Tom Chiahemen is a Nigerian veteran journalist who has practiced for over 20 years. Tom’s desire to bring to the fore problems of inequality, injustice, marginalization and human rights abuses from every corner of the globe led him to practice journalism.
Chiahemen: I was born on January 1, 1965 in Vandeikya, Benue State in North Central Nigeria. I am married with three children. Besides writing, I love swimming, playing Badminton and gardening. I come from a very backward, rural community and right from my primary school days, I have been bothered by inequality, so I set for myself the goal of helping to change the situation and bring about the desired development to my community and the society at large.
I did not fancy politics because I did not see politics (especially as practiced in Nigeria) resolving any of the protracted socio-economic problems plaguing the community where I was born. Yet, from my early, privileged contacts with the media – radio, newspapers and later the television (courtesy of my elder brother who was already a star broadcast journalist with the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA), I knew that only a government of the people by the people could accelerate socio-economic transformation by reducing poverty and placing even my community in a proper pedestal to compete globally and open the world to its teeming citizenry.
With this at the back of my mind, I chose journalism because it offers an unequalled opportunity to speak for the speechless, expose the cancer of corruption and hold the rulers accountable on their promises. Thus, when I was introduced to the publisher of a then local but highly controversial Nigerian newspaper (late Chief Godwin Daboh), I did not hesitate to join his weekly tabloid, THE BROOM, because I was clear in my mind why I needed a career in journalism. I wanted to be a change agent for my society, which remains in dire need of socio-political and economic transformation. Using the instrumentality of news reporting, I wanted to bring to the fore, problems of inequality, injustice, marginalization and human rights abuses from every corner of the globe. I wanted to truly act locally and make global impact; I know that journalism only gives me this latitude.
That was in 1987, shortly after I left the Benue State Polytechnic with a National Diploma in Secretarial Administration. Since then, in addition to my HND and PGD in Mass communication and Communication Technology, respectively, I have had several trainings in ICT, news reporting, newspaper production and management, and worked for several local and national media houses in Nigeria. In 2010, when I clocked 20 years in journalism practice, I decided to resign from PEOPLES DAILY newspaper based in Abuja, Nigeria (where I was the Group Political Editor and Member of the Editorial Board) to spearhead the establishment of a daily publication, NATIONAL ACCORD, also based in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.
Before I spearheaded the setting up of NATIONAL ACCORD Newspaper, I realized that for me to be able to achieve the kind of change (development) I desired for my community, I needed to study and properly understand the problem and the best approaches to solving it; I needed to understand the concepts of social welfare, community development and other relevant areas of study. I therefore went to the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH) Ogbomosho in Oyo State, South West Nigeria and enrolled, first for a Postgraduate Diploma in Public Administration, followed by a Master of Sciences (M.Sc) in Social Work (with specialization in Community Development). Believing that I needed to sharpen my skills to understand, analyse and interpret the various policies of government at the local, state and federal levels.
I enrolled for a PhD programme in Public Policy Administration (PPA), which I am still pursuing online with one of the famous universities in the United States. I imagined that as the Editor-in-Chief/CEO of a newspaper that reports for a global audience, I would require the exposure that the PPA would give me to be able to grasp the policy decisions of governments and at the end of the programme, I will be the change agent that I have always wanted to be.
Experience in journalism
Chiahemen: I have spent a total of 26 years in Journalism, 22 of those as a Reporter, Correspondent, Bureau Chief, Line Editor, Editorial Board Member and Managing Editor/CEO for different Newspapers including VANGUARD, THISDAY, The Post Express, NATIONAL INTEREST, Daily Independent, PEOPLES DAILY and NATIONAL ACCORD. I have also reported for online news media across a range of subjects and I am particularly at home with Nigerian Politics, Education, ICT, Defence and Community Development. I am also a member of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers (GOCOP).
What has been your driving force?
Chiahemen: My driving force would be my love of the profession, the ever growing need for journalism in a country still in the throes of eradicating corruption, poverty, injustice and marginalization, as well as a platform for earning a living.
Challenges faced on the job?
Chiahemen: Some of the challenges I have faced on the job include lack of access to information, poor remuneration/working conditions, lack of the basic tools and facilities, interference by owners/financiers on partisan grounds, etc
Could you please compare the practice years ago and what is obtainable now?
