NEWSWATCH: COURAGE IN THE SERVICE OF FREEDOM


Speech on the occasion of the presentation of Newswatch Best on 6th December, 2005.

It is one of the unstated privileges of life in retirement to receive a deluge of invitations to a variety of events. Sometimes, one has to make the difficult decision of either being present or sending a representative. At other times, the obligation to honour a compelling invitation comes into conflict with the other imperatives of life in retirement such as the need to catch your breadth or take stock in quiet reflection.

The invitation to this occasion is one that I could not turn down for a number of reasons. In the first place, this is yet another opportunity to be in Lagos, to savour the warmth and friendship of this great city and its people with whom I feel a special attachment. The second reason is that this is an opportunity to catch up with friends especially in the media that one has not seen for quite some time. More importantly, this is a unique occasion to be part of the celebration of an organisation and a medium that has become an institution in our national media landscape. For being so kind as to remember a man who lives far away in the hinterland of Minna even though they themselves are still in active service, I am most grateful to the management of Newswatch for their kind invitation!

I am particularly thrilled by the thoughtfulness of the management of Newswatch Communications in putting together in the volume that we have before us today a most valuable document for posterity. These are some of the most illuminating essays and columns that have made Newswatch compulsory reading for the discerning public these past two decades. But in my understanding, the import of this occasion would have been diminished if it were just another book launch. In my view, we are here to celebrate Newswatch and what it stands for in our national life in general and our media culture in particular. We are here to salute the courage and vision of a few good men (and women, too!) who dared to blaze a trail, to chart a new course and conquer a fresh frontier in the gathering and delivery of news and information in our country.

When it came into being Newswatch pioneered what for want of a better term I would describe as a new mode of magazine journalism. The magazine brought a freshness of style, a boldness of stance and an unmistakeable sense of professional engagement with national issues. A certain seriousness of approach backed by research and knowledge of issues became the hallmark of the exceptional tradition that you at Newswatch helped pioneer and promote. Following on the great strides that had been made in newspaper journalism by publications like The Guardian and National Concord, Newswatch and its brand and standard of reporting and commentary marked what may be described as the coming of age of Nigerian journalism in many respects.

The 1980s could therefore be described as the age of enlightenment in our journalism culture. Not only did bright and highly qualified young men and women enter the profession, they brought with them a certain idealism, vigour and high mindedness which enlivened our national discourse. Those in authority could no longer ignore the views and perspectives on national issues that were expressed in our major publications. Nor could they afford to look down on senior journalists. Some of them came to be consulted by those in authority not necessarily because they control instruments of managing public opinion but because they possessed the requisite integrity, knowledge and insight to contribute meaningfully to the quest for solutions to pressing national problems. Between those of us whom providence gave the opportunity to serve in government and pioneers like the founders of Newswatch, there developed a certain confidence and friendship which has lasted even beyond our tenure in public service.

I have recalled the highpoints of the journalism culture of the mid 1980s only to draw attention to the significance of Newswatch to the development of our journalism. But pioneering is about setting examples in order that others might follow. I am glad that the example you set has given birth to numerous other efforts so much so that we can now justifiably speak of a Newswatch tradition in our news magazine culture. Some of the newer publications are obviously bolder. Others are more daring and sometimes even relatively reckless, defiant and deviant. But even in this infinite variety of approaches and standards is to be found the lasting testimony of your effort and contributions. This variety also carries the imprint of the diverse beauty of our national life and culture.

Beyond its professional contributions to the growth of our journalism culture, Newswatch was never a passive organ. It has remained an involved and highly engaged witness of our national history at its most dramatic moments. You have witnessed our many transformations from civil democracy to military dictatorship and back again. We all have come to treasure Newswatch as an active participant in our national history at its most memorable moments. It can indeed be said that Newswatch rose from the ashes of the Second Republic and, curiously, flowered under the aberration of military rule. When the logic of national history and the imperatives of change dictated otherwise, Newswatch shared in the boldness of our vision and provided an invaluable sounding board for our policies and programmes. As I look through some of the celebrated essays and columns reproduced in this volume, I cannot but relive those days with a bit of nostalgia.

