A part of us died when Newswatch was sold to Jimoh Ibrahim – Ray Ekpu
by Nurudeen Oyewole
For close to three decades, Newswatch magazine bestrode the Nigerian media industry like a colossus. Buoyed by the creativity of its founding fathers, the magazine took journalism to another height. But suddenly its shinning light dimmed. Regrets have since trailed its sale to a new publisher.
As it is, the battle has shifted to the courts of law. But as the public wait to know where the pendulum swings, SUNDAY TRUST cornered one of the co-founders and a long-standing Managing Director of the magazine, Ray Ekpu, in Lagos. And in a no-hold-bar interview, he bared it all.
For many years Newswatch magazine held sway as the flagship of newsmagazine in Nigeria. But all of a sudden, the magazine ran into a stormy session that led to its sale. The questions on the lips of many Nigerians are: what could have made you and others sold Newswatch magazine and why was it sold to Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim? Thank you very much. As at the time we were thinking of expanding the company, we had done 26 years. We thought it was time not only to consolidate on the achievements of those years, but to also expand and do some other things within the broader canvass of communications. We thought we could establish a newspaper, a printing press, establish a video company and run a radio station, among other things. We believed by doing all of these, we would have succeeded in giving the company the most solid footing and that was why we shopped around for investors. We carried out a research study and we have all of these in a document to prove that all we have done are actually doable projects. During the period, one of our managers, Mr Bankole Makinde, said he knew one Jimoh Ibrahim who was already making investments in the media industry. And we said to him, go ahead and approach him if you can. He (Bankole) approached him and we had a meeting with him, Soji Akinrinade, Yakubu Muhammed, Dan Agbese and me. We also hired a firm, which led us in this transaction which also assisted us in the preparations of all the documentations. We later arrived at a decision that we could sell 51 percent of shares in the company. And on the 5th of May, 2011 we had a board meeting led by our chairman, Chief Alex Akinyele, and Jimoh Ibrahim came with some of his people and we signed an agreement to sell 51 percent share in the company to his company, Global Media Mirror Ltd. That day, the four of us retired from our positions as executive directors of the company and at the same meeting we were re-appointed as non-executive directors. Thereafter, Mr Jimoh Ibrahim came and addressed members of staff. He told them we had retired as executive directors but have been re-appointed as non-executive directors. He made lots of promises of what he intended doing to lift the company. And we thought that was a good transaction that was capable of giving the company a new lease of life. But as things turned out, that was not to be. When you look back at the process that led to the eventual handing over of the company to Jimoh Ibrahim, what exactly would you say you did not get right in all that transpired? Well, you will not know how a transaction will go at the beginning because as Shakespeare said, “there is no how to find a mind’s construction on the face”. We thought we were dealing with a serious businessman and that was the basis we entered into that agreement with him. As a matter of fact, we went and inspected his premises, the Global Media Mirror Ltd in Lagos. We saw his printing press. We saw rolls and rolls of newsprint, newspaper distributing vans, and that convinced us that he is a serious investor in the media industry. He said to us that he hoped to put each printing press at each geo-political zones of the country and that since he now has a transaction with Newswatch, he hoped to put one of the printing presses in Newswatch. For us, that was a major attraction. And that was how we allowed him to take over the company. He sent his staff the very next day to take over and we moved out. He ran it for one year and three months, during which we observed that he was not keeping to the terms of agreement. We tried to draw his attention to some of the violations of what we noted are the terms of agreements, written and unwritten, the violations which are not only in letter but also in spirit. He has actually not been able to do those things he has promised to do for the company. The staff union had to write him that quite a number of things were fast deteriorating in the company and I guess that annoyed him and he went to the office, No. 3 Billings Way, summoned the staff, scolded them and shut down the place. So we decided to serve him a notice, asking him to reverse some of those decisions he took, which we believed were not in the best interest of the company and the partnership. But before the expiration of the notice, he rushed to the court to obtain an injunction, asking the court to stop us from speaking on behalf of other shareholders of the company and stopping us from performing our duties as directors from the court even when there has been no change to our status as directors in the company. Now, we