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Segun Olatunji: Hero or villain?

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Segun Olatunji, the General Editor of an online publication whose abduction and detention by men in uniform, acting Gestapo-style, raised a lot of dust, has resigned his appointment. Olatunji resigned because he disagrees with the decision of his employers – the owners/management of First Media Network Limited, publishers of FirstNews newspaper – to retract the story that had led to his travail as well as offer public apology to Femi Gbajabiamila, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, now Chief of Staff to President Bola Tinubu.

 Gbajabiamila had kicked against FirstNews’ story, demanding its retraction as well as public apology from the online newspaper. I need not repeat the FirstNews story here since it has been retracted by its publishers. Restating allegations already retracted by its original source is unprofessional and unethical, though the uninformed and vendors of “yellow journalism” can still tactically, even if mischievously, hide under the cover of reportage to do so . It amounts, however, to committing the same infraction afresh and anew.

FirstNews newspaper was not an online publication that I had come across before the Olatunji abduction saga. I am not sure the massive story it published also got as much traction before the abduction of Olatunji as it got after his arrest and detention. In other words, the abduction and detention of Olatunji advertised the story and made Olatunji himself more popular than he ordinarily was before the event. So many people who, ordinarily, would not have been aware of the story or of the newspaper itself and its editor got to know of their existence because of the clampdown on Olatunji.

Sometimes one wonders what kind of professional media advice those in sensitive government positions get before deciding to dance naked in public. Whether true or false, I can vouchsafe that those who will believe the story in question will be far numerous than those who will disbelieve it, the retraction and public apology by the publishers notwithstanding. Any harm done, which the abduction and detention further accentuated, cannot now be adequately redressed.

FirstNews at first talked tough; it sided with its editor and stood by its story, as we say in this profession. The publisher of FirstNews newspaper, one Daniel Iworiso-Markson, minced no words as he insisted that the Gbajabiamila story was based on facts. Said he: “The management of FirstNews is using this opportunity to call on the military high command and the security agencies to let us know (Olatunji’s) whereabouts and the reason why he was arrested. FirstNews (online and print) is a reputable independent digital news network that prides itself on being a front line media outfit  committed to engaging its world-class audience with factual, authentic, and credible information.

“We conduct our journalism activities with strict observance of the high standards of ethics, accountability, professionalism, and legality while exercising our rights to freedom of expression and information, all in a bid to ensure credible reporting of the news behind the news in politics, business, education, sport, health, entertainment, and many more. If there was any infraction that bothers on national security, Olatunji should have first been formally invited rather than this Gestapo style of arrest that reminds (us) of the dark days of the military era, where press freedom was stifled”, the newspaer wrote.

Strong words from someone sure of his onions! Buoyed by this, I suppose, all the professional journalism bodies – Nigeria Union of Journalists, Nigerian Guild of Editors, Newspapers Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria, name it – labour and civil society organisations packed themselves full behind FirstNews and Olatunji. Disgruntled politicians and all manner of elements with an axe to grind wasted no time in joining the fray. The military did not help matters with their serial denial that they knew nothing of the abduction and detention of Olatunji. Eventually, they buckled under pressure and not only admitted that Olatunji was with them but also released him from illegal detention after 14 gruesome days. The detainee’s detention diary described his experience as harrowing.

“You maltreated me”, “we did not maltreat you” was the exchange of fireworks between captive and captors before the latest bombshell of Olatunji’s resignation as the General Editor of FirstNews. His resignation was instigated by the decision of his newspaper’s management to eat the humble pie by recanting, retracting the story which they had earlier stoutly defended, and tendering an unreserved apology to Gbajabiamila.

 I do not envy FirstNews! Doing what the newspaper has done is what newspapers and editors detest most. It’s a nightmare. It rubbishes the professional integrity of the editor and tarnishes the image of the newspaper. It reduces the standing of both in the estimation of every right-thinking member of the public. Professionalism and credibility are called into question. Who, again, will believe another “exclusive” story broken by such a publication?

FirstNews’ apology was abject in every material particular; it said the story on Gbajabiamila, “was handed over to us as facts by a misleading source, which was highly negligent on our part and for which we deeply tender an unreserved apology to the Chief of Staff to the President (as well as) publish a retraction of the said story”.

If journalism is still what it used to be in my own days, the day FirstNews published its “unreserved apology” to Gbajabiamila would be a sad day in the history of that newspaper organisation. The mood in the entire newspaper, the newsroom especially, would be mournful. It would be as if someone very important has just died. Lawyers to complainants have found a way of making retractions doubly unpalatable in the way they couch the wordings of the retraction they hand over to cornered newspapers to publish, with some of such mean lawyers insisting that not a word of it must be altered, thus forcing the bitter pill down the throat in a pitiless and remorseless manner.

