By: Bukar Raheem
The decision of the Nigerian Army to drag online warrior, Premium Times to court might have yielded its first result even before charges are formally filed. The army premised its decision on the grounds that Premium Times committed criminal libel and allegedly jeopardized military operations with criminally obtained information, which has led to deaths of troops and loss of equipment.
Unlike the Premium Times of yore that would have stuck to its gun and reply any accusation of wrongdoings with more damaging publications, the online newspaper this week practically groveled for the daughter of Abiola Ajimobi, Oyo state governor in the person of Ajibola Ajayi. She was credited as labelling protesting students of the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology as “Generation of Mannerless Children,” a story that other media organisations, not wanting to be left behind, promptly replicated because the almighty Premium Times has reported it. How wrong they were.
Mrs Ajayi made the newspaper see its waywardness in her letter that disproved her ownership of the Instagram account @conceited_csj that the libelous story relied on. In a move that Premium Times was not known for, it was forced to offer a mea culpa, a rarity, considering the air of infallibility that Premium Times, its publishers, management and staff have woven around themselves.
The apology notwithstanding, there are several issues that the nation must not lose sight of because of the dangers that the kind of cowboy journalism from this organization and others in its footsteps pose to the country. There is the misconception that corruption, politicians, the military or other phenomena are the threats to Nigeria’s democracy whereas the greatest danger as of now are the ‘hitmen’ posing as journalists subversive enterprises masquerading as newspapers.
The crowd running the show there behave like Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) in Universal Soldiers (1992 movie); both men, though reanimated from death, kept thinking the war was not over and they continued to relieve the past in the present. Like Deveraux and Scott, Premium Times’ publisher, Dapo Olorunyomi is relieving the NADECO days and has programmed his crew to do the same and would not wake up to the stark realities of democracy in 2017.
This sense of righteousness explains why the decision of the army to sue the newspaper has finally brought home the reality that stories that are false must be retracted but somehow while retraction now seems an attractive option going forward an inordinate arrogance is stopping them from complying with the army’s demand for retraction of stories that it described as false.
Instead of seeking a mutually accepted resolution, Premium Times first attempted to sway other Nigerian media to take sides with it under the guise of the entire media being under attack; it later conscripted domestic NGOs to the fight and later drew in its international handlers like the Global Investigative Journalism Network to harass the government.
It would have made sense if some of these international heavyweights had not soiled their hands with miasmic ethical conducts, the type that prompted the Leveson “inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press following the News International phone hacking scandal”. Sometimes in June 2013 Premium Times similarly hacked the mobile of the then Central Bank Governor, which gives a fair sense of those it has recruited to harass the government on its behalf. People that promote conducts in Nigeria that are not acceptable in their own countries.
Also, if Premium Times can make error with something as basic as verifying the ownership of an Instagram account – the reason could be sheer inexperience, haste to demonize the daughter of a serving governor, or any other of the myriad reasons the newspaper can come up with – they logically do not have the capacity to analyze military operation on the scale they lay claims to. They must have serially misled readers in the past since their haste for sensationalism makes them prone to error.
There is further a worrisome direction. Premium Times is not known to hurriedly apologize, which would make some people try to dismiss the assertion that the threat of the Army’s lawsuit solely drove their recent decision. There is a pattern, the online newspaper’s previous victims are of other ethnic extractions. One would be forgiving for surmising that the retraction of the story about Mrs Ajayi, a Yoruba, was expedited by her ethnicity while the Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen. TY Buratai and the referenced former CBN governor could never be in the right in Olorunyomi’s eyes for the reason of their ethnicity. It must be for the very same reason that government organizations that were once in the newspaper’s crosshair usually become of no interest once their leaderships pass unto persons of amenable ethnicity.
But even for Mrs Ajayi, the retraction and apology does not amount to much. Human emotions and standing in the society have the fragility and delicateness of pottery, once shattered even the efforts of the best craftsman would not prevent the cracks from showing after repairs.According to her lawyers, “Since the date of publication attributed to our client (Mrs Ajayi), our client and her immediate family have been subjected to opprobrium, public ridicule, backlash, intimidation, violent threats and hatred within and outside Nigeria.”
This is the magnitude of damage that Premium Times does to individuals and their families even with its “gatekeeping process (that) is pretty rigorous”, and that is quoting its Managing Editor, Idris Akinbajo. The same way they carried out an internal review that showed their rigorous gatekeeping process could be so easily flawed they should prompt them to also review the undeserving damages this process does to the nation and their many victims when it is specifically deployed to do damages.
It is therefore still not too late to apologize to those they have hurt with the publication of stories that fall short of their self-set standards and retract same as it creating multiple standards for dealing with victims of their errors would be dubious. They must also not wait for Nigeria’s equivalent of Levenson Inquiry before doing away with anything that is unethical in the way they source stories – including hacking, bribing sources and stage managing videos. Their foreign affiliates must have educated them by now that the fallout of the Levenson Inquiry is that it is threatening to have Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act activated in the United Kingdom and media workers in that country fear it would mark the end of press freedom as they currently know it.
All those that cherish press freedom and the citizens’ right to know in Nigeria must speak out now so that Premium Times does not give us our own equivalent of the Levenson Inquiry which may inexplicably give rise to our own answer to the UK’s Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. There is a wave of far right nationalism sweeping the world and countries are back to making their own laws as they defy the global mistake called political correctness; Premium Times must please not allow this development to be exploited to shrivel the media space in Nigeria.
Raheem writes from Kaduna State.