If you don’t want fake news, go to real news sites —Egbemode

In this interview by SAHEED SALAWU, the immediate past President of the Nigeria Guild of Editors and the incumbent Commissioner for Information and Civic Orientation, Osun State, Mrs Funke Egbemode, speaks on the media and on her two years of the Oyetola government

 

Recently, you mentioned earlier in the day while declaring open the Nigerian Press Council’s workshop for media professionals on the role of the media in good governance and social cohesion, you said that the media is so powerful that it can either keep a nation on its feet or on its knees. The media has come under hard judgment for some of the things going wrong in the society. Why is this so?

It is because of that power that the media has. Everybody sees the media professional as a powerful person because we mold opinions, influence thoughts, help government at different level do what they are supposed to do, and we criticize them when they are not doing what they should be doing. It is that same power that has made people to see the media institution as formidable, and so, when a media house report or latches on to a particular issue and stays on it, it begins to develop a life of its own. And the fact that things can spiral out of the control of those who desire to control it make people think that the media is fuelling things in a bad way. But the job of a watchdog is to watch, and indeed we watch and report what we see. Like the Nigerian Press Council is doing in Osun at the moment, we need to look at our roles and talk about our pains so that more and more people will understand how the newsroom works. A number of people do not know how the newsroom works, and so, the media is a lot misunderstood.

 

One of the current issues in the media landscape is the contention against fake news or misinformation. What can you say is the responsibility of media owners and reporters in ensuring quality content and preserving the integrity of the media?

I am of the opinion that when you are looking for news, you go to a news site and get verified, verifiable information. More and more people are beginning to look for the gospel in nightclubs, and then they blame the club for not preaching the gospel. If you want to receive the gospel, then go the church. Fake news is not a term that I am comfortable with because it is either fake or its news; it is either rumour or news. People look for news from sites that are not known for disseminating news and come up to blame such sites as hawkers of unverified information. When people are looking for excitement, they should differentiate their needs and the results that come with it. They should go to real news sites where they can get verifiable information. A tree that is artificial is different from one that has been there for years. So, we should be mindful of what we are looking for and where we go in search for information.

 

One of the functions of the media as enshrined in the constitution of the country is to uphold the accountability of the government to the people. You have been involved in upholding this mandate for over 30 years, but you are now in government. So, what is the relationship between your professional mandate and your current role as the information manager of the government?

There is a difference and there is also a meeting point. As a reporter or an editor, you are looking for everything that sells your paper. You are looking for different things, and your focus is to make sure that your readers get as much information as possible in one news bulletin or in one edition of your newspaper. As an information manager, you are managing information. My job now is not to look for everything, but to examine everything and protect the system that I work for by ensuring that I manage information that is in the public space in a way that does not hurt the society or system I work for. For me, the meeting point has been made easy because I work in a system and for a boss that allows me to remain a professional. He understands professionalism and allows me to work professionally. He knows the power of the media, he does not take it for granted and does not abuse it. All he wants is for us to talk about his activities while we do the best we can to avoid distractions. He does not leave a trail of information management nightmares for me to clear or address. There are no scandals for me to try to manage, no damage control issues. So far, the meeting point of my being a professional and managing information for government has been smooth. The Governor is not afraid to tell his stories, and I like to tell his stories as well. He does not give me bad stories to tell or leave bad things for me to clean up.

 

I am happy you have started talking about the Governor. So, let us talk a bit more about him. What will you describe as his media philosophy?

I will not say he has a media philosophy. He is just a man who wants to do the best that he can for the people he is leading. He is a man who wants you to talk strictly about what he is doing. Anyone who knows him will tell you that he is a man of few words, he is not loud in any way; not even in his dressing. Even the way he walks is a reflection of his personality. Everything about him is like one neat, active but quiet bundle. He wants to do what needs to be done and he wants people to see that he is doing what needs to be done. He wants people to see it more than to listen to him say it. You are not likely to catch him talking about what he has done. He is not a person who likes to blow his own trumpet. He leaves his information management team to remind people of what he is doing. His listening ability is not what I have found in many leaders. He has a brilliant mind, so brilliant that he can listen to 20 people without writing anything down (maintaining a poker face), and you will think he is not listening until he responds to all inquiries. He is a man easy to work with, he works very long hours, he seems to have an unusual energy that allows him to stay fully awake at about 3:00am editing broadcast speech like he is just waking up. For someone who has been in the newsroom for a very long time, it is easier to work with such a man who allows you to remain a professional. Maybe because he is a professional himself. For instance, in all of the destructions that happened around the country lately, he raised the issue of insurance during the State Executive Council meeting – not just for the State to ensure that its assets are insured, but that as individuals, we should really educate people about insurance. So, maybe because he is a professional, he appreciates the fact that everything is not about politics, and his own politics is all about service.