are in court. He took us to court and two of our shareholders also took him to court. The two cases are in courts; one in the Court of Appeal, the other at the High Court. The case in the Court of Appeal was meant to upturn the injunction he had earlier obtained from the High Court but that hasn’t been heard because of the ongoing vacation of judges. Do you and others have any regret on the sale of Newswatch magazine? Well, what you can say when you enter into a transaction like ours is that you expect the best. We thought Newswatch will continue to flourish and the magazine will continue to be on the streets. But that is not the case. One does not expect us to be happy at all. An institution we laboured for 27years, you expect it to be standing tall and at a time be able to point a finger that, I worked here. But if that is not the case, it is something that one has to regret. It is something that can never make you happy. An institution like ours is supposedto last and become shinning beacons to other institutions. We thought, as professionals, we can continue to publish professionally and the company will continue to grow. It should be an institution that other journalists or other similar institutions can come to and possibly build on or contribute to. How germane was the issue of professionalism to you and others when the magazine was to be established? The media industry in Nigeria has not really been respected the way it should. In the 1950s,1960s and 1970s, media people were derided. It was not being reckoned with as a serious profession because many of the practitioners were poorly educated. People do say journalists are people who just found themselves in the newsrooms after the completion of their secondary schools and that is why they write all sorts of things. They really didn’t see journalism as a profession. Some people used to call it a craft. But over the years, some well educated persons have come into it. People who have their degrees, Masters and PhDs, I mean people who didn’t stray into it. Those who came to make a career out of it and have continued to stay in there. This has given the profession more credibility and put it in the rightful place it belongs. We now know that there is a body of knowledge called Mass Communication. A knowledge that comes from many disciplines which include Philosophy, Psychology, Social and Physical sciences, History, among others. They all form what is now known as Mass Communication. But it wasn’t like that when we and many others in the older generation joined it. It was a trend that those of us who started Newswatch were determined to reverse. We believed we can start publishing professionally and ethically so that people will stop accusing us of being rumour mongers and sensational writers. It was a legacy we are so interested in leaving behind for the younger generation of journalists. We want journalism to be respected and the people out there will stop calling us “press boys”. We consider that as derogatory and we were passionate about leaving a better legacy for the younger ones. And that was what propelled us to establish the magazine. Newswatch magazine, during its shinning days, was known for investigative reports, but media critics have alleged that investigative journalism is dying in Nigerian journalism. Do you share this view and what do you think could be responsible for it? It is not dying. Investigative journalism is still there and it had always been there even before Newswatch magazine came on board. We merely took it to the next level. We thought if we continued to get exclusive stories, week after week, it would continue to make the magazine strong. We believe it will make journalism strong and make the society better, and by that we would have contributed our quota to nation- building. What appears to be lacking now is that we really do not have quite a number of newspapers focusing on it. But we all know that investigative journalism is not easy to pursue. It needs time. It needs resources. It needs dedication. I remember there was one story that we published in Newswatch that took us up to a year to investigate. It took us lots of money and resources. And you don’t get to do such stories all the time. It comes once in a while because of the time and resources involved. And not all newspaper organizations have the means and the resources to invest to the extent that they get to the bottom of the stories. Of course there are other stories out there that can make headlines news but investigative journalism can only come once in a while because of the problems I have already enumerated. Earlier, you made passing reference to how journalism as a profession was once belittled. But some would say that, perhaps, was just one out of many other challenges the media is facing in Nigeria. What are the other challenges you think the media is facing and why have they become recurrent? One of the challenges I guess, is the issue of inadequate resources. You will see some newspapers quoting from CNN, BBC, New York Times, among others. If they have the resources, they won’t be quoting these news establishments but quote their own correspondents in many of the capital cities around the world. But one can always supplement