by Uche Briggs
Yesterday on Twitter, I stumbled on a link to the response written by one of our very fine young men, Feyi Fawehinmi to the actor and Commissioner for Arts and Culture, Richard Mofe-Damijo. The Commissioner who is popular referred to as RMD, for want of better words, verbally attacked the popular blogger and online journalist Linda Ikeji because she posted that he moved into a mansion which cost N250m. You can read Mr. Fawehinmi’s response here
While RMD’s response, which he has a right to, is flawed in certain regards, Mr. Fawehinmi made some rather disturbing points that have led me to write this piece. His argument, for the most part of it, was couched in the didactic premise of the first amendment and the freedom of speech. However noble the framework which guides these thoughts is, it is rather disappointing that there is little logic in the points provided by the gentleman. In his bid to challenge the tyranny of governance and political leaders, he ironically confers absolute power on the Nigerian people saying that “the right to be able to say what we want about them is the one stone we have in our sling.”
For Mr. Fawehinmi, the truth or otherwise of Ms. Linda’s post is not an issue but he is quick to show that the reason for his support of the blogger is because the subject of the post is a government official. According to him: “… if she somehow offends a government official, then I know where my loyalties lie, absolutely no question.” In order words, Mr. Fawehinmi may well justify a story that may or may not be false and misleading, if it was written about a government official. At a point in his article he asserts: “Is Mr Mofe-Damijo’s house really worth N250m as she suggested on her blog? The answer, again, is that it doesn’t matter. What is more important is that she has a right to publish it.” How shocking!
While Mr. Fawehinmi notes that RMD is silly and takes himself too seriously and goes ahead to argue that Linda Ikeji is not a journalist, he apparently underestimates the followership that Ms. Linda’s blog has. The new media has created a totally different terrain and as such the lines between media ownership and readership gets increasingly blurred. Ms. Linda is not your regular citizen as you pointedly note, she is a journalist. If not, why all the noise about RMD referring to her career path as undignified in the first place? If we, relying on the logic of other revered statesmen like Tolu Ogunlesi, believe that Ms. Linda is indeed a journalist, then it only stands to reason that she is evaluated on that basis as against the basis of an ‘ordinary’ private citizen. What scares me is the levity with which he regards false reporting. He remarks: “At the very worst, she’s guilty of not double checking her facts before publishing, a crime of which she is merely 1 in 1,000,000 guilty persons in Nigeria.” It is almost as though Mr. Fawehinmi equates ubiquity with acceptability.
Since Mr. Fawehinmi has extensively discussed the first amendment in his defence of Ms. Linda, a review of the findings of the Hutchins Commission, which is responsible for the birth of the Social Responsibility Theory of the media is in order. Following agitations about the place of the media after World War II, Henry Luce, the then CEO of Time magazine, provided funding for an independent commission to discuss and make recommendations concerning the role of the press. The Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press was established in 1942 and released a pivotal report of its findings in 1947.
The findings of the commission have served as a guide for press and media reporting all over the world. The commission argued that it was impossible to extricate the freedom of the press from the responsibility that they hold towards society. William Hocking, a member of the commission was quoted as saying: “Inseparable from the right of the press to be free has been the right of the people to have a free press. But the public interest has advanced beyond that point; it is now the right of the people to have an adequate press” The commission highlighted that the media not only have obligations to society but that media ownership is a public trust. What is more definitive of the term ‘public trust’ than a blog with thousands of people faithfully reading and following on a daily basis?
The commission also recommends that news media should be truthful, accurate, fair, objective and relevant. A rather apt quote from the report is: “The press is not free if those who operate it behave as though their position conferred on them the privilege of being deaf to ideas which the processes of free speech have brought to public attention.”
In all fairness, Ms. Linda is brilliant and she has built her blog by tenacity and sheer brilliance. Her blog has become akin to the public sphere where topical issues have been discussed in times past. I remember vividly how her blog gave Banky W a veritable platform to respond to the damaging article of Rueben Abati titled ‘A Nation’s Identity Crisis’ in 2009. Her dedication created relevance for the infamous ABSU rape case and ensured that it was treated with all the seriousness it deserved. These compelling points notwithstanding, Ms. Linda is a very careless reporter and her desperation to report anything and everything that can garner followership compromises her values, morals and judgement. Her recent exchange with Kola Boof and the Ndako family, who were victims in the tragic Dana Airlines crash, are cases in point. So when Mr. Feyi states that he finds it hard to believe that Ms. Ikeji overstated the figure of the house deliberately, coming from the scandals that have trailed her blog, it is not something one can put past her!
While I do not advocate the censorship of her stories by the government, it is important that we who are members of civil society call her to order. With her kind of followership (impressive I must confess), she owes it to society to publish the truth. If she publishes something that is unverified, she has to be called out on it – irrespective of whether the subject is a government official or not! Ms. Linda has been called all manner of despicable names by people her posts have offended in the past. To get all agitated about a response from Mr. Mofe-Damijo, simply because he is a government official is insane! I strongly believe that because Linda Ikeji has not been adequately apprised of the damaging effects of some of her stories, she has continued with impunity and has ‘inspired’ others in her wake (Ladun Liadi is a case in point).
It is the same journalistic recklessness, which is anchored on the faulty argument that ‘we are free to say what we want about government’ that has so permeated the reportage on Sahara Reporters such that they have lost their credibility. What should be a platform that serves as the voice of the common man in Nigeria has shamefully paraded itself as inanity on rampage, a swiftness to publish anything and everything anti-government without validating their facts. Perhaps Mr. Fawehinmi would also support the brand of reporting that Sahara Reporters endorses.
While commenting on RMD’s intention about a civil law suit, Mr. Fawehinmi explicates on the burden of proof but forgets that this also a major stumbling block for we in society. How can we prove beyond a reasonable doubt that RMD’s house was built from the largesse he acquired from government? No allegation has been made against him thus far. If he was connected with a certain misappropriation of funds, do call him out on it. But so far, so good, nothing of the nature has been done.
I strongly believe that we should hold ourselves to the very standards by which we hold government officials to. Reckless reporting is just as much a clog in the machinery of governance as ineptitude, greed and the perversion of office holders. If we descend to the abominable depths of publishing or saying anything we like about the government, we have simply become the beast we are trying so hard to fight.
So Mr Fawehinmi, spreading falsehood about government officials is no victory! It would not broaden our power base nor would it ensure that we win the battle against death and dearth. It will only damage the credibility of the few good ones among them and dampen the resolve of those preparing to enter government and make a change.