By Emma Agu
In time to come, chroniclers of this generation would definitely be left to wonder how the media, once held aloft as the lampstand of truth and society’s moral conscience, has degenerated to the purveyor of falsehood and deliberate mischief. That does not mean that the media had always been above board. Nor could it be said that it has lost its value as a barometer for measuring the health of a democracy.
But the truth is that there have always been occasions or incidents that took the integrity of the media to the nadir of acceptable public standards. To wit, the culture of character assassination, blackmail and blatant mischief have always been with us. But the reckless abandonment of professional ethics; the desecration of truth on the altar of Mammon, has never been so bad.
The framers of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria will, undoubtedly, be left wondering if they took the right decision when they entrusted the Press with the Constitutional responsibility of holding government accountable to the people.
Sadly, time and again, this privilege has been so wantonly abused as to elicit calls for various forms of censorship. Granted that opponents of Press Freedom could be driven by some sinister self-serving, what cannot be denied is the increasingly unacceptable excesses of some media practitioners, particularly the digital mode, in various societies. From poor editorial judgement to outright pornography and blatant falsehood, some sections of the media have turned into society’s nightmare. Bare-faced lies are spewed out as the truth; children are no longer protected from lurid and gory news reports while the foundation of all news judgements, that facts are sacred while opinion is free, has long been jettisoned.
Today, many a journalist has turned the rule book upside down; most times, it is so bad, to the extent that the distinction between fact and fiction has become so blurred as to pale into insignificance. Fake news has become the order of the day. With unconscionable relish, politically motivated character assassination now rules the media space, providing ammunition for advocates of media censorship to press the throttle. As unpalatable as it may sound, unless the media retraces its steps and adopts a programme of self-restraint, sooner than later, even its strongest supporters will begin to rethink their position.
If I had any doubt about the possibility of such a self-inflicted immolation, last week’s news story, about Hajiya Aisha Bala Mohammed, wife of Governor Bala Mohammed of Bauchi State, has deepened my greatest fears. The correct story is that, as part of the empowerment programme of her Al-Muhibbah Foundation, Hajiya Aisha had distributed pasta making machines, flour and cash of N5000 to each of 250 women in the area. According Hajiya Aisha’s Press Secretary, Murjanatu Musa Maidawa, the beneficiaries had undergone a comprehensive training in various economic skills, preparatory to receiving the starter packs from Hajiya Aisha Mohammed’s Al-Muhibbah Foundation. That was the main event of the day.
However, reminiscent of such events, some women who did not participate in the programme joined, obviously to celebrate what was indeed an auspicious moment in the history of the area. Moved by their solidarity, Hajiya Aisha resolved that the women would not leave the venue without a sense of belonging. She ordered and got 20 packets of sachet water to each of them. Shortly thereafter, the social media went on abuzz, with the story that the First Lady had given out only sachets of pure water as palliative, leaving completely the starter packs for the 250 beneficiaries of her empowerment programme.
Agreed that, as a public figure, the First Lady could hardly escape public scrutiny, the issue at stake is not whether the media was right in focusing its searchlight on her. After all, everybody knows that public office is like entering the boxing ring for a fight; once in, you can run but you cannot hide. Someone once used a rather bizarre metaphor to describe public office as akin to a thrash can: people just heap anything they like into it.
Yet, every profession is guided by some ethical considerations; these are the irreducible minimums, beneath which its practice becomes impeachable. That some sections of the media could deliberately tweak the facts and publish bare-faced lies and half-truths; that editors could intentionally conceal the facts, of a story, in order to provoke hostile reactions to a lady whose entire life is the epitome of charity, is the height of mischief and pettiness.
I have known Hajiya Aisha for about thirty-five years. A deeply religious woman, she maintains a largely ascetic lifestyle, devoted to prayers and charity. She had established the Al-Muhibbah Foundation (AMF), thirteen years ago; that was long before her husband became Governor, as a non-governmental organisation, to provide care and support, for the vulnerable and less privileged in the society. Over time, her Foundation has touched women, children and the youth through provision of primary healthcare, “inclusive education”, entrepreneurial skills and the provision of school materials and uniforms. Someone once said that if you want to know the value a society placed on human beings, watch how they treat their dead ones. Interestingly, one of the areas of intervention of the Al-Muhibbah Foundation is to assist in maintaining cemeteries. Here, then, is a complete woman whose passion for charity transcends the mortal to the immortal, the physical to the transcendental.
It is a measure of her consuming passion to help the less privileged that informed her decision, many years ago, to establish her educational project in Karu, a town that is geographically contiguous with the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja but politically in Nasarawa State. Her response to why she located the school in what is akin to a rural environment even as her husband, then a serving senator could have easily acquired land in a strategic part of the FCT, is very instructive. Her preoccupation, she said, was how to grant access to quality education, to the children of the less privileged, majority of whom would not afford the fees for a school in the FCT. Such is the spirit of this exemplary lady who, some mischief makers, misusing the awesome power conferred by the media, have targeted with demonic effrontery and shameless zeal. It is annoying.
It is difficult to rationalize this behaviour. Hajiya Aisha is a peace-loving family woman who can barely stir the water in a cup let alone disturb the current in a pool. Naturally, she is very popular with the less privileged with whom she has shared a common passion, over the years. The fact that she could not dismiss the ‘uninvited guests’, to her event, without accommodating their needs, reminds one of the Biblical feeding of the Five Thousand. As the story goes, the disciples of Jesus had suggested that the crowd, who had sat all day, listening to Jesus, be dismissed so that they would find food to eat. But Jesus would not have anything of the sort. Rather, he got the hungry to sit down, and gave them food to eat. That was empathy. That was fellowship. Though I was not at Hajiya Aisha’s event in question, I can say with some measure of confidence that, in all probability, she could have rejected any suggestion to send the uninvited guests away, empty-handed. And rather than leave without anything, she offered the readily available product: WATER. Water is life. And as her chief press secretary was to explain later, the women, each of whom received 20 bags of the largesse, were asked to sell the water at home.
Though it will not come easy, the various media stakeholders should rise to the challenge of sanitizing the profession. As past general secretary of the Newspaper Proprietors of Nigeria (NPAN), I will be the first to admit that such a house cleaning exercise will have to confront all manner of resistance. But the choice is clear: if journalism in Nigeria hopes to be accorded the same respect enjoyed by other professional bodies, it goes without saying that this self-expurgation is not just desirable but acutely mandatory.
The journalists who have spurned the nobility of the spirit of this great woman, urgently need to review their approach to the issues of life; any person with a modicum of wisdom, will know that beyond the surface of things, there is more to life than the fleeting comfort conferred by filthy lucre or pecuniary inducement. I know of no other motivation that can permit a respectable professional, to descend to this level of brazen misrepresentation. Many believe that the false story, against Hajiya Aisha is a further intensification of the media campaign against her husband, who, defying all odds, seems poised to rescue Bauchi State from its unenviable developmental status and set it, on the path of people-focused sustainable development. If that is the price that Hajiya Aisha must pay for being Governor Bala Mohammed’s wife, then it is a price worth paying!