that because there is no newspaper that can cover all the major cities of the world. That is why the news agencies exist. You have Reuters, AP, NAN, among others. Of course I’m aware that some newspaper organizations have correspondents in New York, Washington DC, London, among others and they try to fill in the gaps. But the most pathetic one is that we don’t have more correspondents in other African countries. How do we report Africa to the world if we don’t have our correspondents in most of the continent’s cities? We now have foreign countries reporting Africa to us, whereas we ought to be reporting Africa to Africans and non-Africans. The challenge we now have is a situation whereby a correspondent from any of these media organizations will simply jump into any African country, spend two or three days and go back to write huge articles which are actually misperceptions of what is truly on ground. These foreign journalists are coming with stereotype mindset of what Nigerians are and what Africans are. And these stereotypes can actually be eroded by speaking to actual people on the streets. And that is a responsibility we have not been able to deliver over the years and I think the governments in Africa should worry about these things and see how it can be addressed. I know they started Pan-African News Agency which collapsed. But there are many more challenges, one of which is that African journalists cannot travel freely in Africa because the roads are bad. The airlines are few and not well-connected. So, communication is actually impossible. Though you can say there has been relative improvement in the last 10 years especially with the advent of telecommunication and internet, but there is a greater need to move around these cities with ease. And this actually depends on economy. The economies of African countries are weak, very, very weak. They are not strong to sustain all of these in a way that will bring about efficiency. Also, there is high level of poverty. And, of course, Nigeria has about 66 percent of people who are living below one dollar per day, which is about N150 and N160 per day. Related to this is the poor standard of education. That appears to have even worsened everything. UNESCO prescribes that countries should at least dedicate 26 percent of their annual budget to education, but Nigeria puts in about seven percent of its annual budget. That is a huge gap of about 19 percent and that affects the leadership of the newspapers and its readership as well. While I was the Editor of Sunday Times between 1980 and 1982, we were doing more than 500, 000 copies in a week. It hasn’t happened like that anymore. How many newspapers can do 100,000 copies per day, not to talk of 500,000 copies per week? That shows you the economy is weak. It also shows you that the newspapers might have increased their cover price beyond what an average Nigerian can afford. It also shows that Nigerians are not earning enough to be able to have disposable incomes to buy newspapers and magazines. It also shows that there is probably a decline in the readership of newspaper. It also shows that many Nigerians have other sources of getting their news reports other than the traditional media. These sources might not be as credible and as the well-grounded media, but the truth is that they have sources. As you are aware, the newspapers, magazines, radio and televisions are set up to disseminate news reports. When a story breaks, they pick it up, clean it and distill it for the people who are yearning to acquire information. But the tragedy today is that many people, who are not well-trained or are not trained at all, have also come into the business of news dissemination, especially with the advent of the internet. And they create problems for journalism profession as well as problems for the society. Many other countries of the world are now creating laws on how to deal with invasion of internet space to publish all sorts of things. But unfortunately here in Nigeria, that is a challenge we just have to live with for now. Having identified some challenges thrown up by the internet and the new media, how do you think Nigerian media organizations can adequately confront these challenges and how do you think these new technologies can be manipulated to their advantages? I think the media already appreciated the fact that the internet has indeed come to stay - that the internet is attracting a lot of young people and not only the young people, but also other people who are attracted by its inventions and usefulness. Thus, we now have a situation that whatever that is published in the newspapers or magazine are put on the websites and made accessible to journalists. And in order to meet up with the breaking news reports, the media now try to announce on their websites the latest development, but will not be able to give all the details required until the next day. That is what we call “announcement journalism”. And by next day, people will be willing to get there and get more details. You can also see a number of television and radio stations referring their audience to Android and iPhone Punch newspaper pioneered the platforms. So for me, that is the way the media has been filling the gap. When