 

So, since he is a man who does not like to blow his own trumpet, and since we are privileged to be sitting with the spokesperson of the State, could you please describe some of the activities of the Governor in the last two years?

With Oyetola, it is not so much about what has he done; it is about what has he not done? In less than two years, what he has achieved is amazing. Even I did not know how impressive until we started compiling the activities across the different Ministries, Departments and Agencies. I began to see the names of towns and communities that even as an indigene, I have not heard of, where road or water projects have been done. Some of the wards where Primary Healthcare Centres were revitalized were uncommon places. Generally, I will say Governor Oyetola in two years has done well, but as human beings, you will want more. To have decided to take on the revitalization and rehabilitation of 332 PHCs is very laudable because you find a lot of people travelling hundreds of kilometers to go to tertiary hospitals to treat infections that could be treated in primary healthcare centres. Now, every ward now has the facility to enjoy primary healthcare, this has made healthcare management easier in the State. The Governor wanted his focus on the healthcare system in the State to be one that will not be forgotten in a hurry; he wanted to leave his mark in the health sector, and he has been able to do a lot in two years when it comes to health. For someone like me who joined a year ago, I can say that a lot has happened in the health sector in the last one year and these are verifiable details. For instance, by taking care of the CONMESS and CONHESS, the State has been able to attract and retain consultants. Before Governor Oyetola, we learnt that a lot of consultants just came in and left almost immediately. Just when you thing that there are consultants on ground to attend to surgeries and other serious issues, they have gone to the neighboring states to ply their trade. Now, we are able to attract medical professionals to Osun and keep them because we now pay competitive salaries. That has also added to healthcare deliveries in the State. We are building doctors’ quarters to accommodate resident doctors. We have increased capacities to admit students into the school of nursing. He has also rehabilitated General Hospitals. And you know, without what Governor Oyetola has done in the health sector, we would have run into a storm during the COVID-19 era, because of the 127 returnees from Cote D’Ivoire. When they came, we were able to manage them, we had space to keep them because of the rehabilitated General Hospital at Ejigbo. He has also continued to work on increased drug distribution and making sure that all the consumables that are needed in those health facilities are in place. That is just for health.

The way he has embraced agriculture and continues to facilitate how farmers can grow, and how we can grow farmers and grow farming in the State. He has touched a lot on that. This is a State known for agriculture, but the Governor wants to move it from agriculture to agribusiness; he wants the people to make money from the engagement. This is one of the reasons why we have been able to turn the sword on the ethanol factory in the state, which will encourage our cassava farmers. The ethanol factory will live on cassava, the raw material will be cassava. So, if you are a cassava farmer for instance, as soon as the ethanol factory commences operations, your produce will be in demand. We are going to be needing cassava from communities across different local government areas to feed that ethanol factory, and a lot of commerce will be improved by that.

This government has disbursed over N 5billion to small scale businesses to help them expand. These are loans that are disbursed in single digits and you will even get a moratorium before you start paying back. It has helped young people and budding businessmen to flourish.

We have done projects in lands, in works. This administration is supposed to be broke, but we have been able to do a lot by thinking outside the box. For the roads that we are flagging off and doing everywhere, the Governor has found a way to fund it through the Alternative Funding Approach. So, work has not stopped, we are building roads in the State capital and across the three senatorial districts. Whether it is during rain or during COVID-19, the Governor keeps finding ingenious ways to keep the roads going. So, a lot of constructions are going on even as we speak.

Let me not forget that this administration started off with a “Thank You Tour”, and then followed by a Citizens Needs Assessment. So, the Governor came into office asking questions rather than providing answers to questions that have not been asked. He wanted to know what the people truly want, and moving around all the federal constituencies, he was able to get a handle on what each community, town and village wanted. One of the key features that cut across what the citizens in the state wanted was a desire for a second look into how the education system worked. And that was why when the education review took place, it was celebrated.

Its still being celebrated. All the old students that felt annihilated because something happened to the schools they attended are now happy. So, now, the students have been allowed to return to their individual unique uniform. By implication, if a student from Osogbo Grammar School is found loitering in Ede, the people in Ede know the uniform and cannot mistake him for a student of Timi Agbale Grammar School. This has also improved commerce. The textile businesses who were complaining of strangulation are back in business.

