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News commercialisation and the making of emperor governors

Governor Dave Umahi has been the poster boy for good governance in the south east, drawing praises for some, I must admit, landmark infrastructure developments in Ebonyi State. Of the five governors in this region, it looked, for many years, as if it was only the man in Ebonyi that was “working.” Even when he announced his intention to build an airport in the state, many people who would have lampooned him for misplacing priorities (Ebonyi State is less than 30 minute drive from Akanu Ibiam International Airport in Emene, Enugu), his performance collaterals appeared to have counted for him in the PR space, ensuring he attracted plaudits rather than the criticism he sorely deserved at the time.

Governor Umahi has done well. We live in a country where we praise elected officials for doing some of the things we actually elected them to do, largely because most others don’t do anything at all, and therefore no one should blame me for praising Umahi. His records are by far the most inspiring in the south east region. I remember a day in 2019, when, as an aide to the Enugu State Governor, we had to pass through Ebonyi and double back to Enugu territory while the governor was going to commission a road project in Eha-Amufu. Even while in the convoy of the governor of Enugu State, most of us did not miss the message that detour through Ebonyi left for us – Ebonyi has better network o roads than Enugu.

Dave Umahi

But in April 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world and Nigeria was battling to impress itself and the world in the face of decrepit healthcare facilities, Governor Umahi made the headlines for the wrong reasons, reportedly banning two journalists form his state for life, from the Sun and Vanguard Newspapers over reports the governor goes not find complimentary. While the Sun reporter was arrested on the orders of the governor over a report he wrote on how Lassa Fever was ravaging the state, the Vanguard reporter was arrested on the orders of a local government chairman because of a report on the military invasion of a community.

And Governor Umahi was so angry he booked a live broadcast on state radio and television stations to announce the banishment of the journalists.

“Okutu (one of the journalists) is fond of degrading Ebonyi State and I don’t know why my officials have allowed him to continue to do that because he is not from Eboni State. I want to ban him for life with Chijioke Agwu. I don’t want to see them anywhere in any government facility. …If you think you have the pen, we have the koboko (horse-whip). Let’s eave the court alone. Ebonyi people are very angry with the press and let me warn that I will not be able to control them or know when they unleash mayhem on you…”

This not the first time the freedom of the press has been trampled upon and thrown to the dogs under this democratic administration and an assessment shows our governors and their lower minions and the guiltiest party. Agba Jalingo was only recently released from detention in Cross River State, with Governor Ben Ayade as the shamelessly proud mastermind.

When I look at the kind of relationship that politicians in Nigeria want to build with the media, I am left wondering what would possibly have been our sad fate were those of us in the 4th estate to behave like the American journalists we see every day, shaking the guts and gumption of Donald Trump right there on the lawns of the White House? Our governors would have been tying up and using journalists to feed their pet lions, were they Mr. Trump.

The media is free in Nigeria, but everywhere in the chains of insensitive and intolerant politicians. We are also manacled by challenges of commercialization of content, main reason our governors behave the way they behave; main reason some media houses are also unduly unfriendly.

What this means is that the value of news can no longer be determined by its timeliness, impact and importance, prominence, proximity, potentials for conflict, unusual/human interest, currency and necessity but by the ability of the individual or institution to pay. For this reason, media organisations employ national and regional editors, not necessarily because they have the oft spoken “nose for news” but because they are capable of closing deals on (positive) coverage in exchange for money.

I will explain with examples.

Since NTA’s most popular news and current affairs programme, NEWSLINE successfully got people to pay for some kinds promotional news content and Channels Television scaled this further by creating what in media circles today is known as LTP (Let them Pay), news value and judgement in the newsroom has been taken off the editor and handed to marketing managers and commercial directors of media establishments irrespective of whether they are publicly owned or private.