the idea of mobile phone news delivery it probably didn’t succeed because internet penetration in the country is still low. I was reading one survey report towards the end of last year and it was reported that internet penetration in Africa is about 25 percent. I’m sure that percentage can only be gotten in South Africa. May be when the internet penetration is high, the country will be ripe for that. There appears to be an upsurge in political ownership of newspapers in Nigeria and observers are saying this is affecting the quality of news being dished out by these media organizations. Is there any way the media can break away from political control and dominance? No, no, no. It is a free society. It is a democratic society. Anybody is free to own and invest in the media of his or her choice. It is actually a plus for a big country like Nigeria. It is good to have multiple sources of news dissemination to the people. In that way, there won’t be what I call, “mechanization of news production” coming from one source. It allows you to access information from many sources. That is what I call media plurality. You read news about government in power, so you read news about the opposition, all of which you can get from different sources. It is up to the audience to choose which of the newspaper to read. It is up to you to choose which newspaper to ignore. I’m sure the average reader knows who owns which media and also understands the interest each of them represents. They know what to take as absolute truth and they know what to take with a pinch of salt. So, I will say, let all the flowers bloom. Let everybody come to the space. It is a big space. Whatever you want, you get. In the 1960s and 1970s, most of the newspapers owned by government always aligned with government policies. Sometimes ago, a newsspaper called the Morning Post which was owned by Federal Government published in 1964 that a general strike that has been on for many days have been called off, whereas the strike was on. That was what killed the newspaper. It never existed again since then. I started my journalism with a government newspaper known as Nigerian Chronicle in 1974. I know what it is to work with government newspaper. Most of government newspapers don’t always last long because those in government and their allies don’t want proper journalism, but only publish what they (government officials) consider as newsworthy. Today, most government newspapers have been out of newsstands while those that are still alive are struggling to survive. This is because, they cannot survive the competition. They cannot deliver in terms of reporting accurate and unbiased reportage and they even lack manpower to prosecute all of these. I believe as times goes on, all of these will sort themselves out. The strong ones will stay, and the weaker ones will wither away. After retiring from Newswatch, what have you and others gone into? Well, my colleagues - Soji, Yakubu, Dan - and I, decided to go into book publishing. You know, while we were at the Newswatch, we were publishing books through what we knew as Newswatch Book Ltd. We have published 30 books through the company. So after we retired as Executive Directors, we felt we could continue with book publishing under a different platform. And that is basically what we are doing now. Already we have published three books and we are working on four and five. Three of them were written by outside authors while the rest were written by us. Though people try to discourage us that Nigerians don’t like to read, but I do tell them that when there are good books, those who want to read, will read. Already, we are trying to introduce a new dynamism into the industry, one of which is that we plan to meet successful Nigerians, elder statesmen and captains of industries to put into writings their experiences and knowledge which we believe will serve the younger generations. If such thoughts and experiences are committed in newspaper, there may come a time that some of the unsold copies can be used to wrap groundnuts. But if such is committed into books, nobody will dare tear the book or use it to wrap a gift. And when people complain about the falling standard of education, I do ask that when people do not read, why won’t the standard fall? Any right-thinking Nigerian should be worried about the sharp decline in the education standard in Nigeria. I was reading sometimes last year, the report of a survey of about 100 Universities in Africa and it was only two that were mentioned in Nigeria - University of Lagos that was placed in 21st and University of Ibadan that was placed in 40th position. In a country where we have more than 100 varsities and such a large population, it is a big shame. It simply means no university in Nigeria can be said to be truly global. It’s a shame. Since you and others have ventured into book publishing, do you really see it as a thriving business? Well, you have to make it a thriving business. It is true that the reading culture in this part of the world is low. I am told that Segun Adeniyi’s book must have sold up to 5,000 copies. I was told, I do not know. But you see he dwelt on an issue that many people were quite interested in. And that explained the euphoria that