NBC’s peculiar journalism 101

By Ray Ekpu

I think the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) thinks that it is either giving great journalism lectures through its circulars dished out from time to time or that it is discharging its assignment of electronic media regulation in a politically correct fashion. What it is doing is what I call “NBC’s Peculiar Journalism 101,” the ABC of our noble profession given in a manner that sounds weird.

But I am convinced that whoever taught them journalism must be squirming in their seats now because the NBC fellows are turning journalism on its head. Journalism is a profession that is guided by tested canons of practice.

These canons are encapsulated in the acronym FOBAC. It is also guided by a code of ethics that is universally accepted. Both the canons of practice and the ethics constitute the core values of journalism practice. FOBAC represents Fairness, Objectivity, Balance, Accuracy and Completeness (or Comprehensiveness). In order to ensure that your story meets the FOBAC requirements journalism expects your story to answer six questions: who? What? Where? When? Why? and how? These are called Five Ws and H in journalism’s idiom.

The circular issued by NBC on July 7, 2021 violates the FOBAC core values and the Five Ws and H because any broadcaster who obeys the NBC’s rule will not be engaging in best practices but will be operating violently at odds with the core values of journalism practice.

The circular under reference titled “Newspaper Reviews and Current Affairs Programmes. A need for caution,” warned broadcast stations against glamourizing the nefarious activities of insurgents, bandits and kidnappers. According to the NBC “headlines of most newspapers on a daily basis are replete with security topics. While bringing information on security to the doorsteps of Nigerians is a necessity, there is a need for caution as too many details may have an adverse implication on the efforts of our security officials who are duty bound to deal with insurgency.”

The NBC directed broadcasters to “advise guests on their show not to polarize the citizenry in driving home their point, and not to give details of either the security issues or victims of these security challenges so as not to jeopardize the efforts of the Nigerian soldiers and other security agents.”

The NBC also directed the attention of the broadcasters to a section of the NBC code that says: “That broadcasters shall not transmit divisive materials that may threaten or compromise the indivisibility and indissolubility of Nigeria as a sovereign state. In reporting conflict situations the broadcaster shall perform the role of a peace agent by adhering to the principle of responsibility, accuracy and neutrality. This circular was signed by its Director of Broadcast monitoring, Francisca Aiyetan on behalf of the Director General, Balarabe Ilejah.

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This document seeks to invent new rules for journalism practice. It seeks to take something away from FOBAC, especially the quality of a story’s completeness or comprehensiveness. It also seeks to deprive a story of the ability to answer the six questions embedded in Five Ws and H. Once that happens journalism would have been reduced to pure rabble-rousing, the kind of thing that you can find in some of the social media platforms.

Let me admit that this is a very difficult time for journalists because Nigeria is in a dramatic free fall. Every day Nigerians are in mourning as insurgents, kidnappers, bandits and herdsmen capture, kill or rape some of our countrymen and women. As kidnappers ask for many millions of naira and foodstuff from relatives of the kidnap victims you wonder where the money is going to come from, whether the victims will ever come back in one piece or whether our security forces are equal to the task. Young persons in schools have now been exposed to a horrendous life that they never dreamt of and yet this is no dream.

It is stark reality. You wonder how they will grow up nursing this trauma, if they survive it, for the rest of their lives. As riffle fire whistles and bullets sing in various parts of the country you wonder whether those who are vested with the responsibility of bringing this madness to an end are asleep or awake. Yet journalists have to do the duty of making what is happening a sensible guide to the lives of their readers and viewers. I sympathize with the NBC which is now grinding its teeth and scratching its head over Nigeria’s so called “indivisibility and indissolubility as a sovereign nation.”

If the politicians do not decide quickly to do something about Nigeria’s jaga jaganess, about restructuring it into a nation that works for every segment of the population, fairly, equitably, then all the pompous talk about its indivisibility and indissolubility is just a distant speck in the horizon. Why? Because terrorists, bandits, kidnappers and herders are already dividing and dissolving the country inch by inch everyday.

Because separatists have come into the Nigerian space with both feet and they have become a major distraction for the government of the day. See the crowd that seeks to watch their trial and the attempt by the security forces to cordon off the trial venues and prevent the crowd from getting there.

