It's time for Nigeria's journalists to strengthen their professionalism, and do away with harmful practices like accepting payment for suppressing stories, writes Abdulwasiu Hassan in the Daily Trust of Abuja.

Abdulwasiu Hassan writes in the Daily Trust of Abuja, Nigeria:

That journalists are powerful is a globally-accepted fact. That must have been why the leader of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, preferred facing more soldiers to facing fewer journalists. Here in Nigeria, famous journalist and former Lagos State governor, Lateef Jakande, is said to have stated that the battle for Nigerian independence was fought and won on the pages of newspapers.

When the military clung to power and refused to let go, the Nigerian press played an important in sending them back to the barracks. Nigerian journalists did not rest on their oars after the return to civil rule in 1999 as they've been making efforts to rid Nigeria of leaders of questionable character and make government accountable to the people. The case of forgery by the former speaker of the House of Representatives, Salisu Buhari, which the press exposed, is a good example. When it became clear that Olusegun Obasanjo wanted to perpetuate himself in power, Nigerian journalists unanimously battled the tenure elongation to a standstill. Though they defeated the tenure elongation plan alongside some politicians and civil rights activists, it was no less an achievement.
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In the international arena, Nigerian journalists have proved themselves. Dele Olojede won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. The prize is the biggest in the world of journalism. Last year, it was the turn of Shola Oshunkeye, formerly of Tell and now of The Sun newspapers to become the CNN/Multichoice African Journalist of the Year. However, in spite of their achievement, Nigerian journalists have not been able to solve problem(s) confronting their profession especially those bordering on corruption, with determined effort.

During his 80th birthday in year 2005, the former managing director of Daily Times and a veteran journalist, Alhaji Babatunde Jose identified lack of follow-up on stories and the brown envelope syndrome among journalists as major problems confronting Nigerian journalism. Writing a few years ago on the back of Daily Trust, an experienced journalist, Adamu Adamu, likened Nigerian journalists to the police since they are both "guilty" of demanding and accepting gratification.

Tunde Asaju also writing on the back page of Daily Trust under the headline "Media ownership as a goldmine" painted a graphic picture of the predicament of some Nigerian journalists who are often hired and fired at will without being paid. According to him, the journalists look on helplessly while the Shylock "publishers" feed fat on their sweats by hiring them provisionally for up to six months before discarding them to engage some younger graduates for the same purpose.

While doing his intern with the Cable News Network (CNN), Shola Oshunkeye, last year's African Journalist of the Year joined issues with Nigerian publishers who do not pay journalists on their payroll, but go ahead to sack them when their productivity declines due to low morale resulting from lack of pay. If bringing problems to the notice of the public is enough to solve them, the condition of Nigerian journalists would have improved considerably as a result of comments of the above-mentioned journalists and others like them. The truth is that without action, there cannot be change.

Delivering a public lecture on the topic "Ethical Considerations in Enhancing Journalistic Integrity in Nigeria" last year at the Assembly Hall of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Professor Ralph Akinfeleye of the Department of Mass Communication, suggested setting up community-based newspapers by those journalists who are not paid as a way out. In order to sanitise its profession, the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) should urgently implement the idea of making it both a professional body and a trade union.

As a professional body, it should determine and enforce a minimum criteria required of anyone before he can become a qualified journalist. As a trade union, it should continue to put pressure on publishers to pay journalists working with them as and when due and where necessary seek for better conditions of service for their members among the functions of trade unions. Since journalists are part of the Nigerian society, they can hardly help condoning what the society overlook, whether good or bad. Therefore, there is need for social re-orientation of Nigerians toward zero tolerance for corruption.

Another aggressive step the NUJ, publishers and other stakeholders need to take is to shun bribe or "unnecessary gratification" from state governors. A state governor in the north-east was stoned last year by some political thugs. It was rumoured that the governor "killed" the story by paying N300,000 to each member of the NUJ correspondent chapel in the state. The fact that nobody heard about it buttresses the rumour that the correspondents were bribed.

If they (the correspondents) had reported the story, it would have helped in selling the papers they represent. This is another reason why all the state correspondents of newspapers have to be paid well. Apart from "killing" of the story above, the contemptuous reference to journalists as hungry "press boys" by Gbenga Obasanjo in his controversial interview carried by The News magazine last year should be enough reason for journalists and publishers to come together and see to the end of this anomaly. If Nigerian journalists and publishers refuse to do anything to salvage their integrity, I shudder to imagine that a lame-duck President Olusegun Obasanjo or any other president may one day unleash the dreaded EFCC against any perceived anti-government journalists ostensibly on the ground of corruption, i.e. brown envelope.

One may argue that no ruler can be desperate enough to witch-hunt a journalist, but Obasanjo recently exhumed the long-forgotten law of sedition to try Gbenga Aruleba of AIT and his colleague from Daily Independent. There is no doubt in my mind that redeeming the integrity of this noble profession can immortalise the name of any journalist who champions the cause. Whoever finds my language or opinion offensive or faulty should forgive me, because I am still an embryo coming into the world of journalism.

Hassan is a 300 Level student of the Mass Communication Department, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria