Friday, 29 July 2011

Lessons from the phone-hacking scandal

The phone-hacking scandal rocking Britain – and inexorably moving to America, where Rupert Murdoch has substantial investment – may appear a far-off phenomenon to us here in Africa, but it really has lessons for the rest of us. The reason is that not only has the world shrunk into a global village, where parliamentary sessions on the ill-fated News of the World (NOTW) tabloid were beamed live to the whole world by satellite television, but also because journalism as it is being practised in the West is being aped everywhere on earth. We may argue that our newspapers, radio and TV stations are unique in many ways because of our different cultural backgrounds; the truth, however, is that the line separating Western thought and practice in most modern professions and those in other nations is very thin indeed.

That is to say there is a Murdoch in almost every nation, even in Lilliputian terms. There is also a NOTW in most of our newspapers, in as much as there is a CNN or a BBC in most TV and radio stations around the world. Moreover, there is an Andy Coulson and a Rebekah Brooks in many an editor and media executive. This is because the profit-motive has, over the years, tended to overshadow the ancient purpose of the journalism profession which says newspapers are established in order to inform, educate and entertain. They are now set up, in the main, in order to make financial gain and garner political clout.

Murdoch and his tabloid bunch have been skewered by most commentators as a rabid lot instigated by the profit motive, hence their unchecked intrusion into the private lives of politicians and celebrities. The commentators have, by taking this stand, committed the offence of someone, as a Hausa proverb says, who stands tall on the mountain of their own excesses in order to look at other people’s mountain. It’s like a person who holds a torchlight in your face and not turning it on themselves. The NOTW is just a part of the UK’s loquacious tabloid system. Its closure does not spell the end of the down-market tradition in the British press or even abroad where it is being emulated. Other tabloids, which have been as audacious in their intrusion practices as the defunct market leader, will continue to push the envelope. In short, we are all guilty. That is, every journalist or media owner.

In Nigeria, the mountain of guilt is so huge that it obfuscates our view and prevents us from seeing beyond our noses. So many media people are driven by the profit motive, thereby regarding theirs as any other business. They believe that they must make money and or accummulate political power at all cost. Hence the mad rush to outdo each other in committing many of the abhorrent unethical practices. The situation is not helped by the lack of standardisation of the profession so that only those trained in it (even at a rudimentary level) could partake in it. Worse, many half-baked or semi-literate persons have made a foray into journalism, committing all sorts of offensive practices.

Today, for all their grandstanding as anti-corruption and pro-democracy crusaders, journalists and their sponsors stand accused of all sorts of unbecoming actions. Many who write against corruption are in the forefront of not only condoning it but are also eating from corrupt practices. The saddest aspect of this is what I call the journalism of blackmail whereby persons in positions of authority are threatened with exposure/disclosure if they refuse to play ball.

Unfortunately, journalism cannot be made a profession like law, engineering and medicine because it is among the liberal arts. All attempts to achieve this through the Nigerian Press Council have failed. Now anybody who can write well and probably make some sense can become one. The option, then, is for journalists and media owners to appeal to their conscience. Without conscience, the mass media is doomed wherever it exists, more so in this part of the world where development challenges have stultified our progress as human species.


Published in my column in the current edition of the weekly newspaper, BLUEPRINT.
Picture above shows Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah being accosted by journalists in London

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Welcome, Juba, but...

"After the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible." – President Barack Obama on South Sudan independence on Saturday

At last, the long-awaited independence of South Sudan has come. Last Saturday, the region became the world's 196th nation, extricating itself from the control of Sudan in the north. Independence came at a price. Over five decades of two civil wars (1983-2005) had caused the killing of at least two million South Sudanese, who have also suffered ruin occasioned by discrimination, deep-seated distrust and other troubles.

Africa's longest-running conflict is indeed over, but what does independence really mean to South Sudan? The immeasurable joy and high expectations which manifested from far-flung villages all the way to the John Garang mausoleum in the capital Juba were understandable. Most analysts hope that the new continental baby will eventually meet the expectations of the traumatised nation.

