On March 2, 2021, Peoples Gazette, the gutsy online newspaper that has now become famous for meticulously evidence-based muckraking, reported that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which is now AGF Abubakar Malami’s dutiful poodle, requested the Code of Conduct Bureau to furnish it with former Lagos State governor Bola Tinubu’s asset declaration forms possibly preparatory to his prosecution.
The newspaper shared a PDF of the November 6, 2020 memo in which the EFCC “referred to its previous letter of September 4, 2020, and CCB’s response of October 9, 2020, asking the bureau to supply ‘outstanding requested information of Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu.’” (It’s interesting that the EFCC became interested in Tinubu’s files only after Ibrahim Magu has been displaced by Malami).
On May 9, exactly a week after this report, Peoples Gazette again got a scoop that Tinubu’s asset declaration forms, on the basis of which EFCC apparently wants to nail him, had disappeared from the vaults of the Code of Conduct Bureau.
“Three officials familiar with the matter told the Gazette that the bureau started looking for Mr. Tinubu’s asset filings after the EFCC requested copies as part of an ongoing investigation into the former Lagos governor’s financial and material possessions. Several offices have been rummaged at the bureau as officials scrambled to produce the documents for EFCC’s use — all to a dead end,” the paper reported.
In the aftermath of these reports, mass outrage stirred frenzied conversations on social media and other discursive arenas about the deployment of the EFCC to hamstring a potential presidential contender in 2023 and about lax and compromised record keeping at the Code of Conduct Bureau. In a curiously twisted way, both perceptions uniformly injure the reputational capitals of the federal government and of Bola Tinubu even though they now appear to be on opposite ends of the unfolding drama.
As with all stories that dominate the news cycle, fire up the deliberative space, and embarrass government officials and politicians, there’s now a concentrated effort at a dishonest narrative contortion of the sordid events that Peoples Gazette’s reporting has brought to light.
A familiar— and now mind-numbingly over-used— tactic to muddy the narrative fidelity of exposés of corruption and wrongdoing in high places is to impugn the credibility of the news media platforms that purveyed such news even if the veracity of the news is self-evidently unimpeachable.
Calling every true but unflattering news story “fake news” even if its evidentiary facts and narrative integrity are unquestionably manifest has become a trite and banal rhetorical strategy that owes debt to former U.S. president Donald Trump. But it’s losing its novelty and effects. It has instead semantically transformed “fake news” into “true but uncomfortable news.”
In their war against true but uncomfortable news, Nigerian politicians and government officials now routinely enlist the services of unprincipled, mercenary journalists who feel no tinge of moral compunction about prostituting their professional integrity (if they had any, that is) for filthy lucre.
Since Peoples Gazette’s story emerged, at least two different reports in two newspapers (both of which unprofessionally elided Peoples Gazette’s name in their reports and instead called it merely an “online medium” or an “online tabloid”) have published two mutually contradictory, obviously “sponsored” rebuttals, which ironically dramatize the truth of the report.
In a March 10 report titled “CCB denies report of missing Tinubu’s case file,” one of the newspapers which used to call itself Nigeria’s newspaper of record or “the flagship,” quoted an anonymous source to have confided in it that Tinubu’s file was never in its records. The source reportedly told the paper that after Tinubu’s 2007 trial by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, the Code of Conduct Bureau no longer had any use for his asset declaration forms, which would be curious at best and criminal at worst if true.
“The file did not come back to us because I went through the archive to see the petition of the file and found the case was charged to the CCT,” the source reportedly said.“So, if anybody is interested in the case file, he should go to CCT.”
However, in a report titled “Tinubu: CCB Dismisses Report of Missing Assets Declaration Record,” the other newspaper, the notoriously unprofessional and poorly edited government propaganda mouthpiece that masquerades as a private newspaper, quoted another anonymous source as confiding in it that Tinubu’s asset declaration forms aren’t missing from the Code of Conduct Bureau.
“The source who didn’t want to be mentioned, also argued that the purveyors of the malicious report are ignorant of the collaboration between the CCB and other anti-corruption agencies in the fight against corruption,” the paper wrote in a hilariously illiterate and error-ridden “news report” that read more like the angry rants of a demented, overpaid, but uneducated government attack dog than a news report.
These two anonymously sourced stories can’t be simultaneously true. If the Guardian’s report that Tinubu’s asset declaration forms are no longer with the CCB, then the story that the forms are untouched at the CCB and are being shared with other anti-corruption government agencies can’t be correct— and vice versa, which means both reports are probably intentionally mendacious.
Yet the “story” deployed the term “fake news” so liberally and so aggressively throughout you would think the writer just discovered it—or was curating it textually because it was in danger of disappearing from the English lexicon.
In other words, a by-definition fake news report, written in the worst English prose I’ve ever seen in a news report, dared to call a well-sourced and credible news report as “fake news” because it was “sponsored” to do so by shadowy, well-oiled figures. When has malevolent illiteracy and shamelessly willful propaganda become journalism?
I have written several articles, and a book, about the heartrending decline of critical, watchdog journalism in Nigeria and the rise of pecuniary journalism, as I choose to call public relations and advertising deceptively disguised as journalism, but what’s happening now is a new low for our profession.
It’s understandable, even if indefensible, that traditional, oligopolistic newspapers have, for the most part, abandoned investigative journalism because of the pressures of advertising and the threats of governmental clampdowns, but nothing can justify journalists being enlisted to assault the professional integrity of ethical, high-quality investigative reporting with noxious falsehoods.
The core attribute of journalism in both a democracy and an autocracy is to be the eyes, ears, and mouths of the people; to put the feet of the people in power to the fire; to hold the powerful accountable because even the best of people become baleful beasts of power when they get into elective and appointive positions.
That is why George Orwell is credited with saying, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.”William Randolph Hearst, the 20th-century American newspaper publisher who started the concept of the newspaper chain, has a slightly different version of this sentiment. “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising,” he is often quoted to have said.
Of course, journalism encompasses way more than exposing the misdeeds and missteps of the powerful, but when newspapers go from not doing this to being paid to attack those who do, they are in the throes of a horrifying professional death.
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