went with it because people were actually rushing to buy it. So, it can thrive, especially when you deal with an issue that many people are quite passionate about. I remember when we wanted to start the Newswatch magazine, some people tried to discourage us, saying it can’t thrive and all of that but the first issue we published was cleared off in a number of days. I’m not saying the same thing goes for book publication, but I think if you get it out there, it can thrive. And in this part of the world where it may be quite hard to sell about 100, 000 copies of book, you see people launching it and making donations, all in a bid to make up for the cost of production, so that they can make for the shortfall. In Europe and America, authors just go and sign autographs at the bookshops and people buy. But that is not the culture here. But as time goes on we can actually get it right. If you had not been into journalism, what other profession would you have got into? I didn’t know. I can’t say because I went into journalism even at a time I don’t know its full implications. I was in Primary Five which used to be standard five in those days, when I used to collect Nigerian Outlook newspaper from my father to read. The Nigerian Outlook newspaper was then being published in what was known as Eastern Nigeria. Being a member of the Customary Court of Appeal, my father, subscribed to Nigerian Outlook newspaper. I remember that I did use to help him collect it from the vendor at the time and before he comes home, I would have finished reading the paper. And that was when I can say my passion in journalism began to develop. Then I used to read MCK Ajuluchukwu and Dr Nnamdi Azikwe’s articles and it was then I began to make up my mind that I will be a journalist. So, when I got to secondary school, attended sporting activities like inter-house sports and write for other students to read. That was when I was at Ibibio State College. Then when I went to a higher school, Holy Family College in the present day Akwa Ibom state, I started the first students’ publication. In those days, before you get to the university after the completion of secondary school education, you must attend a higher school to bag a Higher School Certificate or A’ level. The publication then was called the ‘Nightingale’. We would get it typed and stapled to the board for students to read. So at a time, it drew the attention of the principal and because it is a Catholic school, he actually assigned one of the Reverend Fathers, who was then the English Language teacher, to me to help us with the production. So from then onward, it was quite easy for me to get the production done. So after the war in 1970 and I wanted to go to the university, I applied to the University of Lagos to study Mass Communication, University of Ibadan for English Language and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria for Sociology. Then, there was no UTME so you can apply directly to the universities. I was offered admission to all the schools but I chose University of Lagos to study Mass Communication. From there, it actually appeared that I was destined to be a journalist. Though my father wanted me to be a lawyer, apparently because of his law background, but I resisted it. So he refused to pay my fees for the first session which lasted for nine months. But before I gained admission into the university I had worked as a teacher in a secondary school, so I had some money on me and I went to university. So, if there is any other profession I would have loved to practice apart from Mass Communication that perhaps could have been Law. Not just because of my father’s pressure but because it is the other profession that is akin to journalism, because it also dwells so much on communication, the use of words and the ability to express yourself. Maybe I would have been a lawyer but then, I still consider journalism a better option, because in journalism you can’t twist the fact. The fact is the fact. But in law, you can twist the fact for the sake of your client. What specifically can you attribute as your greatest strength or an acquired skill that has made your journalism experience worthwhile? Honestly, I can’t say. All I can say is that I just like to write. You know when I was made the Managing Director after Dele Giwa’s death, I wasn’t really a happy man because I really do not like to sit down and be pushing files, trying to run after some staff who may want to steal the company’s money and have to block all loopholes and all of that. I thought that was a distraction to me because all I wanted was to be a writer. That was the attraction that got me into the profession, in the first instance, and it often pumps my adrenaline. But then, I realized that in the Nigerian context, when you have practiced the profession to a certain time, people expect you to be a moderator. I used to tell the staff that I really didn’t think I am cut out for this and that I was willing to quit this place and relinquish it for anyone who so want it. My abiding interest in journalism is to write. If I had wanted to be an administrator, I would have studied Business Administration or Public Administration. I just wanted to be a journalist and that is why I had my