Whether in commerce or in education, this administration has done so much in less than two years.

Let us also not forget that the gold deposit in the State is phenomenal. That is one area where the Governor is determined that even in his first term, the people of the State must begin to reap the benefits of our endowment. And so, mining here in Osun has started a journey of becoming a reality, a reality that the State can feel in its pocket and by it contribute to the lives of the citizenry. When the State begins to reap the benefit of the labour it is investing in mining, things will actually get better for the state.

So, it is a lot of work going on around here and everybody is working. There is always something going on, and this second anniversary that comes up later this month of November will be devoted to showcasing what this administration has been able to do. A lot has been done in every sector. A lot.

 

You talked about Governor Oyetola being a listening Governor. What are the things that he is doing at the moment to still feel the pulse of the citizens?

Well, that is why the name of this ministry was changed from Information and Strategy to Information and Civic Orientation, so that through this Ministry, he can continue to interface with the people that put him in office. By this, the Governor can feel the pulse of the people and also use it as a feedback mechanism. So, this Ministry has the responsibility of keeping the Governor in touch with the people. Every governor before Governor Oyetola had a way or the other of ensuring this interaction. When I resumed, he christened a civic engagement programme “Apero”, which is like a big family meeting where the Governor is the head of the family, and members of the family (Osun citizens) get to ask him questions about the things he has done and inform him about the things he has not done as well as what they want done. Unfortunately, the first one that we did was the only one that we have been able to do because of the COVID-19 impact on social gathering. The first edition had a lot of people in attendance, it was a carnival of sort. It was that carnival that allowed people to meet the Governor live (not on television), he sat down there in the hall and answered all their questions. As many who had questions to ask were allowed to ask, including royal fathers. It was a “meet the Governor” kind of meeting. Some wrote down their questions, some asked the Governor directly, some others sent their through text message. Because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry has continued to engage citizens on smaller levels, meeting artisans and different stakeholder groups. That is another way of the Governor keeping the engagement with the citizens in place. As soon as we get all clear, we will return to the big family meeting, because the family head, Governor Oyetola, is also itching to return to the family arena to interact with the Osun family.

 

Let us talk about the osunnewsroom. How have you been able to balance the surveillance function of the media with the task of projecting the works of Governor Oyetola?

First, the Governor had a cabinet retreat with us before we were sworn in. We all signed a document called the Ada Declaration, and one of the decisions in Ada (at the Ada Golf Resort) was that we were going to have a single newsroom domiciled in the Ministry of Information. This meant that Information Officers in other Ministries were correspondents covering all the MDAs, and they report back to the Ministry of Information at the end of the day, file in their report just like any newsroom, and the reports are cleaned, collated and dispatched to all the major newsrooms across the country. So, whether a correspondent of a national newspaper or a broadcast media is in a Ministry and is not able to cover the activities of other Ministries, he can access it from the osunnewsroom. The osunnewsroom is a news portal, the first of its kind in the State. It’s called osunnewsroom.com. Our stories are there.

I am looking at our stats for the month of October and it shows that people view the portal from different countries of the world. It means that we are also able to get feedback for the State from all over. The stats help us to monitor how we are doing.

It is not all about showcasing achievements, it is also about monitoring and reporting the activities of MDAs. We also plan to expand the scope of osunnewsroom.com in the next few weeks as soon as we are able to perfect arrangements such that we are able to gradually compete. We want people from other states to also find their stories on the Osun news portal, especially stories from other States that concern the people of Osun because we are not an Island. If we have stories concerning how to get your C of O in Ondo State for instance, it could help our citizens who have reasons to transact on land matters in Ondo State. So, we are likely to start reporting national stories in the days ahead.

 

So, finally ma, do you miss the news room?

Sure! I miss the news room so much. That is where my life has been, I mean my professional life. Even though I head the osunnewsroom.com, I miss the larger news room. I miss the way things are in the larger bigger news room.

For instance, today, the former Governor of Kaduna State died, Governor Balarabe Musa. When I saw the story broke, somewhere at the back of my mind as an Editor, I was already thinking of different angles to the story: his early days, his PRP days, etc. You know, when someone like that dies, in the newsroom, the adrenaline rush of trying to beat the other media houses is missing here. I miss that. The challenges and the anxiety of trying to beat other papers tomorrow morning, I miss that. You wake up to see if another paper used the same headline like you. I miss the news room a lot, but you know what, there is time for everything.

 

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