POST COVID-19 PANDEMIC: MITIGATING THE EFFECTS ON MEDIA PRACTITIONERS BY DR. ISIAKA ALIAGAN

POST COVID-19 PANDEMIC: MITIGATING THE EFFECTS ON MEDIA PRACTITIONERS BY DR. ISIAKA ALIAGAN

POST COVID-19 PANDEMIC: MITIGATING THE EFFECTS ON MEDIA PRACTITIONERS

PAPER PRESENTED BY DR. ISIAKA ALIAGAN AT THE KWARA NUJ WEBINAR 2020 IN COLLABORATION WITH GULRUSH ONLINE SERVICES ON WEDNESDAY, JULY 22, 2020

COVID-19 is a global pandemic that has held the entire world to ransom. It is a pandemic that originated from a nation and has brought every other nation on their knees. COVID-19 has not spared any aspect of human life, economically, politically and socially. It has disrupted social and cultural interaction, not sparing even our efforts to serve God. Religious gathering was curtailed to almost zero level while the pandemic raged. How long the pandemic would take to be permanently curtailed, no one knows. The sum total of its consequence on our lives, no one can tell. The pandemic is a war on the human race, and its casualty has continued to multiply on daily basis. COVID-19 pandemic is a lone combatant and a few across the disciplines and professions are on the frontline, trying to save humanity or serve the society through information sharing on it. Among those on the frontline are doctors and journalists who have continued to bear the brunt of the war. Like doctors, journalists are also among the casualties of this war. In every war, as doctors and nurses are attending to the dead and survivors, journalists bring the situation report to the rest of the world. And so, like every other businesses that has suffered from the lockdown occasioned by the spread of the pandemic, journalism business has taken a brutal bash, and the spiral effect may last beyond COVID-19 pandemic. This is the situation that this paper attempts to reflect on.

How the pandemic started

Scientists say that it is likely that COVID-19 originated in bats. The pandemic emerged in Wuhan, a city in China. The entire population of Wuhan was put on complete lockdown to contain its spread, but this was with a little success. Those who had visited Wuhan or the larger China republic became the carrier of the deadly virus to the rest of the world. More than 500,000 people worldwide had died of coronavirus pandemic, as recorded by John Hopkins University, with over 10 million cases as reported by BBC on June 28. The pandemic, with half of the cases recorded in the US and Europe, also affects South Asia and Africa where it is predicted to peak by the end of July. Another source reported that 605,618 people had died from the pandemic as at July 19, 2020 while the number of cases in 213 countries had peaked at nearly 15million. The first index case of the pandemic was recorded in Lagos, Nigeria on February 27, 2020. The case was that of an Italian who worked in Nigeria and had returned from Milan, Italy. Since that time, Nigeria as at 18th July, 2020 has recorded 36,107 confirmed cases of the pandemic, with 20,391 active cases, 14,938 discharged cases and 778 deaths. As at 18th July, Kwara state recorded additional 85 cases of coronavirus, bringing the number of cases in the state to 535, making Kwara to rank 17th on the scale of affected states in the country.

The role of the news media in the pandemic

The news media across the world contributed immensely to information sharing on the COVID-19 pandemic around the world. International news media recorded a boost in audience patronage, ostensibly because everyone needed information on what was happening and what could be done to avert calamity. For instance, according to the International Media Support, there was increased activity among its members. In particular, the pan-Arabic news site DARAJ recorded 49% audience growth, the Iraqi newspaper Al Menasa Web traffic to major news organizations also grew by 25%, while The New York Times and The Washington Post saw a 50 percent increase in traffic in one month, and readership  traffic on the Financial Times website grew by 250%.The Financial Time’s coronavirus tracker page, which charts the daily numbers of deaths resulting from COVID-19, became the most viewed news website. Also, the number of unique visitors to The Guardian website almost doubled from a record of 191 million in February 2020 to 366 million in March. Furthermore, a study by the Reuters Institute found that 60% of respondents in six countries agreed that the news media gave them more valuable information on the pandemic with trust in news media rated significantly higher than information received on the social media.