The two separatist leaders, Nnamdi Kanu of IPOB and Sunday Igboho of Oduduwa Republic seem to have been turned into folk heroes by those who are chasing them and by the fact that, by pure accident, they seem to attract the favourable attention of the oppressed in their communities. The only way to curb the growing flame of separatism is to move fast and right the glaring wrongs that exist in this polity which have kept people in various parts of the country restive and restless.

If the politicians think that Kanu and Igboho are jokers and have no followers they are mistaken. The longer the injustices and discriminatory appointments and project sittings remain the more followers they will gather around their cause.

At present what most reasonable Nigerians seem to want is a country that is fair and just to all concerned, not several handkerchief sized countries. I am not interested in separatism but I am interested in fairness, equity and justice and it is the failure to guarantee these values that leads people to want to opt out of this ramshackle federation by referendum or rebellion.

As I said I sympathize with the NBC because when it talks of divisive communication that can threaten or compromise the indivisibility and indissolubility there is hardly anything it can do to hold aggrieved persons back from expressing their grievances. If they cannot do so on radio or television they can do so in the print or new media or through pamphlets, leaflets, posters or demonstrations.

What can stop people from divisive conversation are fairness, justice and equity, not threats or bans or fines from the NBC. In the modern era, journalism is supposed to offer information, education, entertainment as well as do a surveillance of the environment and protect the people’s right to know. A medium that is captured and bent to the skewed vision of NBC cannot fully discharge its functions especially the last two. Surveillance of the environment means that a medium must watch out for risks, dangers, hazards, threats and perils.

When faithfully done this can lead to the delineation of trends especially in such areas as security and health. The other duty, the protection of the people’s right to know is even more important especially in a democracy. Democracy is nurtured by the exchange of communication between the rulers and the ruled. The rulers say what they are doing, the ruled say what the rulers are doing right or wrong. That is called “feedback.” But the ruled cannot make any meaningful contribution to this public conversation except they are equipped with access to full and truthful information.

Walter Lippman, a famous American journalist once put the role of the media in a democracy this way, “If the country is to be governed with the consent of the governed, then the governed must arrive at opinions about what their governors want them to consent to. The role of the press in such a situation is to make it our business to find out what is going on under the surface and beyond the horizon. This is our job. It is no mean calling.” Does the NBC understand that? The amazing thing is that the NBC is acting in this fashion at a time two billionaires, are making space travel normal.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin have got a brief taste of space by taking passengers on a space trip for pleasure. There is immense potential for scientists who are interested in micro-gravity research and other persons interested in rapid transportation between continents. That is a huge potential for the world but here we are telling people that they cannot report what people have seen with their naked eyes. Also it may interest the NBC that the journalism world in the developed countries are not waiting for Nigeria which, from all indications, wants to stay stuck in the Stone Age.

In 2011 the University of Nebraska established its Lincoln Drone Journalism laboratory. In February 2013, the University of Missouri also established its Missouri Drone Journalism programme. At both universities the students are taught the basics of flying unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) using still and video cameras to gather aerial information. The goal is to turn information gathered from the air into workable stories.

In the past what we knew of drones were just related to war and destruction. In the foreseeable future journalism will benefit from drones. And here we are quibbling about whether people can report events fully and comprehensively without the country breaking into smithereens.

It is sad that the NBC has chosen to operate as a servile arm of the Ministry of Information whose Minister wants Nigeria to have draconian legislation like China which is a certified autocracy. On the contrary, I expect the NBC to act as an independent regulator that is determined to help, not hinder, the growth of electronic broadcasting. In the days gone by we witnessed a lot of creativity in electronic media programming.

That is how we got world class locally produced epic series such as Village Headmaster, Cockcrow at Dawn and Mirror in the Sun, to mention just a few. Now the NBC seems determined to kill whatever creativity is left in the electronic media with its politically inspired and unprofessional adjudications, while the world has left us behind.

The regulator seems to want to join the concert of wannabe autocrats even though it is supposed to be doing a professional job whose professional canons are clearly spelt out in the book of best practices globally.