Chiahemen: There is significant improvement in the quality of newspapers/magazines and Radio/Television programming these days; the facilities that were hitherto lacking are now available (thanks to the Internet) and the living standards of journalists have remarkably improved; today’s journalists have more access to training. I can recall that I started when journalists used typewriters. Now we all use laptops or tablets. Again, when I started, the fax was the most high-tech communication tool in the newsroom. The internet and mobile phones were to come more than a decade later. That is just talking about the tools of the trade alone.
I can also say that the biggest change is the fragmentation of the industry. At the time I start practicing journalism in Nigeria, radio and Television were state monopolies. There was only one national TV network (NTA) and one national radio station (Radio Nigeria or FRCN). Although state governments started setting up their own TV and radio stations in the 1970s, there was no privately owned radio or TV station. That was to come in the 1980s. Only four of the newspapers published when I started practicing journalism are in circulation today — Tribune, Vanguard, Punch and Guardian. Tens or dozens of papers that have emerged since then, and I am sure if we check the NBC website for the number of TV and radio stations in the country today, we will discover that they are even far more than the national papers we see on the news-stands today.
In comparing the practice, I should not forget to add the advent of social media and how it is already changing the media landscape and the practice of the profession in Nigeria and Africa generally.
What is your take on Journalism standard and press freedom in the country and Africa at large?
Chiahemen: While the proliferation of media — print and electronic — has kept up the spirit of the free and vibrant press that has been the feature of Nigerian history since the anti-colonial campaign, it has come at a price. The phenomenal growth in the number of broadcast stations, newspapers and magazines has not been matched by corresponding improvements in training, mentorship and ethics. Budgets are also squeezed and both media owners and their journalists have come to accept cutting corners as part of the game. The sub desk as we knew it hardly exists. Print journalists routinely run unprocessed and unabridged interviews, many of them gratuitous, simply transcribing verbatim from tape recordings. I am sure that you know about all the shenanigans of today’s Nigerian media as much as I do.
How can we promote quality reporting in the region?
Chiahemen: I think there is the need to strike a balance here. The media is part of the society. In the Nigerian context, it is not the only professional group that is generally perceived to have declined over the years in terms of quality and ethics. Today, even judges are in the dock of public opinion, so to say, many openly accused of corruption and giving judgments for a price. The same is true of university teachers and civil servants. In my view, people see journalists as the defenders of the public good and public interest, and champions of the voiceless, so a lot more is expected of them. Hence, a lot of training and in-house mentoring must be at the top of the agenda to restore the public trust in the profession.
At the end of the day, it is media owners that will make the difference. Amid the proliferation of media brands, it is those whose owners were motivated by the love and respect for the profession that will win back that public trust and discerning audiences, not those driven purely by commercial gain or narrow partisan or ethnic interests.
The emergence of the internet provides a great opportunity for media development and a daunting challenge to best practices in journalism, what’s your take?
Chiahemen: I quite agree with both planks of the statement. The Internet has influenced the way we gather and process news, in terms of what can be reported, how it can be reported and the speed of the media’s response to events as they unfold. It has broken barriers that were thought to be impregnable way back. With the Internet we can see the world as a real global village. All these are opportunities for the media to develop if they are not to be left behind. People will always want the media to provide them with timely accurate information, and the Internet has made this demand more urgent. Besides, the fact that the traditional media are now competing with the new and social media, thanks to the Internet, means that the media have to innovate to keep abreast with the internet-driven dynamics of modern information flow.
The dim side of the internet and its effect on the media is that journalism has become an all comers affair. When you have an army of bloggers and citizen journalists whose only requirements are android devices and raw passion, how do you ensure best practices?
How do you see the future of news (fusion of the traditional and new media) and what it portends for the traditional news media in your country and Africa at large?
Chiahemen: People will depend less and less on the traditional media for their daily news, with the result that traditional media has to leverage on the many possibilities of the new media in order to remain relevant. It is already happening. Newspapers, television and radio channels are using the new media to promote their contents in a bid to capture part of the large audience of the new media.
Advice to upcoming journalists
Chiahemen: Don’t be trapped in the past. Don’t ignore the new media that is where thefuture belongs. Be innovative and dynamic.