Journalists Under Attack

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BY ISAAC ASABOR

The gory brutalization of Mr. Benedict Uwalaka, a photo journalist with Leadership Newspaper by mortuary attendants at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) has further laid credence to the well known assertion that journalism practice may be likened to soldiering. There is a sense in this comparison, after all, some journalists were in the course of their duties in the past obligated to join soldiers in Liberia, Rwanda and Algeria during the crises that erupted in these countries. Unfortunately, the Tayo Awotusin never came back to write a travelogue for the readers of Champion Newspaper as he died in the Liberian civil war in the 90s. The hazards that are inherent in the journalism profession are today undeniably making many youths to have a rethink on the choice of the profession so much so that most of them are beginning to see public relations, brand management, advertising, marketing research and other allied professions as optional careers in order to be on the safe side.

Suffice it to say that unjustified brutalization and harassment of journalists in Nigeria is age-long. In 1970, Minere Amakiri of the Nigerian Observer was arrested and detained by the then military administrator of Rivers state, Diette Spiff. Before detention, he was stripped naked and his hair was shaved with a razor blade.

Also in 1984, the military government headed by General Muhammadu Buhari, now retired, promulgated decree No. 4, 1984 that made it an offence punishable by imprisonment, fine or both for the press or any media house to publish or broadcast anything, whether true or false, that caused some embarrassment or is likely to bring the government or government official into ridicule or contempt. Having been allegedly found to have breached the decree, two well known journalists, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson were arrested, charged to court and convicted by the military junta headed by General Muhammadu Buhari in defiance of the condemnation that trailed the promulgation of the decree.

The same military government also promulgated another obnoxious decree known as decree No. 2 which specified that anybody including the reporters and editors could be detained for months without being arraigned in court if they published any offensive report.

The foregoing references are indispensable in this piece as they were cited to substantiate the fact that journalists are under attack.

In my view, what happened at LASUTH is just one of the isolated cases of physical assaults often perpetrated against Nigerian journalists. In the same vein, Nigerian journalists are daily assaulted psychologically by news sources. They are in most cases looked down upon and snubbed by some news sources. In fact, journalists are often seen as invaders of privacy and as “Poke Nosers”. But have those who unjustifiably hate journalists ever sat down to reflect on the fact that journalists do not create events but report events? In the case of the latest attack, could it not have been wise before the fracas escalated for the mortuary attendants, mentioned in the media as Bayo and Idowu to see Mr. Uwalaka and other journalists as those that made the reportage of the DANA air crash possible, and also as those that often lose sleep and their social commitments to report sad events to millions of Nigerians in the comfort of their homes? Would it not have been wise for the mortuary attendants and LASUTH management not to see event reporting as a one-off activity? As long as the dust raised by the DANA air crash is yet to settle, news reporting activities on the sad event would continue, and those who are duty bound to be informing the public as developments daily unfold on the event are the journalists. One does not need to be trained as a journalist to understand that the breaking news of the air crash is tied to the news report on the release of corpses from the mortuary. For God’s sake, why is it that the Nigerian journalists are not always allowed to perform their duties in a professional manner? Most Nigerians, including graduates who do not ply the trade of journalism, erroneously think that Journalism is all about writing. How wrong they are! It goes beyond writing.  It is said that everybody can write but not everybody is a journalist. We were all taught how to write essays in our secondary school days but that does not make us to be qualified journalists. The ability to literarily smell news when others cannot is also one of the requirements needed to be a journalist.

I sincerely sympathise with Mr. Uwalaka and other journalists that were brutalized or assaulted by LASUTH mortuary attendants, Bayo and Idowu, considering the fact that they were found at the wrong place, so to say. A friend of mine jocularly said that the one that “watches over corpses for a living would not have any iota of respect for the ones that are alive”. He also opined that “it could be that the ghostly atmosphere influenced the fracas?” He may be right.  But  we can leave this for the pastors and spiritualists to discern. Be that as it may, the management of LASUTH should put all practicable and humane rules and regulations on ground to forestall similar occurrence in future as it could soil the image of LASUTH and vicariously that of Lagos State Government.

In my view, would it not have been more professional for LASUTH public relations officer to have a good rapport with reporters that work in various media houses across the nation instead of leaving the task of media relations with  mortuary attendants?  The assumption of this writer is that there is a public relations officer or consultant hired by the management of LASUTH. If my assumption is wrong, the management should get one to avoid any future fracas with pressmen.

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Suffice it to say that if there was a well established media relations machinery on ground, the molested journalists would have contacted the public relations officer, probably through their phones or e-mails. The public relations officer would have in turn contacted  the mortuary attendants  to instruct them on the need to grant  the  journalists unassailable passage to perform their duties.

The mortuary attendants should be given short courses on how to be civil and polite to visitors. They are the first contact for  any visitor to the mortuary, therefore they should be trained on how to be relate with the public. Their job as mortuary attendants goes beyond the opening of gate. Only God knows to what extent they have been embarrassing others in the past. I must confess that after watching the fracas on the television, I was convinced that the mortuary attendants are very uncouth and bestial. I think the management of LASUTH has to do something in this area as not doing it would tantamount to toying with the image of the tertiary health institution.

Meanwhile, the government of Lagos State and management of LASUTH should dispassionately look into this case and recommend whatever punishment they may deem fit. On the other hand, they should find a way of placating Mr. Uwalaka and the Nigerian Union of Journalists, and also promise them that it would not happen again. Promising to replace his phones and camera and footing his medical bills is not enough. They should ensure that justice is obtained for Mr. Uwalaka.

The brutalization of journalists at LASUTH is serio-comical when seen from the fact that the assault did not come from political office holders, soldiers or policemen but from mortuary attendants. In my view, the warped perception of who a journalist is has come to a level where all stake holders in the field of journalism should begin to find a way of redeeming the lost glory of the profession.  Permit me to opine at this juncture that many educated and uneducated Nigerians don’t understand who a journalist is. Little wonder many educated Nigerians often have butterfly in their stomachs whenever the name “journalist” is mentioned. However, journalists are not mischievous as most people erroneously perceive them to be. They report facts as they see them because they do not create events. They only report events from factual perspective.

Basically, a journalist’s duty is to inform, educate and entertain the people and not to harm them.  To the journalists in the print media, writing is one of the best ways of keeping their audience informed, educated and entertained. In the course of performing their primary duties, journalists automatically become instruments for the mobilization and participation of the populace towards a worthy cause. Also in the course of performing their duties, the journalists, through their literary skills, promote better understanding of culture, tradition and religious creeds, and to a large extent promote peace in the society.

Many well-motivated journalists, no doubt, have the ability  to influence changes in the society so much so that decision makers are known to have been left with no option than to re-examine their policies and programmes, as a result of constructive criticisms by some journalists.

Journalists, through their news stories and opinions immensely contribute to national and international debates that could improve people’s living standards and promote better understanding amongst the populace. Without daring journalists, who would have kept millions of Nigerians informed about the heinous activities of the bogey called Boko Haram in the northern part of the country?  Nigerians get to know about the sanguinary battles which members of the Boko Haram sect are baselessly declaring to the detriment of the peace and stability of our nation through reports by journalists. It is a fact that journalists contributed immensely to the independence of Nigeria and the restoration of democracy in the country. Finally, I am using this piece to urge every Nigerian to stop seeing journalists as their enemies, but rather as their friends, as the Nigerian Police Force would say. Without the journalists many of us would literarily be in the dark about happenings around the world.

•Asabor writes in from Lagos. E-mail: [email protected]