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The media must challenge the concept of citizen journalism —Lanre Arogundade, Director, International Press Centre

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THE media and fake news menace

The media, no doubt, is caught in the web of fake news and hate speech, especially during this period of electioneering campaign.  What usually happen is that the politicians want to have an advantage over themselves. The media comes in because it is the major channel of information dissemination. We are not a political party, but we are very much part of the whole political process, because everybody needs the media. This emphasizes the importance of the media. The problem here is that the politicians want to score points. They tend to exaggerate and this is where fake news comes in. What I’m trying to emphasise really is that we are not the originators of fake news.  Usually fake news comes from outside the media. What we need to be careful about is not to get entangled, like you said. We must be able to know fake news  so as to prevent it from being published. And towards the 2019 elections, this is one of the things  we have been doing: trying to sensitise journalists in Nigeria to the danger of fake news and to let them understand that in this age of technology, there are tools with which you can detect fake news.. So we encourage journalists to use all those technological tools to detect fake news. We also encourage them to return to the original tradition of the media, which is to always  verify. Naturally we can’t run away from being bombarded with information on facebook, on twitter, on wattsapp. They come with all kinds of information. But the good thing is that as conventional media, we have a way of verifying our sources. We have access to those in authority. So we could always reach out to them to find out from them whether these statements actually emanated from them or not. This is one of the responsibilities we have to carry out. There are some aspects of fake news that is outside our scope. For instance, during the last US elections; the one that brought Trump into power,  we had some fake news websites, that were publishing stories and images of the elections. In one case, they used the image of the ballot boxes that was taken in Britain, Birmingham and made it look as if it was taken in the United States. During the Kenyan election, we also had a similar incident, where some people started publishing fake media reports. So they would pick the logo of BBC and other foreign media and  would make it look as if the story was coming from them and put it online. In fact,    in the extreme case  of Kenya, some people generated  what they called reports from foreign governments and other things about Kenyan election, and they used the logo of some foreign countries, foreign organisations, to make it look as if these reports really came from them. We could wake up tomorrow and find a fake  NigerianTribune website, because they know that  the traditional media still has credibility, and they want to lean on that.  Now for this category of fake news, we all must be at alert to keep checking regularly to ensure that our website has not been hijacked, to be sure that there is no other fake website that is being used in the name of our news medium, and for us to also alert the people, because, again there are tools that can detect whether a website is fake. But what I always say is that, in the media too, we should avoid fake news, we should avoid hate speech, but we should also avoid being intimidated to the extent that we are also not critical in our reporting. I don’t want a situation whereby  we refuse to do our work of making governments accountable for their actions and making politicians account for their words, because there is a way this fake news now make it look as if all we do is about fake news. Interestingly, it is just a minority that engages in fake news, and not all fake news comes within the media. If people don’t want to see fake news in the media, be it traditional media, the conventional media, the social media, then we need also to call on politicians to stop pushing out fake information. So for me, tackling fake news  is not something for the media alone to it is for everybody:  the media, the government, the regulatory agencies.

Stricter legislation and freedom of expression

You know for some of us, we are not just journalists or media practitioners, we are also  freedom of expression activists. So we are always afraid that strict legislation may curtail the right of freedom of expression, which the social media in a way, has actually enhanced. There is no doubt that we need some form of regulation, but that regulation must be a product of dialogue, of engagement between the government and the media and other stakeholders that are relevant. The essence is that we do not run  a law that  will become ineffective in the long run. I think that a dialogue that brings together all these  critical stakeholders might  help us understand the challenges better, so that  we do not end up killing the ant with the sledgehammer. When you also talk about legislation, how would it work, in effect? Does it now mean that state agents would now be empowered to start monitoring private social  media handles of people?  I don’t understand.


Citizen journalism and the nation’s media industry

We need to challenge the concept of citizen journalism. This is one of the reasons people tend to blame the media for all bad things going on in the social media. We should not accept there is anything called citizen journalism. You can not be a citizen journalist. Journalism is a profession. For you to be a journalist, you must have undergone one form of training or the other. Even for those who didn’t attend journalism schools or  schools of  mass communication, they get trained on the job. They go for courses. They go for trainings. Somebody who just sits somewhere and sees what is happening around that person and writes about it can not be a citizen journalist. He is just a citizen disseminator of information. If  you can not have a citizen doctor, a citizen architect, a citizen nurse or lawyer, we can not have a citizen journalist. The  acceptance of a citizen journalist is one of the problems that we have, and I think that we should insist that that nomenclature should be dropped. For you to be a journalist, apart from what I had mentioned earlier, you must have undergone some training. It means you have also agreed to abide with the Code of Ethics of journalism. And the code frowns against most of the things that you have  on the social media platform. The code of ethics in Nigeria, the Code of Ethics, internationally, as put together by International Federation of Journalists all talk about the fact that journalists must verify  their stories.  The so-called citizen journalist is not bound by those rules. Somebody who does not subscribe to this code can not be a journalist. Remember there are regulatory bodies, such as the Nigerian Press Council and the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, that ensure you get sanctioned, as a journalist, if you don’t abide to this code of conduct. Can a citizen journalist be taken before any of this regulatory agencies? The answer is no. If we do not fight this concept the real journalist will begin to suffer for  the sins of these citizen journalists who because they are not trained as professional journalists can do anything that they like. So for me, this idea of citizen journalism is causing a lot of confusion and making  it look  as if it is the media as a whole that engages in practices that discredit good journalism.


2019 general elections and the nation’s media

In terms of coverage, the media continues to engage in robust coverage of the electoral process and the campaigns. If you look at the coverage of this electoral process, you can not accuse the media of ignoring what is going on. We are currently monitoring twelve newspapers, including two online ones, and what we see from that is that they cover a lot of political and election activities, one way or the other. I would also say that the media too is making a greater use of information communication technology. We are using the social media too to follow event and to report what is going on at the level of the campaigns. In terms of issues, I will say there is still a question mark. We still do not put the issues of concern to the people in front of the politicians.

When you talk of agenda-setting, it’s supposed to work this way. The media goes out to talk to the people about their concerns, those issues they want the media to put before the politicians.  I’ve not seen the media do. That area, I think we need to do more in the countdown to 2019 elections.


NUJ’s proscription of beat associations

Probably NUJ had their reasons for doing so. Beat associations have become an embarrassment because they have a way of operating as a cartel. In the past I was one of those who made a case for beat associations, if they could actually restrict themselves to professional development issues, because it’s not peculiar to Nigeria.  In United States, you have Society of Black Journalists. It’s  like a beat association that brings together those interest groups. If you have beat associations, their major duty really is to see to the professional development of their members. The problem we have in Nigeria is that instead of focusing on that, we go to the issue of giving awards. When you are covering a beat, like the energy beat, and you name a company as the best company of the year. When there are critical issues, relating to that company, would you be able to report that objectively? So the message for our colleagues on these beats is that so long as  you deviate from the core values of journalism, there will always be a problem. Even the NUJ that was banning the beat associations also needs to come clean. The Union, too, should stop all these awards to governors and other public office holders at the state and federal levels. You do not give award to somebody who is currently holding a position. And if you want to give such an award, it should also be based on clear criteria. If you sit somewhere and say this governor is the best, what opinion polls did you conduct? How did you come to that conclusion? So it’s something that we need to discuss in the media.

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