OPINION: Aregbesola And The Press

GOV-AREGBESOLAAlthough Adedoyin’s focus in the above quote is on New Journalism, defined by online publications and social media, the obligation to avoid false reports that may injure the innocent applies to all journalists in print and electronic media. This is particularly true of reporters, whose duty it is to visit news sites and tell the world about what is happening, often as it is happening, in accurate and fair reports.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case with many a reporter in Osogbo, the seat of government in Osun State, where Rauf Aregbesola is the governor. From the inception of his administration in 2010, he has been in the eye of the press storm, often for the wrong reasons. His energy and drive; the openness of his government; and his outspokenness attracted the attention of his political detractors and the press. To complicate matters, his enthusiastic embrace of people-oriented policies and programmes generated a lot of debate. This was particularly true of the revolutionary education programme, featuring school reclassification, school mergers, school feeding, and uniforms; a social welfare programme for seniors; and an ambitious infrastructure development programme, featuring a ring road around Osogbo and the construction of a modern airport with a hanger.

To be sure, a number of these developments have been reported and discussed in the press. Unfortunately, however, it will appear that the press can hardly pass off an opportunity to drop a negative line or two about Aregbesola. This was evident in how quickly he was made the scapegoat among the 26 or so governors owing salary arrears for their workers.

Some newspapers are notorious for publishing false reports and expressing unfounded opinion about Aregbesola: If his son, Kabiru Aregbesola, was not carting away millions of naira through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, then Aregbesola himself was cornering his state’s bailout funds by using them to pay contractors. Even where Aregbesola was distributing campaign souvenirs, such as face caps and wrist bands, at a campaign rally, it was reported that he was abusing the naira, by throwing them at supporters.

The false reports began as soon as Aregbesola assumed office in 2010. He was falsely accused of moving Osun towards secession from the Federal Republic, by styling his state the State of Osun. Later, in an editorial, one newspaper listed Osun as one of the states which purchased exotic cars for their traditional rulers, when not even a bicycle was purchased for any traditional ruler.

In 2014, the same newspaper also published a feature article, with a headline which suggested that controversy still surrounded the state’s free school feeding initiative, while parents, farmers, and caterers were thanking the governor for it. Not done, the newspaper went on, almost a year later, to publish another false story, indicating possible cancellation of the school feeding programme, when no such plan was ever contemplated.

In none of the fabricated school feeding stories were the health benefits of the meal programme highlighted nor was there a mention of the multiplier economic benefits to the farmers, who produce the foodstuffs; the market women who sell fruits and vegetables; and the caterers, who cook the food, many of whom were simultaneously empowered to also service their local communities.

The first article on the feeding programme piggybacked on the negative propaganda of the Peoples Democratic Party, which was intended to cast aspersions on the programme as part of an election campaign blackmail. The second article was probably meant to intensify the crisis surrounding the non-payment of salaries, by instigating the young schoolchildren and their parents against the governor.

The intensification of the crisis surrounding the delayed payment of salaries was the motive behind another false story by the same newspaper in which a chairman of a pensioners’ forum was cited as calling on the Central Bank of Nigeria to stop the bailout for Osun. The fellow cited in the story claimed that he never spoke with the said newspaper.

Other false stories by the same newspaper include false or misleading stories about the school restructuring programme and the wearing of hijab in public schools. A concocted uniform crisis was given more attention than the benefits of merging schools to minimise cost and maximise efficiency.

Another false allegation, intended to turn Christians against the wearing of hijab in schools, claimed that Aregbesola wanted to Islamise Osun State. The allegation quickly fell flat on three grounds. First, Osun is already predominantly Muslim. Second, the Christian population feels secure as the leading Christian evangelical pastors in the country emerged from the Ilesa area, Aregbesolas natal base. They include Enoch Adeboye, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God; William Kumuyi, founder and General Superintendent of the Deeper Life Bible Church; and the late Joseph Ayo Babalola, founder of the Christ Apostolic Church. Third, Osogbo in Osun State is noted for the traditional religious practices associated with Osun Osogbo and the Osogbo historical grove. How could a governor, who preaches religious tolerance and accommodation, have planned to impose a particular religion on the people?

What is really at stake here is the double-edged injury caused by the false reports, one on Aregbesola, which led to his angry expression of disapproval, and the other on the press, whose integrity is impugned. Anyone familiar with Osun politics would know that most of these false stories originated with the opposition PDP, which some reporters even acknowledged in their stories. By not crosschecking their claims with Aregbesola or his representatives, such reporters settled for falsehood and the negative branding of their newspapers as the mouthpiece of the opposition.

These false reports raise two major questions. First, why would a reporter habitually publish false stories, and against the same target? There are three possible answers. One, the newspaper has a hidden agenda against the target of the false stories. Two, the reporter is rewarded for publishing the stories by the sources of the false information. Three, the reporter is probably ethically challenged.

The second major question is: What should be done to avoid such false reports? As Adedoyin suggested at the beginning of this essay, a new code of conduct is necessary, which must do two things. First, it must emphasise high ethical standards in news reporting, by providing strict guidelines on how to achieve fairness in news reports.

Second, appropriate sanctions should be imposed on the violators of the code of conduct, as imposed on Jayson Blair, a former New York Times reporter, and Brian Williams, a former anchor of NBC Nightly News. Blair was forced to resign for fabricating his stories, while Williams was first suspended for six months without pay and eventually removed as anchor for repeatedly exaggerating an episode about coming under fire in a US Army helicopter during the Iraq war in 2003.

The metamessage is clear: A healthy democracy needs a healthy press.

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