Lai Mohammed, Oak TV, and confidentiality of sources

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By Austin Maho Ph.D. (09090005369 SMS only)

Last week a video trended online where the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed claimed that the federal government was spending N3.5m monthly to feed the detained leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, IMN, Ibrahim el-Zakzaky.

Consequently, it was to be assumed that the government possibly could have spent over N120m to feed the Islamic cleric since he was arrested and detained in December 2015 after his followers engaged in a bloody clash with the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, in Zaria, Kaduna State.

Expectedly this piece of information generated a lot of uproar among Nigerians, who could not fathom how a whooping sum of N3.5m could be used to feed just one individual. To many, this was corruption at the highest level as the sum was insane and unjustifiable.

In the video, Lai Mohammed was addressing a group of journalists and was heard saying he was giving the media representatives privileged information on an off-the-record basis to serve as a background into their reports.

Regrettably, the video of what was obviously a confidential information given with a caveat was to find its way on YouTube, with the watermark of an online television station, OakTV. The video instantly went viral.

The click bait to the video was: “Finally, Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, opens up on El-Zakzaky, Shiites”.

For those who have not seen the video a little elucidation would help.

Lai Mohammed, in the video said the Islamic cleric was well taken of and ate whatever he liked in detention. He was obviously trying to differentiate why what happened to Mohammed Yusuf, the Boko Haram leader who was summarily executed in 2011, by the state was different from the situation with el-Zakzaky, who was living in luxury at federal government expense.

The minister explained that instead of detaining him in a prison, the Federal Government opted to hold el-Zakzaky in a building belonging to the Department of State Services.

“It costs the government about N3.5m every month to feed him,” he said.

When he observed that his audience did not receive the information well, Mohammed revealed that he got the quoted amount from relevant government agencies.

Together with the Minister of Information at the event was Rotimi Amaechi, the Minister of Transportation who tried to douse the apprehension by jokingly saying he too would not mind being taken into custody.

Lia Mohammed then said he gave the information as off-record because the issue involving the IMN leader was a “sensitive” one.

“So, please, we don’t want to inflame passion. The issue is a very sensitive matter. But that is the situation,” the Minister said.

From the video, it is apparent that the minister was talking off record in line with the confidentiality and protection of sources usually associated with journalistic ethics.

That a media house went ahead to break this time-tested confidentiality that exists between a journalist and his source is a horrendous betrayal which is not only troubling but strikes at the very heart of the profession. It raises questions about the ethics of the profession and the quality of professionals if they are to be called professionals at all, who today go about parading themselves as journalists.

There is a reason why journalists are enjoined to practice their profession with responsibility. Journalism is the only profession which has constitutional cover as enshrined in sections 22, and 39 of the 1999 constitution. The power to monitor government on behalf of the governed together with freedom of the expression and of the press as stated by the provision of the constitution is one that is unique to journalism. However, with such enormous powers comes responsibility. The journalist is expected to be responsible at all times in line with the ethics of his profession.

Journalism is regarded as a profession because it has a strict ethical code which all practitioners are expected to adhere to. A major ethical code of the profession is non-disclosure of confidential sources and by extension non-disclosure of information given in strict confidence or off the record.

The journalistic code on, privilege/non-disclosure states that:
i. A journalist should observe the universally accepted principle of confidentiality and should not disclose the source of information obtained in confidence.
ii. A journalist should not breach an agreement with a source of information obtained as “off-the-record” or as “background information.”

It is unfortunate that some practitioners who today parade themselves as journalists are oblivious of this professional code of ethics.

The 1981 court ruling by Ademola Johnson C.J in the celebrated case between Tony Momoh, former editor of the defunct Daily Times and Senate of the National Assembly, remains relevant on the issue of non-disclosure and confidentiality of sources. He held that:
“it is a matter of common knowledge that those who express their opinions or impart ideas and information through the medium of a newspaper or any other medium for the dissemination of information enjoy by customary law and convention a degree of confidentiality. How else is a disseminator of information to operate if those who supply him with such information are not assured of protection from identification and/or disclosure?”

The summation of the learned jurist is simple, information sources are the lifeblood of journalism if these sources are abused or flagrantly exposed, journalism is doomed.

This same view was held in 1982 by Justice Balogun A.L.A, in the case between Innocent Adikwu (editor, Sunday Punch newspaper) and Ors vs federal House of representatives of the National Assembly and Ors.

“It must be remembered at all times that a free press is one of the pillars of freedom in this country as indeed in a democratic society. A free press reports matters of general public importance, and cannot, in law be under an obligation, save in exceptional circumstances to disclose the identity of the persons who supply it with the information appearing in its report, section 36 [equivalent to section 39 of the 1999 constitution as amended] of the constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and expression (and press freedom) does provide a constitutional protection of free flow of information. In respect of the press, the editor’s or reporter’s constitutional rights to a confidential relationship with his source stems from that constitutional guarantee. It is the basic concern that underlies the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression. If this right does not exist or is not protected by the courts when contravened or when there is a likelihood of its being contravened, the press’s source of information would dry up and the public would be deprived of being informed of many matters of great public importance. This must not be allowed in a free and democratic society”.

Evidently, the right and protection enjoyed by the professional journalist under these circumstances also extend to the source. A source who has willingly volunteered information to the journalist should feel protected from arbitrary disclosure, most especially when the information was given with a caveat.

It is only the lowest of the low bellied imposter parading as a professional journalist that would have descended this low to expose an information that was given in strict confidence.
It is, however, instructive to note that it is not one of our legacy media houses that contravened this abuse of a confidential source but rather an online television.

This again raises serious questions about online media culture and ethics. The digital culture has enlarged our informational possibilities but at the same time it is shedding ethics and driving journalistic deviance downward.

The mad rush for clicks and likes in the online and social media spheres means the end justifies the means. Online media are willing to do anything including throw ethics to wind to increase their bottom lines.

However, if professional journalism is to survive, it has to resist online/social media tendencies towards unprofessional conduct. Rather than capitulate in the face of the vagaries of digital, mainstream journalism must remain resilient to reign in the excesses of the online digital media.

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