Journalists as casualties in COVID-19 pandemic

In the course of reporting the global pandemic, journalists across the world faced series of challenges from the state and security agencies. Restrictions suffered by journalists include access to information. At best, what the state wanted was information handout, which discourages investigative journalism. As news media are also encumbered in their capacity to challenge falsehood, investigative journalists ran the risk of incurring the wrath of the state in the discharge of their duties. In some countries, the right of access to information was suspended. The International Press Institute (IPI), for instance, reported 140 instances of violation of journalists’ right to information related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Such violations ranged from arrests and legal charges, censorship, restrictions on access to information, excessive ‘fake news’ regulations and verbal or physical attacks. Also, Reporters Without Borders recorded attacks against at least 125 journalists in 29 countries. These journalists suffered expulsions, arrests, interrogations, police violence, withdrawing of press passes, demands for public apologies, and seizure of electronic devices. In addition, Index on Censorship, reported more than 20 instances of journalists having been blocked from reporting on COVID-19.

Journalists around the world also suffered physical attacks, harassment and abuse from security forces in covering the pandemic. Reporting on what was considered as sensitive issue such as statistics of dead and infected persons, the extent of lock-down restrictions and the supply of personal protective equipment and ventilators, exposed many journalists to the anger of the state and security forces. The Poynter Institute recorded that more than 300 people in 40 countries were arrested and accused of spreading false information about COVID-19, with most of the arrests recorded in the Asia-Pacific region. According to the International Press Institute, at least 38 journalists were arrested and/or charged related to COVID-19 coverage.

Journalists and news media did not only suffer from the state and its agents, they also faced a serious threat to their health, and were casualties in the war against the pandemic. Specifically, they were exposed to danger in reporting the pandemic through lack of personal protective equipment. According to the Poynter Institute, at least 16 journalists died of COVID-19, while officials in India stated that 53 journalists (out of a sample of 167) tested positive for the coronavirus in Mumbai. In addition to this, the journalist had to work extra hours, with fears of job security and the trauma of reporting on severe illnesses which the journalists faced daily.

Journalists in Nigeria were also victims of official high-handedness in the course of their coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from a  studio manager of the Voice of Nigeria who was arrested on his way to the broadcasting station in Ikoyi, judicial correspondents covering the trial of Nollywood actor, FunkeAkindele were also harassed by security men. On March 26, Governor Wike of Rivers State also sacked the general manager of the Rivers State Newspaper Corporation. He had published a report on the first case of COVID-19 in Rivers State without clearance from the taskforce on coronavirus set up by the state government. In Imo State, a reporter with the Leadership newspaper was assaulted and her iPad seized on March 28 by personnel of the Department of State Security. Her offence was taking photograph of a hotel in Owerri where guests had been forcibly quarantined. And in Delta state, on April 1, the chairman of the state’s Council of the NUJ and a journalist with the Daily Post, were beaten up by members of the state Environment Task Force monitoring the stay-at-home order aimed at curtailing the spread of the pandemic. The task force personnel were not educated enough to know that journalists were conducting essential services.

Also, on April 2, police arrested 12 journalists filing their COVID-19 reports at the NUJ secretariat in Adamawa State in Nigeria for breaking lockdown rules. On April 22, Governor Umahi of Ebonyi State, barred two journalists from state functions for life, boasting on live television coverage “You have the pen, we have the koboko.”A journalist with XL 106.9 FM, in Uyo, AkwaIbom State, was also arrested on  April 22 and arraigned in court two days later on a charge of defamation. His offence was questioning the number of Coronavirus cases confirmed in the state by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). He was detained for a month by the Department of State Security (DSS) and denied access to his lawyer and family. Finally, on April 28, the publisher of an online magazine was arrested by members of the COVID-19 Joint Task Force for filming their violent enforcement of the lockdown on commercial motorcyclists in Abuja, A magistrate later sentenced Oko to three hours’ community service and a fine of N5,000. This has been the situation and the story was the same in most states across Nigeria, where journalists, the state and the security agencies had different interpretation of their roles in tackling the pandemic. In most instances, journalists were at the receiving end.