Now, the more painful aspect of retractions is that the story being retracted may be correct substantially (if not in full) and the person being apologized to may not in the least deserve it. The Gbajabiamila story as published by FirstNews was massive. It is the type you publish only after you have safely deposited all supporting documents in the vaults of the World Bank! As we say in this profession, there is no smoke without a fire. I think that may be the point Olatunji was trying to make when he broke ranks with the Management of his newspaper and chose resignation as a noble option. But does he have impeccable documents to support the allegations against Gbajabiamila?

A maxim of the journalism profession is that a reporter is as good as his source. So, we usually talk of “competent sources”, ”impeccable sources”, ”usually reliable sources”, etc. Once your source of information is none of the above, it means he or she “has fallen your hand”, as they say. You are done for! Stories can be planted by enemies to draw you out for the kill. As editor of The PUNCH/Saturday PUNCH, especially during the struggle for the revalidation of the annulled 12 June 1993 presidential election won fair and square by Moshood Abiola, we experienced a lot of that. The military junta and its apologists sent classified documents and outright fabrications our way, waiting for us to publish so they could pounce!

Going by the retraction published by FirstNews, a “misleading source” and “negligence on their own part” were the twin-evils their story on Gbajabiamila suffered. Now, as stated earlier, there are dishonest and interested sources angling to grind an axe with this or that person for this or that reason or purpose, but there are also sources who, meaning well originally, may become “misleading” for reasons beyond their control. As a senior reporter with the now defunct Ibadan-based Sketch newspapers, I wrote a story on a parcel of land at Milverton, Ikoyi, Lagos belonging to my native state, Ondo, but which a retired military officer had partially alienated for his personal use.

A highly-placed Ondo State Government official gave me the story, with a pledge to make all relevant documents available. Their intention was that the intruder would cut and run once the matter became public knowledge. I wrote the story; my newspaper published it. The intruder, rather than run, dug in! His lawyers wrote to us, demanding that we retract the story, publish an apology and pay damages! I ran to Akure to collect the documents they had promised. Sorry, they told me: the retired officer had got in touch with the military president who had ordered the military governor to back off! Order from above!

I was stranded! My job was on the line but thank God for native intelligence! I called the man’s lawyer and told him I had a follow-up to my earlier story and I wanted their own side of the story before going to press. I recounted what happened at Akure and told him I had everyone on tape, including the Governor and the Attorney-General. Everyone would be embarrassed – the military president, the military governor, and the retired military officer himself! It was now their turn to sue for peace!

As editor at PUNCH newspapers, I encountered similar incidents on a number of occasions: saving my reporters, myself and the newspaper from unpleasant circumstances required God’s benevolence and native intelligence. The “madness” or temporary insanity that grips reporters and editors alike once they think they have a “world exclusive” in their grip and the daily rush to beat deadlines could, once in a while, lead to the “high negligence” which the FirstNews management blamed itself for in this Gbajabiamila saga.

Was it right for Olatunji to have resigned? His letter gave “the stance of the company’s management”, and “the safety of my person and (of) my family” as reasons for his resignation before waxing prophetic: “In no distant time, the truth will come out and, then, it will be my word against theirs…” I salute Olatunji’s courage and sense of professionalism. For a man being owed a whole year’s salary to resign in these harsh economic times takes uncommon courage. When a team loses a critical match, the coach resigns. Brave sailors and pilots prefer to go down with their ship or craft rather than bail out. When PUNCH newspapers were invaded by military goons during the June 12 struggle, I as the editor walked into the premises to be arrested and detained even though I had the opportunity, like the others, to run away.

In 1984, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of The Guardian newspapers chose to go to jail rather than disclose their source of information. In 1993, Bayo Onanuga, Dapo Olorunyomi, Babafemi Ojudu, Kunle Ajibade, Seye Kehinde  and others founded TheNEWS. Onanuga, as editor of African Concord magazine, had rejected the promptings of their publisher, Abiola, to apologise to military president Ibrahim Babangida over the magazine’s  story titled “Has Babangida given up”?

For choosing to toe the same line as his illustrious senior colleagues mentioned above, Olatunji may also have etched his own name in gold. As for the authenticity or otherwise of the Gbajabiamila story, “In no distant time”, to quote Olatunji’s words, “the truth will come out”!

Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of the Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Bolawole writes the On the Lord’s Day column in the Sunday Tribune and the Treasurers column in the New Telegraph newspapers. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television. He can be reached on turnpot@gmail.com +234 807 552 5533

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