U.S. President Barack Obama captured this sentiment poignantly when he told the South Sudanese: "A proud flag flies over Juba and the map of the world has been redrawn. These symbols speak to the blood that has been spilled, the tears that have been shed, the ballots that have been cast, and the hopes that have been realised by so many millions of people." Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and American envoy at Saturday's celebration, hit the nail on the head when she urged the people to begin to think towards building a country worthy of the sacrifice of all the lives lost during the five decades of conflict. "Independence was not a gift you were given. Independence is a prize you have won," she said. "Yet even on this day of jubilee we remain mindful of the challenges that await us. No true friend would offer false comfort. The path ahead will be steep... but the Republic of South Sudan is being born amid great hopes."

Indeed, the path to South Sudan’s future is strewn with thorns. The new baby has to learn to walk. In doing this, it has to grapple with internal problems like provision of critical infrastructure and regional issues relating to its unresolved conflict over the border region of Abyei — where northern and southern troops are sparring for a fight.

South Sudan being oil-rich, there are hopes and fears about what petro-dollar could bring. On one hand is the good life wealth can bring, and on the other is the social dislocation such money usually brings to oil-rich African countries. We all lament the corruption and injustices, aside the environmental pollution, which oil wealth has brought to many African nations. It is oil wealthwhich has made Nigeria one of the most corrupt and one of the poorest countries in the world.

South Sudan should try and manage its wealth very well. Its more than 8 million citizens must enjoy basic needs such as education, health services, water and electricity. It should also manage the challenges of democratic governance and insist on observing the rule of law. Conceiving a workable power-sharing system for its dozens of ethnic and military factions would go a long way in ensuring political stability, which is sorely needed for economic prosperity. Of equal importance, it must begin to diversify its oil-based economy.

The young government also faces the challenge of relating with its former overlord, Sudan. It should quickly resolve all border claims between them. Sudan may not be a great team player in that regard, more so when more than 75 percent of what was its daily oil production now belongs to the South. The two countries can ill afford to continue with their age-long enmity. As U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said just before flying to Juba for the celebrations, "I know secession is painful, emotionally and financially... While the people of north and south Sudan will soon live in different countries, their future will be closely linked."

Ban was right.


Published in my column in BLUEPRINT weekly newspaper, this week

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Censorship: Kano's smouldering cauldron (2)

The abject failure of the censorship regime in Kano State under Governor Ibrahim Shekarau was due to the lack of sincerity that dogged the whole project, as well as a deliberate policy of subjugation which aimed at throwing away the baby with the bathwater. The notion that the people appointed to administer the Kano State Censorship Board were on a pedestal where they could not be faulted was erroneous; just because the they were brandishing religious cards did not mean that they were unassailable. They were promoted as saints because doing so fitted snugly with the simple mentality of the common man, who is thought to be manipulatable by the false prophets in that government.

Had the censorship board wanted to promote Hausa film-making and make it amenable to the cultural and religious heritage of the people of northern Nigeria, it could have done any of the few of ways to go about it. It board would have formed a partnership with the right stakeholders in the industry in order to, first, put a stop to all the “undesirable elements” of movie content and, second, replace them with more wholesome productions. Instead, the chief censor, Rabo, adopted divide and rule tactics, selecting only yes-men though they could not help spearhead genuine changes. At the same time, he waged a brutal campaign against those he regarded as rebels, arresting and jailing them at will, as well as tarnishing the image of the industry in general. What followed was counter-attacks between him and his opponents; the war of attrition led to nowhere but the eventual failure of the board to sanitise the industry. At the end, Rabo himself was demystified, his holier-than-thou mien discredited.

Now, a new era appears to be on the horizon. Engineer Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso was the one who created the censorship board in 2001, during his first tenure as governor. Under him, the board was said to be lax, thus giving way to all sorts of misdemeanours which critics linked to the deterioration of both the quality of Hausa movies and the moral rectitude of movie practitoners. Shekarau tolerated much of the lapses, probably because he needed a re-election in 2007. It took the Hiyana sex scandal of 2007 to startle him into action, with the view to pleasing the mullahs.

Now that Kwankwaso is back, expectations in the industry are high. Stakeholders see him as their won. Some of them want him to appoint one of them as DG of the censorship board. They are almost doubly sure he will not “betray” them. But will he? Or won’t he?

However, it would be foolhardy of anyone in the industry to suppose that the carefree days of the past will return in this dispensation. The films will be censored because they are a veritable weapon of commiunicating ideas that impact on the society, with overarching consequences. Kwankwaso is expected should a technocrat who knows the movie business and the relevant matters of censorship. It should be somebody who can midwife the industry towards a level of professionalism not usually seen in these parts. It should be someone who will make our films competitive not only on the national scene but also continentally, from where they will be uniquely attractive universally.

