Over the years, journalism practice has assumed the role of a watchdog of the society. In fact, most countries of the world that practice democracy have expressly obligated the Press, Radio, Television and other Agencies of the mass media to perform that oversight function. In Nigeria, that responsibility is backed by the constitution where those agencies are tasked to, ‘at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy’.
This important assignment shows that the media industry is not just a player in the business sector to make profit. The social functions to be performed by media practitioners rank high up there in its bond with the society.
Under British rule in Nigeria, the Press was dominated by principled men who held the colonialists to account for several bad policies like racism, inadequate consultation of indigenous leaders over policies and taxation of women. The early practitioners used the press as scorpions to attack the oppressive colonial rule and agitate for equality, justice and independence. Victory won, the media became instruments employed to try to mobilize the country into a cohesive union. And when the Military botched democratic rule, the media led the charge to advocate against the Military in the fight for a return to democracy. In the course of that fight, the media got into bed with politicians, most of whom had stints as practitioners prior to their foray into politics.
For several decades, the practice thrived by performing its basic functions. Several awards were also instituted to celebrate outstanding professional performance. However, some ills, just like witnessed in other professions, creeped into the occupation to blight it. Issues like blowing minor events out of proportion, framing and slanting otherwise harmless issues and events negatively, scandal - mongering, publishing of outright falsehood, stalking of public officials and business tycoons to extort from them, putting words into the mouths of people and manufacturing of ghosts as news sources to serve certain pre - meditated ends reared up to dent the practice. Cub reporters assumed titles as publishers, editors, editors - in Chief and news editors overnight. These ones paid scanty attention to learning and job experience. In addition, the rising incidents of subjectivity as against the demands of objective reportage, invasion of privacy, lack of balance in presentation of stories, fact twisting without care, disinclination for fact - checking, and outright propaganda became regular fare.
The advent of social media have served to muddy the waters much more with operatives in the blogosphere on overdrive to outdo one another in outright lies and sensational reports.
It was an acknowledgement of this circumstance that made Ray Ekpu, one of Nigeria’s finest journalists to describe a tribe of social media functionaries as ‘con artists’. In a follow up, this writer christened them “Digideots”, referring to the idiotic pastime of ambushing people and nonsensical posts promoted by a lot of social media citizen ‘journalists’. Even though the past two decades have witnessed an increase in the number of training schools and organizations to prepare operatives into the sector, a reality check throws up the need for soul searching by bodies like the Nigerian Press Organization to establish if, indeed, that group is truly watching the watch dogs.
For instance, in Akwa Ibom State, the state Council of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) has 650 ‘journalists’ in its register and these are spread into one government owned newspaper one government owned television house while others are scattered across 30 privately owned newspapers of which 17 are published sporadically ; guerrilla style. There are nine privately owned Radio stations and two privately owned television stations which compete for a share in readership, listenership and viewership. Nevertheless, it seems that the more the number of persons certificated, the deeper the murky waters - with the ills submerging the higher ideals of the profession. That is the slide which Mr. Udom Inoyo, erstwhile Vice Chairman of ExxonMobil Companies in Nigeria saw in his home state and he took a concrete step to checkmate the trend.
There are executives who, face to face with challenges, recoil and become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the problems. In their frustration, they throw their hands up in surrender. They become a part of the trouble subsequently until the headache pounds severely and consumes them.
Not so with Mr Udom Inoyo, a lawyer, public administrator turned human resources expert. He is one of the few visionaries who explore transformative strategies to fix quagmire whenever he sees one in any sector.
In July, this year, during an interaction with a cross section of Members of the Nigerian Union of Journalists in Akwa Ibom State at their Press centre in Uyo, Mr Inoyo, now an Advisor to the Inoyo Toro Foundation endowed the Ray Ekpu prize for Investigative Journalism in the sum of N500,000.00k for the best Investigative journalist in Akwa Ibom State.
Apart from honoring Ray Ekpu, a foremost veteran from his state, Mr Inoyo considered that the award would enhance professionalism in the practice of Journalism in his state, empower the diligent and also motivate practitioners to lead the charge for a better society in line with the traditional role of the media.
Good journalism acts as a cleanser in the society. It sets agenda for transparency, accountability and serves as a bulwark against abuse of power.
In setting up the Ray Ekpu annual prize, Mr Inoyo moved to disrupt a sequence with which the vast majority of people had become hostage and seemed comfortable. By empanneling a crack team of assessors led by Mr. Nsikak Essien, a fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors and former Editor of the defunct National Concord Newspaper which also includes Mr. Akpandem James, a former Managing Editor of Daily Independent Newspaper and a Member of the Governing Council of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos among others in the crack team of experienced professionals in the industry, the Award seeks to promote Investigative Journalism as a genre to engender a more responsible society. When the pioneer winners emerged on December 10th in a colorful ceremony, the team received an applause for a job well done. The duo, who won, had collaborated to work on an investigation pointed to a new direction in the practice ; that of hard work and co-operation in an environment where a vast majority prefer to go it alone.
It is pertinent to point out that globally, governments and political officials have borne the the brunt of Investigative Journalism. Former United States of America President Nixon and Watergate exemplifies that drift. It is moreso in locations where government is the beginning and the end. Governments, government agencies and their officials would continue to attract the searchlight of Investigative Journalists, as moths to light, more than any other sector. It was in acknowledgement of this circumstance that Ini Ememobong, the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Akwa Ibom State while speaking during the regional Investigative / Multimedia journalism training organized for South East and South South by Daily Trust Foundation urged the participants to ‘look beyond government activities’.
As the practice gains momentum and traction, corporate organizations, multinational oil companies and local operators in the sector, politicians, their parties, public functionaries, public Institutions - the Armed Forces, police, customs, schools, traditional institutions, churches, criminals and other segments in the society would no longer have any place to hide or take their work for granted. The fear of Investigative Journalism would encourage them to put more weight towards doing the right things. In any case, the bigger picture is to promote total quality management in all facets of the public sphere.
The Ray Ekpu prize for Investigative Journalism for journalists in Akwa Ibom State would promote diligent practice in the long run and deprogram practitioners away from shallow - gossips, pandering to vested interests, service as political agents, purveyors of miscommunication, lies, fighting private wars using their privileged media, blackmail, scare - mongering journalism to a practice in the overall public interest.
The Ray Ekpu Award for Investigative Journalism endowed by Inoyo Toro Foundation is therefore another shot in the arm of Journalism practice in Akwa Ibom State. It has joined the ranks of the Pulitzer prize, Diamond Awards for Media Excellence, the Wole Soyinka prize in Investigative Journalism and several others such Awards.
This new Award further showcases the blue ocean mentality and transformative mindset of Mr Udom Inoyo. The retired ExxonMobil chieftain is not inclined to throw money at problems. He thinks through knotty issues painstakingly, takes deliberate steps to understand and analyze puzzles before taking steps to resolve them.
In the long run, the Ray Ekpu Award will become a win - win for participating journalists, the journalism profession and the society at large.
Dr. UDEME NANA, a Media Scholar is the Founder of Uyo Book Club.