What this means is that the value of news can no longer be determined by its timeliness, impact and importance, prominence, proximity, potentials for conflict, unusual/human interest, currency and necessity but by the ability of the individual or institution to pay. For this reason, media organisations employ national and regional editors, not necessarily because they have the oft spoken “nose for news” but because they are capable of closing deals on (positive) coverage in exchange for money.

It was a development that politicians could not resist. As the sales people masquerading as editors peddled their content wares at government houses, governors grabbed them with both hands. The guarantee positive reportage almost at all times. I am aware that most state governors have retainership arrangements with most of Nigeria’s media establishments like Channels, TVC, Premium Times, Legit.NG, Vanguard, Sun and Leadership. I remember that during the 2019 elections, TVC, which had a retainership agreement with one of the south east governors, had to sack one of its correspondents in that state for obeying the governor’s orders to delete soundbites taken from an opposition candidate on election day. Having apparently paid upfront for news coverage, the governor felt so entitled he thought he could dictate to the television station which story to carry in his state and which to ignore.

I once got talking with a friend who told me that 70 percent primetime news content of a flagship television station in Nigeria was commercial. This is not essentially that bad, if it does not stretch to turning blind eyes to corruption, human rights violations and poor management of public resources by these governments.  

One other manifestation of the commercialization of news is the tendencies for many media organization to resort to arm-twisting tactics in effort to make the targets of their commercial pitches to “play ball.” It is an open secret that most political office holders have one or two things to hide. Armed with some of these facts, many news organisations use them as gambits that facilitate news coverage and content amplification deals with governors and other government officials.

Somewhere in the press halls of most government houses, a smaller version of this LTP exists. Here press people accredited to cover government houses are placed on monthly salaries (it is called stipends in most of these places) and the size of each correspondent’s pay cheque depends on the status of his media establishment and the perceived “fire-power” of the reporter.

So when Dave Umahi swears he was “very displeased with the president and leadership of the Nigeria Union of Journalists” and was going to “seize their allowances for two months because they have failed to discipline their members,” he was very clearly speaking from the position of an entitled governor who was apparently not getting commensurate value from the media vehicles he services every month at huge costs.

And that is why neither the NUJ nor the affected newspaper houses would react to this obviously disgraceful conduct by the Ebonyi Governor. Those that were not on Umahi’s monthly allowances are very likely on a monthly news coverage retainer or are hopeful that one way or the other, they would in the future worm their ways into the governor’s good books and thus, earn their own of piece of the pie. In which case, these two reporters might even lose their jobs. Journalists have been sacked for much more ridiculous reasons in this country.

Chris Isiguzo, NUJ President

If our governors have behaved like sole proprietors over these years, the media contributed in no small way to such bad behaviour. Only a state sole proprietor would wake up and declare two Nigerian citizens working in his state persona non grata. Only an entitled emperor would even contemplate that in a democracy.

And I did not miss the main reason for banishing the Vanguard correspondent, Peter Okutu, for life. “… he is not from Ebonyi State,” Governor Umahi shamelessly said on State television. The day the governor of Mr. Okutu’s state will wake up to determine the fates of all the hawkers in the state, I hope Mazi Umahi would not forget his utterance and action on this day.

I do not even want to contest whether it was within the powers of the governor to banish people from his state but I shudder at the irresponsibility in a governor profiling a resident of the state he governs for being from another state. And as the Nigerian media gets tarred by yet another governor, time has come to reappraise this practice for the good of society and for the dignity of a so harried profession.


Ikem Okuhu is a journalist, a Public Relations professional, brand strategist and teacher. With a career that traversed Print Media, Oil & Gas, Banking and entrepreneurship, Ikem is the author of wave-making book; PITCH: Debunking Marketing’s Strongest Myths, a dispassionate exposition of the dos and don’ts of successful engagement in the marketplace, especially the Nigerian marketplace. He is the founder/publisher of BRANDish, Nigeria’s first nationally circulating Brands and Marketing magazine. He has also handled the PR and reputation management consultancies for a number of brands, businesses and public figures.

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