Journalists and hunger in the land

Ideal journalists are a special breed. They see the world as theirs to mould in the image of whatever is good and desirable. They are vulnerable and at the same time impregnable. They do not worship in the shrines of gods that fight the helpless. They are guardian angels of those things classified as public good. A CNN programme anchor once immodestly described journalism as the best job in the whole world.  But the journalist has very few friends. He is not a fool; he knows. He knows the flashes of smiles that receive him in places his assignments take him are crocodile smiles. He knows the work he does opens doors for him and in equal measure, closes doors against him. He knows the society merely tolerates him and silently wishes he would quietly vanish into the dark of the night.

All eyes are on the journalist whatever he does. Ekiti people have a song warning he who is being watched by all eyes to tread softly. Lives and careers have been built or interred by actions and inactions of the superman who decides what the people must know and what they must believe. When the media offends you, you cannot frontally charge at it. Why? You must pass the message without suggesting that you are passing any message. What you say against the media in your soundproof bedroom you cannot say at the palace square. Mitt Romney who had the unenviable luck of running against mercurial Barack Obama in the 2012 United States Presidential election got frustrated by what he thought was a media determined to ensure his defeat in that election. At a dinner for Catholic humanitarian causes, he attacked the media without attacking it. He said:   “Now I never suggest that the press is biased, I recognize that they have their job to do, and I have my job to do. My job is to lay out a positive vision for the future of the country, and their job is to make sure no one else finds out about it.” That was the abysmal degree of trust that existed between him and the press. Politicians never really like the press and its practitioners. The media too looks at the political class with utmost suspicion, sometimes with indignation, sometimes with disgust. Both always have agenda which are always not of the same colour and texture.

When the media chooses the politician to fight, it does not matter who he is. He could even be a journalist himself, the moment he crosses over to the other side, he becomes a suspect. He becomes susceptible to all the vagaries that go with operating in the privileged concave of oppressors. For the journalist, a war never ends until he is the victor. Steely resolve is wired into him. It is in his DNA. So what happens when the battle is between a journalist and others who claim journalism as their vocation/avocation? Two forces with claims to invincibility are likely to wreck the shrubs of the forest. Their chosen standoff promises to be interminable.

I felt so with Mr Bayo Onanuga, the Managing Director of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).  He, last week attracted to himself, the kind of focus no one prays to have. He had suggested that the hardship Nigerians face under this government he serves is exaggerated. He judged that, despite the noise in the media about hardship in Nigeria, he was somewhere in the north where he noticed that food was still very cheap and affordable because he bought 50 oranges and a watermelon with “just N1000.” While some commentators have seen his suggestion as shocking and uncalled for, for me, what  I felt when I read it was horror that he chose the social media to ventilate his views about the condition of the Nigerian economy. The terrain he chose was not a conventional battleground for a media general like him. And, I am sure, he has found out that, that terrain is as treacherous in its anonymity as it is lethal in the speed and spread of its bullets. Since last week, the ace journalist’s name has not stopped trending online. He must have felt, first, a feeling of shock, then anger, at the depth and breadth of the online media attacks that followed that Facebook post. He is not used to being silenced or having his rights curtailed by whoever. Abacha and the people in his government can testify to his gallantry. And, so, he first came out with a piece explaining himself but, again, what exists in the social media is an implacable mob. Once you cross the line drawn by the unwritten rule of online engagement, you do not attempt to explain your position  in a self-righteous manner. The mob will charge harder at you. I do not know why the ace journalist thought silence after that message would not have been a better strategy against a force seething with populist anger. But a veteran in struggles and battles of ideas, he followed up that ‘explanation’ with another shot, aimed at his traducers: “Lynch-mob, cyber-hyenas, cyber-vandals, character assassins: this is the motley crowd that has seized Nigeria’s  social media space, either on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. It is a mob and functions like any other mob, pouncing on targets, remorselessly, twisting your words to achieve a preconceived end.” Interesting!

Would he have written what he posted if he was not in government? No one in government pushes anything into the media without a goal. Did Onanuga achieve his objective at the end of the day? He has been around for a long time. He had been in the trenches fighting the people’s cause. But in the slippery terrain of today’s angry, hungry Nigeria, heroic acts of yesterday never serve as one’s armour, especially if one is now an obvious member of the power elite. That the people’s editor of yesterday is the big boss of a federal government agency today drills a chink in his armour. He should know. He is no longer an untouchable. He has lost his innocence.

I do not know how many persons in government today wish to be exposed to the unfriendly, harsh realities of a media that does not take prisoners. When you work in government, all eyes, seen and unseen, are watching you. You must therefore choose what to say and what to write. Defending any government anywhere is one of the most difficult jobs. You write and cancel words and write again. You query your every sentence and give answers to every unasked question before you push the information out. It becomes particularly tricky and risky when the social media is the preferred channel. The social media is an agent of change. It is democracy bearing another name. That, ironically, makes it a forest of doves, lions, snakes and scorpions. The doves are very few and they do not stick out their fragile necks in defence of persons marked for online demolition. On the social media, warriors have no place in their heart to think of taking prisoners.

Experience in politics and government teaches better than the best teacher. For the journalist in government, every experience, no matter how unpleasant, enriches one’s appreciation of that thing called power and its demands. And it is not as if the system itself is appreciative of valiant efforts. It has a way of throwing the unwary to the dogs. It is the very home of treachery. But then, you become a better journalist only after going through the university of government appointment, especially if you are wise.