By Uche Amunike
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), popularly known as the Fourth Estate of the Realm has, over the years, suffered untold challenges that has threatened the very core of their profession for reasons bordering on their general welfare, the inability of certain administrations to protect them when the need arose, a stifling of their fundamental rights as gentlemen of the pen profession, lack of freedom as press men, infiltration of their union by people who are not certified in the profession and so on. Their problems are myriad and this was part of the reason why the incumbent National president was elected by an intimidating number of journalists during the last election that brought him into power, having listened to his campaign promises as laid out in his manifestoes.
He is Comrade Chris Isiguzo cfr, who took over his predecessor, Comrade Awosile, early this year. He was, until his election, the Vice President, NUJ, (Zone C), which covered the five states in the Eastern Zone- Anambra, Ebonyi, Abia, Enugu and Imo States. Since he took over the reins, he has brought a lot of change in the union, both at the Zonal level and at the National level. It has been a very busy ride with his campaign promises being fulfilled one after the other and I daresay that members have passed on him, a vote of full confidence as he makes result oriented changes and strives to take the NUJ to a higher level. Please read the first part of my interview with him at his office at the NUJ National Secretariat, Abuja…
Kindly introduce yourself, Sir
My name is Chris Isiguzo, National President, Nigerian Union of Journalists.
You took over from your predecessor about nine months ago and you did make some promises during your campaign. Tell us how much of those promises you have fulfilled
Well, we appreciate the enormity of the challenge that we met on ground, but I am not given to trumpeting the challenges that I met when I came on board because I have gone through different radar as far as the union is concerned and I understand that you must be ready to take the bull by the horn if you must make a difference. I recall that during the electioneering campaign, we did make some promises to our people which clearly endeared us to them. That was why they overwhelmingly placed their confidence in us. Some of the promises that we made clearly hinged on welfare of journalists because you cannot talk about a convergence of media professionals with one ideology who want their affairs being championed without talking about welfare. That’s why it formed the focus of our campaigns.
When you talk about welfare, it’s not about giving out alms. It goes beyond that. There’s this age long saying that if you want to empower somebody, you’ve got to teach the person how to fish and not just handing out fishes every day. That was what we made clear during the campaign, that our people who work must be able to receive salaries as and when due. If you look at the salaries they receive, it’s so meagre that it can hardly do anything for them. That was why we stressed so much on the issue of enhanced media salary structure and we still take it very seriously.
If you left school about twenty years ago alongside somebody that probably studied law, do a comparative analysis and you will be shocked as to where the person has been able to get to. It’s not because he was more intelligent. It’s just because of where you have found yourself. And that’s why we said that journalists who are faced with a plethora of occupational hazards must be taken care of. Their welfare is not something that should be trumpeted. It should be something that should be backed up with action. It is said that seeing is believing. We should be able to see it. And that’s why we harp so much about the media salary structure. I recall that in 2012/2013, we engaged the federal government and of course, the state government and we were able to come up with weigh in alerts for those in the broadcast media. Today, they are not remembering how it came. But we feel that we should go beyond that. Even the weigh in allowance that we’re talking about, most states are not even implementing same. So, that is the challenge I’m talking about.
So, we feel that the government should be able to look at the present salary structure for media practitioners or media professionals and look at their contributions to nation building. It’s not just about calling them members of the Fourth Estate of the Realm. It goes beyond that. The members of the First Estate have allocation. The members of the Second Estate have allocation, the members of the Third Estate and Judiciary have allocations and yet, the members of the fourth estate do not. And where you are supposed to attend to their own needs, in terms of wages,they are not considered. And that’s why we said there is need for us to be disciplined and let there be a clearly defined legislation which appreciably captures the issue of enhanced salary package for media professionals.
Of course, I’ve talked about paying them as at when due. That, we have strategically engaged media owners. There’s this strategy that we’ve had over the years. And that is about picketing. You go about picketing people, establishments and all that. After 24/48/72 hours, nothing happens and you go home and celebrate that you just picketed someplace. It became more like a showmanship. Now, we said we cannot continue with one strategy and expect a different result. We’ve got to try another strategy. And that is, for those in the legal profession, they have what they call ADR, (Alternative Dispute Resolution) mechanism which of course, they try to engage clients on how to settle without necessarily going to court. You know our judicial system, the snail speed and all that. But ADR fast tracks some of these things. That’s the system we also want to adopt. Not necessarily ADR as in the legal version. Our own is a new strategy where we engage with media owners, sit down and discuss with them, make them take us into confidence and discuss what can be done. I can tell you that we have achieved a lot.
There’s a particular media house that was said to be perennially a debtor company. But today, that company is not owing anymore. It is the outcome of our constructive strategic engagement and we’re doing same with some other media houses. This is so that beyond making noise, we can also attend to the issues that affect our people. We also talked about the issue of training and retraining. I said repeatedly during the campaigns that a journalist that is stagnant is poison to society. It is like stagnant water. You don’t drink from it. If you drink from running water that is dirty, chances that you will survive are there. But if you drink from a stagnant water, chances that you will die faster are there. So, a journalist that is stagnant is a taboo. He’s dangerous. He is poison to society. He may feed the society with poison and not something that is good. So, the issue of training, we have taken it seriously since we came on board.
As I speak, I can tell you authoritatively that over 350 journalists have gone through our training programmes in eight months. In the history of NUJ, we organized a workshop that involved the 37 Councils. We did it in two phases- twenty states in the North including the FCT and seventeen in the south. We did In Abuja and we also did in Enugu. We selected two people each, per state. In some states we captured even four, some five. We have also engaged with the Media Foundation for West Africa all the way from Ghana. We have taken that so seriously, making sure that our people are effectively kept abreast with the goings on in the system. That, we have not toyed with.
So, in terms of capacity building, we are focused and we’re still designing workshops that will help to further expose ourselves to the international best practices were we will be able to collaborate with the international agencies and organisations so that from here, we move journalists outside and also bring journalists in other climes down here. By November, we are taking about six journalists to China. November is just two months away. In the next one or two weeks, I’ll go there to sit down and design some of these things and engage our people. We are also interfacing with other unions and other journalism associations across the globe.
So, in terms of capacity building, engagements, training and retraining, we’re also not shying away from that. It is indeed sad that there are journalists today that do not even understand what it means to be on the social media when you tell them about Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and the rest of them, they don’t even understand how to operate them. They merely carry smart phones. All you need in the phones of today is to have your capacity belt and you can use it to eke out a living forever. Beyond engaging in trivialities, you can engage in more meaningful things and eke out a living for yourself. So, that is what training, retraining and capacity building can help you achieve.
So, in terms of ICT, we are also focused and of course, we’re better off today at the secretariat in terms of payment of salaries of our staff. We’re not shying away from that because, before you go out there to tell somebody that they are not paying, you should set a good example by paying the people working under you. I’m taking that very seriously and by the grace of God, we’re moving on. Very soon, we’ll be sure to move to the permanent site.