It is dangerous to dismiss the current crisis at The Punch as a crisis at The Punch. It is a crisis in the national mass media, and therefore a national crisis. It began when Steve Ayorinde, the editor of The Punch, was asked to resign his appointment last month. Left with no choice, he penned a long, detailed petition against his former boss, the same man who had asked him to leave.
That man is Azubuike Ishiekwene, the company's Executive Director (Publications) . Mr. Ayorinde's comprehensive complaint to the company's Board of Directors, which was first published by i-reports-ng. com, seems to have resulted in Mr. Ishiekwene's suspension, but The Punch has announced no such measure. The complaints against Mr. Ishiekwene are many and extremely serious. They include allegations of collecting millions of Naira from corrupt politicians and governments in exchange for their protection and promotion, as well as millions and perks from businesses and organizations.
Mr. Ishiekwene is accused of being a consultant to the Lagos State Government, and of attending meetings of "media consultants" comprising Senior Editors and Chairmen of Editorial Boards, for which he is being paid. According to Mr. Ayorinde, newspaper houses that awarded the Man of the Year award to Governor Fashola were either paid N25million to do so, or as a reward for granting the honour. Some newspapers did not award the governor anything, but if they were considered important, they still received "a N15million largesse by way of contract (sic) to the Senior Editors, including, as I reliably learnt, Mr. Ishiekwene, who are consulting for the government," the former editor wrote.
In the private sector, according to the account, Mr. Ishiekwene seems to have had a presence as well, including a significant retainer by a bank. Mr. Ayorinde also cites the paper's August 2008 publication of the power sector probe report of the House of Representatives. Among those that took a hit in it was Rockson Engineering, whose chairman is Chief Arumeni Johnson. He also happened to be a friend of Mr. Ishiekwene's, who was away on vacation at the time The Punch was publishing the report. Mr. Ayorinde alleges that as soon as his boss returned, he called a meeting of newspaper editors with Chief Johnson at Sheraton Hotel in Lagos, and that Mr. Ishiekwene "personally distributed money to the guests, ostensibly to have them protect Rockson's interest in their papers."
Chief Johnson is also the Chairman of Arik Air, and "Mr. Ishiekwene and a friend of his who is also a senior editor in another newspaper, are both consultants to the business interests of Chief Johnson through their company, A&L," of which the 'A' stands for Azubuike.
Among other things, writes Mr. Ayorinde, when Arik bought a new aircraft in France in 2008, Mr. Ishiekwene, as a Board member designate of the airline and media consultant to Chairman Johnson, overruled the plan by the company's Head of Media Relations to take aviation correspondents to France for the show. Instead, Mr. Ishiekwene took a group of selected editors who flew Business Class and were each personally handed an allowance of $5,000 by the Punch Director.
For Mr. Ishiekwene, it would be a shame even if only a few of the allegations, of which these are a sample, were true. While it is often rumoured that many journalists are on the payroll of powerful politicians and businessmen, what Mr. Ayorinde has achieved is to provide a face for the menace in his compelling narrative, which he has invited The Punch to investigate, and for which he offers names of people who would be prepared to testify. There is no doubt that Mr. Ishiekwene's credibility and career are on the thin edge of the knife.
But it would also be a fascinating report The Punch turns in when its investigation is done, because its own credibility is also in question. To begin with, it turns out that in December 2008, investigative reporter Mojid Musikilu, who is now of 234NEXT, had written a protest letter to the management about the disappearance of a story he had filed on the indictment of Ogun State's Governor Gbenga Daniel for corruption by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Mr. Musikilu compared that experience with an earlier one, in July 2008 in next-door Oyo State. At that time, he said, not only did his story on the indictment of Governor Bayo Alao-Akala by the same Commission enjoy "generous usage," including front page treatment, even the EFCC's interim report on the governor's activities was published in full some days later.
The reporter complained about other stories: Early in 2008, another story he wrote on the EFCC's investigation of Patience Jonathan, the wife of then Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan was killed. And he was "advised against doing a story on the curious withdrawal of N3.6 billion from (the) Rivers State Government account with Zenith Bank." What this means is that in one year alone, that single reporter had at least three significant stories curiously spiked. The public is left to wonder how many other reporters at the paper suffered similar denials and frustrations during that year, or routinely. Mr. Musikilu's complaint to the management of The Punch pre-dated that of Mr. Ayorinde by over one year. It clearly indicated the reign of negative practices in The Punch newsroom, but the company does not seem to have shown any interest.
In retrospect, the Ayorinde story is not about The Punch at all, but about journalism in Nigeria. One cannot read Mr. Ayorinde's protest without coming away with the frightening impression that many senior journalists have now adopted a loose lifestyle of selling their influence to government officials and businessmen in exchange for cash and gifts without the slightest concern for any conflict of interest. This is a terrible burden because the power of the press lies in its credibility. If stories are being paid for, or editors bought in order to ensure specific kinds of coverage, a newspaper is, in effect, a doctored and worthless document. The reader is left to wonder whether a particular story was paid for with the objective of making an individual look good, or to make someone else look bad.
Similarly, if an editorial portrays an organization or institution in poor light, how does the reader know that the opinion is genuine, and not because the asking price of the editorial writer or Chairman of the Editorial Board was met? When is a story a hoax, a reward, a love story, a campaign jingle? When is the absence of a story the story? When is a headline a "head-lie"?
This is an ethical crossroads that the media, and not just The Punch, must take seriously. Nobody and no media organization should hide behind the fig leaf that this concerns only one newspaper and one editor. I do not see how anyone can be comfortable with the image of the nation's editors as a prostitution ring with its members ready to lie down for everyone that can pay the gate fee. The way forward is for the media houses, the Nigeria Union of Journalists, the Nigeria Guild of Editors and the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) to conduct independent investigations if they wish to re-establish public credibility in their industry, knowing that further failures on their part would throw this trade open to intrepid citizen reporters.
Without doubt, the guilty editors must be identified and exposed in order to protect the good ones and give the profession a chance to survive. Those senior journalists who have nothing to fear should defend themselves by exposing the traitors or risk going down with them. There is no middle road and nowhere to hide.
* sonala.olumhense@ gmail.com