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Nigerian Journalists And COVID-19

By Wale Fatade

As I drove into Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital, on the morning of Friday, September 11, I did what I do best while traveling – channel surfing. I love radio and love discovering new stations especially now that a plethora of radio stations dot the landscape.

Lasgidi 90.1 FM was the station I stumbled on and it was a pidgin presentation of newspaper stories – that patently Nigerian way of our radio stations reaping where they didn’t sow. What better way to get content with advertisers’ money to boot even when you did nothing? I continued till 7am when it was time for the station’s news bulletin. A major item was a reportage of a virtual media roundtable titled ‘COVID-19 Infection and You’ organised by the Nigerian Academy of Science the previous day, which incidentally I was part of. Factual and concise, it captured the major kernel of the day’s proceedings. It was my first time of listening to the station.

But journalism should go beyond that.

Without detaching from the wonderful reportage, journalists are not stenographers and so getting quotes right or correct attribution is not, and cannot be, top grade journalism. Some of us who were press club members in secondary schools did that and much more. That serendipitous moment of stumbling on Lasgidi FM confirmed what I’ve always believed typified and still does, our coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic as Nigerian journalists. We have become what a colleague tagged “press release cheerleaders” and in the process, gave our leaders a free pass in making them less accountable as we navigate the pandemic. We regurgitate without serious scrutiny or questioning our leaders.

This started with government’s bland announcement of a Presidential Task Force – that phrase again- on March 17. Business Day, like other newspapers and broadcast stations merely heralded the announcement without interrogating the government’s response. The newspaper titled its story Coronavirus: Nigeria enhances coordinated response mechanism, inaugurates Presidential task force. No further question asked about the government’s preparedness or looking at what was happening in other countries battling with coronavirus then.  

Though there have been some bright spots one of which is Healthwise in Punch newspaper which did a series on difficulties in accessing hospitals by people diagnosed with other ailments especially when were under lockdown. There was also some analytical pieces in some newspapers which sought to ask questions about the figures we keep churning out daily. It’s doubtful, however, if our reportage can be given a pass mark.

Another wonderful reportage was the one Premium Times published on June 1. The report titled Extortion Bazaar: How corrupt security personnel, states’ officials help violate interstate travel ban details how the federal government’s announcement of a ban on non-essential interstate travels as part of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. A nationwide curfew from 8pm to 6am was also announced.  For five days, however, the online paper’s reporters travelled across 21 states and Abuja with little or no restrictions gathering evidence from tens of security checkpoints, bus terminals, towns and villages across their routes. It was a breath of fresh air.

But nothing was more painful than watching how unprepared some of our colleagues appeared on the daily show of the Presidential Taskforce. It was gut-wrenching observing the lackadaisical and cavalier manner of those detailed to cover the briefing. Reading questions from phones, massaging the ego of ministers and other government officials and sitting down like sheep being led to the slaughter house even when they were insulted assailed our sensibilities repeatedly. Nobody, no reporter present, was bold enough to challenge the health and information ministers when they caged journalists saying no question should be asked about the Chinese that came into Nigeria with fanfare and overstayed more than the days our government told the citizens. After reporting this ‘directive’ the next day, the story died and nothing has been heard on it since. By the way, where are those Chinese today?

One of the finest moments of journalism was a briefing by the deputy prime minister of Britain when the prime minister was sick and admitted in the hospital with COVID-19. Writing about it thrills me like it did when I watched it on the BBC. Naturally, a journalist with the organisation was given the first slot to ask question in the virtual briefing and he did but the deputy parried it. Surprisingly, the next two journalists, all broadcasters, asked the same question and the politician was forced to answer it eventually. We never saw that on display at the circus show our task force on COVID-19 put up. You can’t get exclusives in press briefings, folks.  

Further, it took a non-governmental organisation, SERAP, to request via Freedom of Information Act, how much our government has spent so far in fighting the pandemic. The Accountant General of the Federation disclosed that the federal government so far has spent N30.5 billion on COVID-19 in four months  The funds were donations and public funds and rigorous reporting will confirm what some of us thought about the expenditure – Nigeria did not get value for the money. Beyond fanciful isolation centres and cartoons of noodles with spaghetti, has our health infrastructure been developed so well that it can withstand another stress like the pandemic?  What with many claims of school children supposedly fed during the lockdown with the attendant millions spent? The corruption of resource allocation during this pandemic is an area that we need to focus on more in our reportage. How does corruption affect health systems and how can regulation tackle it especially in light of the recent revelation on the school feeding programme.     

We need to move beyond regurgitating what our political leaders parrot on COVID-19 and ask critical questions on accountability and the way forward. Beyond resource mobilization which our government has excelled, no doubt, what else has the government done? How about the thinking capacity of our leaders especially in moving us forward? The flip-flop over schools’ reopening is a pointer to the leaders’ acute thinking deficiency, we need to wake them up from their slumber. As I write Kenya announced it’s doing vaccine trials, the second in the continent after South Africa. What about Nigeria? What happened to our vaccine laboratory? Anything on the horizon from our vaccine researchers?

We can do more, we must do more.

Wale Fatade is Journalist and sent in this report from Lagos made possible with the support of Google’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund (JERF).

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