The challenges which Newswatch has encountered in its two decades of existence also capture the burden of journalism in a fast changing world especially in Africa. You have had to navigate the difficult terrain of demarcating the treacherous boundary between the responsibilities of the media and the obligations of national security. You have helped to define the limits of both. You have had to define for yourselves the reciprocal obligations of the politician and the journalist in the pursuit of the ideal freedom. In the process you have grown and advanced the cause of freedom in our land. You have experienced the crisis of producing a professionally profound magazine while struggling to keep afloat as a business undertaking.

You came into existence at a time in the development of the instruments of communication when it was said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Now you have to survive in a media culture that is increasingly making do without pens. No one has pronounced on the outcome of the raging contest between the computer and the sword. Now, the ideas that rule the world for better or for worse are not carried by physical vendors nor can the politician, no matter how tight his grip on power, stop the flow of ideas across all known barriers. The standards by which the quality of your publication is measured are no longer national and local. They are global.

I have raised these issues only as a way of suggesting to you the great challenges that lie ahead even as we join you in celebrating two decades of great strides and historic achievements. Even in invoking these changes in our world, I am ready to concede that the fundamental mission of journalism and indeed the role of the media have not changed. The power of the word, spoken or written, as an instrument for the advancement and protection of freedom has not been changed by developments in technology.

Democracy and freedom of expression remain the common denominator of our universal humanism. The challenge of defending freedom or advancing its cause will not abate just because we have formal democracy. The challenges and dimensions will only continue to change because democracy is a process, constantly evolving in our daily encounters with authority and subordination. In the pursuit of democracy, therefore, each edition of a publication is a bold and indelible step in the advancement of the frontiers of freedom.

Our new democracy is young. But our values of freedom and community are rooted in ancient traditions and a proud ancestry. Our media must negotiate the reconciliation between our primordial love for freedom and the imperatives of formal democracy. On no account must we allow the dictates of formal democracy to stifle the natural sense of freedom and robust expression which are second nature to most Nigerians.

Before I end this short remark, there is a rather strong point of Newswatch which is worthy of celebration but could be lost in the present aggressive competition of the media market place. It is the significance of your organisation in institution building. Your organisation was built on a tradition and has survived through difficult times while retaining its distinctive identity and defining tradition. It is true that the history of great publications of the world like Time, Newsweek and Der Spiegel is measured in centuries. Given our national habit of quickly dismantling organisations before they become institutions, I believe that Newswatch has been a remarkable success. You have retained your essential character and tradition for two decades. You have become an institution even if a relatively young one by other standards. That to me is remarkable in these climes.

Underlying this survival is something intangible but of greatest value because it is rare in our environment. I am referring to the abiding sense of solidarity and friendship among the originals: Ray, Dan and Yakubu, a friendship and lasting working relationship that has survived for more than two decades. It is to your credit that in two decades, we have not read of any major disagreements among you nor has the gossip press put out any scandals involving any of you or all of you as a collective. Whatever else may change in the way you face the business and professional challenges of the years that lie ahead, you must abide in this priceless solidarity and fellowship. This sense of friendship is perhaps the greatest honour that you can do to the memory of our mutual friend and founding Editor in Chief of Newswatch, Dele Giwa. I am sure Dele would have relished the significance of this occasion. We can only keep his memory alive by advancing the vision which you all shared at the inception of this great magazine.

In this regard, I am proud to say that I have enjoyed a very active personal friendship with the leadership of Newswatch right from inception. I have shared in your triumphs and successes. I have also shared the pain of your trying moments and sometimes your tragic losses. I will continue to wish you well as your organisation steps forward to confront the challenges of adulthood. The volume being presented today is only one of your report cards, a record of work in progress. It should not be the final testimonial.

Once again, ladies and gentlemen, I am deeply honoured by the invitation to share the company of this most distinguished gathering. I want to end by reaffirming my wish that the achievements of the last two decades should be for the management of Newswatch a source of greater inspiration to keep their original dream alive and prosper the enterprise itself to the glory of our dear country.

I thank you for listening.