This task should have no name-calling, campaign of calumny and policies that could weaken the business. Remember that one of the serious challenges facing the new government in Kano, and by extension all governments in the North, is reducing the huge army of unemployed youths roaming the streets. Kano has the largest population of unemployed youth, many of whom are not indigenes of the state – or even Nigerians. The movie-making industry has sucked in thousands of such men and women, thus contributing to the economy of the state and to its wellbeing. Governor Kwankwaso should create ways of encouraging this entrepreneurship while ensuring that it conforms to the norms of the society. There are many competent hands in Kano who can do it. Any attempt to kill the film-making business would be counterproductive and futile, just as we saw during the last censorship regime in the state.

Published in my column in the current issue of BLUEPRINT, the weekly newspaper

Friday, 1 July 2011

Censorship: Kano’s smouldering cauldron (1)

Schadenfreude, which means delighting in other people's misery, best describes the feeling of those who oppose film-making in the Hausa language when an extremist Mullah was appointed to head the Kano State Censorship Board in 2007. The man, Abubakar Rabo Abdulkareem, had made a name as a fighter against various forms of immoral acts pervading the largest city in northern Nigeria, when he worked as a commander of the Sharia police. I was one of those, I must admit, who welcomed the appointment and soon became an adviser of sorts to him on how best to go about his new job. The movie industry, of which I’m an insider, had derailed from the path carved out for it by its pioneers, most of whom had been shoved aside by get-rich-quick youths who had succeeded in capturing the market with slapdash flicks that provided ample entertainment without much intellectual value.

Then a video clip, taken with a cell phone, of an A-class Hausa actress in a sex act with an unknown money changer based in Lagos, suddenly appeared. The resultant scandal almost brought the industry to its knees due to the outcry it generated. The scandal, known as the Hiyana Affair, inspired a sense of outrage among Muslims, at the same time engendering one of the deepest wells of schadenfreude I have ever seen in my life. Responding faithfully to the gallery hubbub, Governor Ibrahim Shekarau swung into action and appointed Malam Rabo to minister to the industry. The false prophets in and outside the state government went to town, promoting the self-righteous assumption that Hausa land could do without a movie industry. Only a few months earlier, however, the warmest of romances had existed between the government and the industry. On different occasions, Malam Shekarau and the movie industry had given each other awards.

Rabo happened to be one of those false prophets. No wonder, those who initially supported him were soon disappointed. They had expected him to midwife an industry that could be modelled into a bulwark against the frightening cultural invasion by foreign films in Hausa land, by devising standards and using the established stakeholders for the purpose. Besides, this was an industry of self-employed thousands in a state with the worst employment record in the north. They realised that either the man did not understand the basic reason for his appointment or he was dutifully carrying out a hidden agenda of his paymasters’ – which was to emasculate the budgeoning industry. His stock-in-trade was ceaseless harassment of actors, producers, directors, music composers, singers, marketers, etc. In the dubious name of cleansing the industry of immorality and lawlessness, he caused many to be jailed over spurious charges, just as his agents locked up studios, retail shops and cinemas. This reign of terror forced many industry stakeholders into exile in neighbouring states, where they continued producing and marketing their products, which ironically sneaked back to Kano, the biggest market in the business.

In the long run, Rabo failed woefully. The movie-making business could not be killed in spite of the hate campaign he and his agents mounted, using false pretences. The movies never stopped rolling out, and their audience never stopped patronising them. Also, aside their propaganda value and the scoring of cheap points, the Censorship Board’s court cases did not record any remarkable success. In fact, the bright-eyed knight in shining armour was soon derobed when he was arrested by the police in an uncompromising situation with a young woman on a Ramadan night last year.

The industry finally outlived its detractors, with the voting out of the Shekarau superstructure in the recent gubernatorial election. Now another government is in place, and movie-makers, many of whom had participated actively in Governor Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso’s campaigns, are hopeful. They believe that Kwankwaso, who established the Censorship Board in the first place during his first tenure as governor, is their own and will not “betray” them. But will he really turn out to be the saviour they think he is? This is the question I wish to tackle in this column next week. God’s willing.

Published in my column in the current edition of BLUEPRINT newspaper.