Threat to means of livelihood and sustenance of media enterprises

In Nigeria, despite the donation of money running into billions of naira by individuals and organizations to government in the course of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, and in spite of the fact that some arms of government claimed spending a fortune in social enlightenment on COVID-19 prevention in the media, many media houses defaulted in payment of salaries, cut salaries or asked staff to stay off work to avoid salary payment.

The broadcast industry is also not left out of the pandemic challenge. Operating under an austere situation for years due to dwindling revenue generation which has affected meeting up their financial obligations to their employees, the industry is also now groaning under a heavy debt burden to the regulatory authority, the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC). Many radio and television stations are operating below capacity or temporarily off the air, owing staff salaries and faced with danger of permanent shutdown due to heavy debt burden. The pandemic has incapacitated the broadcast industry which has been forced to approach the federal government for support and waiver of all debts owed the NBC.

A cloud of uncertainty thus lay ahead of the media industry and the journalists in the post-COVID-19 Nigeria as news organizations appeared emboldened by the present challenge to confess openly on the trauma they had faced over the years due to dwindling fortunes. The fear looms large of mass purge in the industry already losing heavily to the online platforms, even though the gains from such platforms are not evenly compatible to what the print medium generates.

Implications of COVID-19 pandemic on the journalism business

While the effect of the pandemic is expected to vary from one country to the other, it will more likely escalate poverty and inequalities on a global scale, as predicted by the United Nations. The economic stress resulting from the pandemic effect is said to be pushing the global media organizations to the brink of extinction, at exactly the same moment their services are deemed most crucial to national survival. The International Monetary Fund has predicted that 2020 will witness the worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Also, the International Labour Organization forecasts about 195 million full-time job losses. In all of this, one of the critical sectors that will be (and already is) badly hit is the media which has suffered depletion in audience/readership and revenues as a result of the liberalization of the information space resulting from the internet and new media technologies.

The Global Forum on Media Development has reported that some of its members have recorded 70% declines in advertising revenue. This phenomenon has led to layoffs, pay cuts and forced leave in media organizations around the world. Unfortunately, the pandemic in which the media is seen as a frontline fighter has been described as a “media extinction event”. In some situations, media organizations have either folded up, or on ventilator and gasping for breath, with many community radio stations risking closure in countries with scarce resources. This ultimately will lead to absence of verified information, and upsurge in disinformation,and fake news will fill the void created. Independent journalism will suffer and patronage system will be resorted to by many media organizations in order to survive. This predicts bad news, especially for the print media that had survived for three centuries and the radio and television that came after it. The forecast is the same worldwide, and not just a matter of a region or state.

Post-COVID challenges: Mitigating the effects on journalism and journalists in Nigeria

Nigerian media, particularly the newspaper, has suffered drought of readership and revenue prior to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has now only aggravated the problem. Before now, due to their professional pride, media managers were reluctant to admit the crisis that has plagued the industry. The Nigeria’s Vision 2020 in its report identifies low readership as one of the problems confronting Nigeria’s newspaper industry, which was caused by several factors, including poverty and the unfavourable economic condition of the people, and the nation’s poor economy, among others.Nigerian media, just as their peers in other parts of the world, are also affected by the liberalization of the information space brought about by the internet and new media technologies which has led to the phenomenon of free news on the internet and the social media.

An evidence that the nation’s media industry, particularly the newspaper had become distressed is evident from a study by Aliagan and Babatunde (forthcoming) which indicates thatNigerian newspapers are presently in cultural lock-in state which has compelled them to initiate several coping strategies, the outcome of which has placed many journalists in their present state of distress. Newspapers have had to embark on shedding of bloated workforce, shutting down of unproductive bureaus, and introduced several cost-cutting measures, including outsourcing of newspaper distribution, engaging freelance, instead of permanent staff, to survive, which are in line with measures taken in advanced media world. The newspaper managers had kept mute for too long while their means of survival got truncated. Newsprint are sourced abroad, with the demise of the Oku-Iboku and Iwopin mills, and had to be purchased with hard currency. Other inputs in the production process, including ink, and production machines, are also procured with hard currency. Loans are sourced from banks at high interest rates to procure these items, and revenue has continued to dwindle, without visible improvement. The excruciating exchange rate has not also helped matters. Thus, for long newspaper managers had been suffering and smiling.

