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Obasanjo, Abati And The Journalism Profession

I have read excerpts of the interview former President Olusegun Obasanjo granted the editorial team of Premium Times recently. It discussed essentially some aspects of his explosive book – My Watch. The interview is one of the best I have read recently and I congratulate the interviewers for daring Obasanjo, despite his repeated threats to send them away, with probing and incendiary questions that made the interview a compelling read.

The aspect of the interview that touched the person of Dr Reuben Abati, former special adviser to former President Goodluck Jonathan on Media and the profession that he represents has excited a lot of people including my humble self. The social media was awash with reactions, some taking side with the former president on the views he expressed against Abati and others questioning his moral standing and qualification to bring up an issue bordering on moral uprightness against Abati or anybody at all.

There were also those who agreed totally with those comments condemning Abati and endorsed Baba Obasanjo’s verdict on him. Obasanjo was answering a question on the Nigerian media, why he had been persistently cold towards journalists and their profession.

He agreed with the observation of his interviewers that he doesn’t particularly like journalists. To illustrate his point, he mentioned the names of some prominent Nigerian journalists including Abati for whom he said he had no regard. Abati’s offence is that he had, once upon a time, told somebody who was Obasanjo’s colleague and friend that he too would like to build a house of his own and live comfortably, (as some politicians and other public office holders do.) That un-named colleague of the former president had been a kind of financial benefactor to Journalist Abati, according to the story. Obasanjo found that dream of Abati nauseating.

He felt, perhaps, that it was too daring for a poor journalist to dream such big dream. He saw it as a contradiction of Abati’s posturing in his popular column in The Guardian as an upright and incorruptible person. It was also for Obasanjo the ocular evidence that Abati’s claim to morality and uprightness through his column had no strong foundation in personal moral conviction and discipline. Were it to be so, he shouldn’t have accepted financial assistance from Obasanjo’s friend as he frequently did. That seems to be the line of his reasoning.

Many have asked, and I want to also join them in asking, if there is anything wrong in a journalist accepting financial assistance from a friend if there are no strings attached to the gift? It wasn’t clear from the interview if the money came with strings attached. Was the money from Baba’s friend ‘dirty’ money and, in that case, not good enough for the clean hands of a moralist which Abati’s writings had portrayed him to be? Again, we were not told so.

Baba’s views as captured in the interview did not go that far to answer these questions. I don’t know if he did so in My Watch. I must confess that I have not read the entire book. What I read in the interview and the excerpts from Baba’s book as published by Premium Times did not say that Baba’s friend’s money is ‘dirty’ money, neither did it suggest that it was meant to buy Abati’s conscience. That has left many people asking: what really is Abati’s offence? He was only said to have expressed a desire to own a house and live in comfort.

If a man says “I, too, would like to build a house of my own and live in comfort”, does that translate instantly into criminal lust for money or any form of immorality? I don’t think so. Unless the favours were linked to proven cases of unwholesome conduct on the part of Abati, it is not yet a crime.

Without the establishment of such a link it will be wrong to slur the integrity of Abati. Obasanjo’s aversion to journalists is deeper than what he said about Abati. There is also the case of his very painful condemnation of journalism profession as nothing worthy of his respect. Many of those who have followed the former President in all the public positions he has held since 1976 would attest to the fact that he holds very disdainful opinion about journalists and journalism.

Many journalists who had the misfortune of interviewing him have very ugly tails to tell of their encounter with him. But the more painful one is his assertion that in Nigeria, journalists would accept to get anything published in their papers provided the price was right. This is one aspect of Obasanjo’s venomous attack on the media that cannot but be acknowledged as overdramatised truth. My immediate reaction to this sensationalised truth is that journalism is not the only profession where rules are bent occasionally for monetary and other forms of rewards and gains.

Politics from which our dear ex-President profited immensely, is a leader in that group of professions. But let me quickly admit that this is no defence against the accusation of the former president against journalists. Admittedly, this trend is a big problem for newspaper publishers and editors. The unfortunate drift towards commercialisation of news is degenerating into a big moral burden for the industry.

While it may be untrue that this trend is already an acceptable norm as former President Obasanjo is canvassing, we, as journalists, publishers and editors must admit that monetary inducement is today a serious threat to the credibility of the Nigerian media. Money rather than the desire to do a good story that would earn the writer commendation of readers and employers has become the major, if not the primary, consideration.

This is unhealthy and unacceptable. This ugly trend has deep roots in our badly altered value system which makes every professional calling in Nigeria a victim. But what seems to have worsened the case of the media is non-payment of salaries regularly. Most media companies do not make enough money to cover all aspects of their operations.

The stress that comes with the efforts to generate funds fuels the temptation that makes strict adherence to ethics of the profession a huge challenge for publishers, editors and reporters. But we, as media managers, must worry about this trend. We must look for creative ways of funding the operations of media houses, and especially pay salaries regularly, so that journalists will be in a position to do what is right to earn public respect.

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