 39 under the Right to Freedom of Expression and to Press. It is guaranteed, but not everything you are guaranteed do you receive in this world. How does the government ensure that these rights are upheld?
The government can do its best like was done in banking consolidation because there is a constitutional obligation to be upheld, owing to the pivotal nature of the media. While it is always a slippery slope asking the government to intervene in a system or arm that is intended to hold it to account, very little option seems to be open here with respect to the regular and adequate remuneration for workers in the media space.
Casualisation is a norm that should be frowned at, but it is very normal to hear that “your ID card is your meal ticket”. Could a system of either peer review or public reporting that shows how much a media organisation pays in salaries and how regularly they do it, help in promoting transparency and accountability? Should we explore setting up an institution for that or pulling together a task force from the regulatory agencies and professional bodies? It is possible and someone has got to take the bold step.