Advertising has remained the dominant source of revenue in most of the newspapers, constituting about 90% of the newspaper revenue as confirmed in the study by Aliagan and Babatunde (forthcoming). However, revenue from online advertising is meagre compared to income from advertisements on printed newspapers.The newspapers have initiated series of measures to boost online advertising revenue, with gradual but limited success. Returns from online advertising is not encouraging for most of the newspapers. It is revealed by media managers that online advertising as stand-alone income source cannot sustain a newspaper. Although newspapers are trying their best to improve on online revenue, bloggers and citizen journalists are also impeding the progress in online advertising for the traditional media.

Newspapers in Nigeria also committed what has been described as original sin in traditional media and the internet literature by putting their entire content online for free. The fear that blocking the online content for fee paying would drive away readership traffic has forced many news media to leave their wall open. Until the newspapers are able to collectively shut their walls, bloggers and citizen journalists would continue to prey on their hard sourced content.

The way out therefore, is for the newspapers to reclaim their status by initiating several creative source of revenue, rather than venting their spleen on poor journalists. Journalists did not create the current problem, and shoving them out is not the solution. Some of the measures as suggested by Aliagan and Babatunde are: Newspaper could make more money by monetizing their archived editions, which most of them currently offer for free. Archive editions are treasure documents for students, scholars and research institutions. Newspapers can also build vibrant puzzles and games on their websites for audience of all ages who may want to spend their pastime on such. At the moment, only one newspaper has done that and is only earning a little from it through a third party that developed it. Newspapers presently offer their digital editions for free. These are materials produced by reporters who are paid with hard earned resources. Newspapers may want to look into how money could be made from their e-editions, rather than throwing out their staff for lack of revenue. The race for eyeballs to attract advertising is not a feasible alternative in the Nigerian setting. Earn money from your sweat, as much as you can. That is the logic. Newspapers may also want to consider some form of restrictions round their website, and charge access fees. This is a treasure house from which bloggers and citizen journalists poach. The treasure should be closely protected and must not be made porous for poachers to loot. This sounds as an extreme measure, but it could work if newspapers cooperate. Building a wall around web content failed in the past because a few failed to agree with it and opened what others tried to lock up.

Newspapers may also consider turning their online platforms into business arena for the marketing of goods and services. Although it is a rare enterprise among newspapers in Nigeria, it is a favourable revenue yielding source for newspapers. Newspapers may also go into other businesses that are profitable and which could bail out the newspapers on bad days. A few newspapers are already doing this through third party printing, opening event centres, organising musical shows, and restaurant businesses, among others. Most of the mainstream newspapers now have printing plants in their regional zones. This is a huge investment that could turn revenue spinners if properly managed. Newspapers can also go into cooperative arrangements to lower cost of production. Media managers must drop their pride and work together for the sustenance of the industry. They are already boxed into a corner. They must find a way out. Some newspapers are already into television and radio businesses. While this might work well in other regions of the world, Nigeria’s case may not be too feasible. This is because all media go to the same market, and their major patrons are government and a few private businesses, such as banks. Radio and television market may soon get saturated, and may not work well, except media houses engage multi-task journalists, with reports used across media platforms.

Newspapers could also invite sponsorship of investigative news to generate funds. As good as this looks, as there are organizations abroad that support such initiatives, it is rare to find such in Nigeria. There are also many foundations with different goals and objectives in Nigeria, but it is rare to find such with funding option to support the media. Although the money bags in Nigeria enjoy media blitz, they are not so much in love with helping out the beleaguered industry. It is an option that many media organizations are also not too keen to explore. In view of the fact that got so bad for some print medium, they shut down their print plant and migrated online with the internet savvy readers. Those media that migrated online to avoid the fate of bankruptcy are also returning to print because the internet space is a free world and what is offered for free has cost implications.