first degree in journalism, second degree in journalism and a diploma in advance journalism. So, your admirers can’t imagine seeing you in politics? No, no, no. I have been tempted before but I rejected it. I don’t have the qualities to act as a typical Nigerian politician, because you have to dance on stage and say one thing in the general meeting and say another in the smaller meeting. I am not capable of that. I don’t think I can make a success out of it. Some years ago, some young men from my state came to my house in Akwa Ibom State. They had been longing to see me and they came along with my brother. When I asked him before hand, why they wanted to see me, he said no he didn’t know. They were all successful in their own respective fields. So, they came to me and said they would want me to contest for the governorship seat of Akwa Ibom state. I listened to them. But I didn’t tell them, O! come tomorrow or next tomorrow, I will give you answer. I gave them the answer right in there. I appreciated them and saluted their courage, but I told them I was not interested. I said I cannot make a successful Nigerian politician because I am too blunt and I am going to have problems with people. They said, ‘yes, that is the more reason we want you’. I said no. How do you win an election in Nigeria? I don’t want anybody to kill in my name and neither am I ready to follow anybody to any kind of shrine to swear to any juju. For many politicians, the end justifies the means, but for me the means must be good to justify the end. So that is not going to work. So they said to me, ‘no problem, we will go and get your picture and paste your posters across the towns and villages’. I said, well, it’s your choice. If you want to waste your money, you can go ahead with it because I am neither going to deny it nor confirm it. I will just sit in my house and continue to do what I am doing. So, if you wish to waste your money, good luck to you. I told them that in 1998, when Obong Victor Attah was chosen as a consensus candidate, I was contacted by the leader of the party who chose Attah, Chief Don Etiebet. He asked me to come and become Attah’s running mate and I declined. So, if I had taken it, I would have become a deputy governor of the state because Attah went ahead to win that election. It was at that time they were convinced that this is a wrong guy to talk to. So they gave up. Now, coming back to your years in Newswatch magazine, is there anything you miss about the news organization? Do you see the paper out every week? If you see the paper out every week, you feel something. And if you don’t see the paper the way I don’t see it, you also feel something. Something you laboured for. Something you nurtured for over 26 years of your life. Something you carried out extensive research on before its establishment. A paper that was able to rank among the best 12 in the world. When we started, we were passionate about it. We loved it. The public loved it. It was something that was so dear to us. When you don’t see it anymore, something in you dies! When I was tried by Uwaifo Panel after I had written something about Shagari and I was later fined N20 , if you see the number of hands in the courtroom, wanting to pay the fine. Tai Solarin was there, Gani Fawehinmi was there, the public were all willing to pay for me right there. It wasn’t about me, it was about the magazine. When the magazine was proscribed, a group of people came and the whole of Billings’ Way in Oregun was blocked with cars. They were shouting, “our paper, our paper”. Our account was frozen and people were saying, we will give you money. We want to give you money to survive. When Dele Giwa was killed, a lot of people came out and donated lots of things. Someone donated aircraft. It was a fascination they had. A product like that, which has moved from being a mere newspaper to an institution people so much respected and want to associate with and want it to last. When you do not see it anymore, how do you feel? So it wasn’t about us. It was about what we made possible for the Nigerian public. Are you thinking of re-inventing the magazine? Well, we can’t say that for now. Let’s finish with the court cases then, we will know what to do. …And any memorable event in all of those years? Our production nights were like festivals but without the trappings of festivities. We were always excited. We were always jumping up in euphoria. Despite the stress associated with where we were compiling the editorial materials and the printing press, we were enjoying it all. I mean despite the enormous work, we were enjoying it all immeasurably. You can’t recreate that. It was the most memorable thing I can think of. When you are through with this production, what you and others are looking forward to was, the next paper, the next paper and that was it. With all the difficulties we were having then, I mean you will do the typesetting at New Nigeria Newspaper then take it to Ikeja for page-planning, then return it back for proof reading. After that you return to go and drop the corrections before the production proper takes place. It was that excitement we shared and I considered it memorable. But most importantly, the excitement of doing what Nigerians love.