Aside from all the above options, what about applying for government subsidy? Not many media managers would want to agree with this, but there are ways this could be explored. Afterall, what is seen as government money belongs to the commonwealth. And as the functionalists would argue, each part is an arm of the system, and when a part becomes distressed, the entire system becomes dysfunctional. An ailing media industry portends bad omen for the society. Every one of us has seen the powers wielded by fake news merchants on the social media. They can set the society ablaze any time, and make those in government lose sleep. For the safety of all, government is encouraged to include the media in its post-COVID financial bailout to segments of the economy that are already distressed.This suggestion is buttressed with the understanding that a “healthier print media industry can only further help to entrench democracy and good governance,” as argued by Sobowale, Sowumiand Emmanuel (2014, pp.477-478).

The Nigeria Vision 2020 committee, which was set up by government to look into some critical sectors of the Nigerian economy, including the media and the newspaper, had in 2009 recommended a number of remedial measures to strengthen the readership base of newspapers in the country and to improve their declining fortunes. One of the strategies recommended by that committee was to increase daily circulation of each of the 10 leading newspapers in the country to a minimum of 1.5million copies.The goal of increasing media consumption habit among Nigerians was also expected to be pursued through ensuring zero duty on all printing materials for community newspapers and VAT free on cover price of newspapers. Some of the initiatives also suggested by the committee included resuscitating the Oku Iboku and Iwopin paper plants, and establishing new ones; engaging in massive afforestation, ensuring zero duty on printing materials as well as lowering cover price of newspapers (Federal Government of Nigeria, 2009).

The Vision 2020 committee identified lack of clearly defined objectives for the electronic media, with most of them tied to political considerations and individuals; local broadcast contents not competitive enough and absence of locally produced broadcast equipment lead to importation at high cost. There is also lack of sufficient pool of qualified and skilled broadcast journalists; lack of sizable pool of manpower to maintain modern broadcast equipment; no strong capita; base to ensure regular training and retraining of personnel in all broadcast units and retooling or rekitting of studios; no adequate number of electronic engineers to maintain increasingly sophisticated digital broadcast equipment and to replace analogue hardware; no local industry equipment and spare manufacturing support for transmitters, studio consoles, control panels and microphones; poor advertisement support; high interest rates and lack of sufficient long-term credit facilities; lack of strong, cheap and reliable support services from telecommunication sector.

All the challenges were addressed with appropriate recommendations. The committee also recommended increased funding for the development of local technology for the production of media contents, distribution and marketing. However, like the print media, capital and lack of local input in machinery and materials for content production is having negative impact on output and manpower. Thus, the hardships being faced by managements of print and broadcast media is being passed on to the journalists. These challenges need to be re-appraised and the recommendations made regarding them should be implemented to achieve stability in the media sector.

I am therefore, using this medium to call on the government to approve financial bailout to the media, which had been canvassed by the Nigeria Union of Journalists in its letter to Mr. President on May 13, 2020 and the request for bailout made to the Minister of Information and Culture by the Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria, and to fully implement the recommendations of the Vision 2020 Committee on reinvigorating our media industry.

Newspaper Proprietors of Nigeria and the BON, and the professional unions are also advised on the need to strategize or re-strategize on the way out for the media and to set up a lobby group to interface with government on how to help the media organizations. The Nollywood tried this approach and it worked for the body. Media owners and managers are enjoined to convene a summit to discuss the future of the media in Nigeria and to work out a blueprint to salvage the industry.

In conclusion, in view of our socio-economic configuration, online culture as business is still evolving in Nigeria, and there is a lot of catching up to do. In terms of adequate manpower, we are not yet there. Our training institutions must move from the analogue to the digital. Journalism trainers must be updated on current trends in the media world and our training studios should be well equipped, so that we can be able to train journalists of the future that will fit into the digital journalism era. Our current sets of journalists have to go back to the drawing board to retrain themselves so that they can fit into the new era in journalism. Since the emergence of the internet and new media technologies, everything about journalism has changed, from the tools to the mechanics of content creation. It will be easy to shed staff now for most media organizations, because technology has reduced the number of labour needed for most tasks. A digitally retrained journalists, therefore has a better chance in being retained in present job or possessesopportunities for better job. While the business arm of the media tries to find a way out to the present logjam of revenue and readership/audience drain, let each journalist also try to rebuild themselves so that they may become marketable professional in the digital era.

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