JOS, JOURNALISM AND THE PRIMACY OF A BEFITTING PRESS CENTRE

BY CHRIS GYANG

When the final chronicles of Nigerian journalism are written, Jos, the Plateau State capital, will certainly occupy a key position – especially regarding the Middle Belt and Northern Nigeria. This is because, just as anywhere else in the world, the history of its media is also tied to the rich and sometimes tempestuous socio-political tapestry of the Middle Belt and Nigeria as a whole.

The AM arm of today’s Plateau Radio Television Corporation (PRTVC) started transmission in 1935 as a booster station of Radio Nigeria, Lagos – which was itself a relay station of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), London.

When Benue State was carved out of the then Benue-Plateau State in 1978, the AM radio station was re-named Plateau Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) that same year. It was also allocated frequencies as a full-fledged broadcasting house and subsequently taken over by the state government through Edict No. 4 of 1978 (see MEDIA, A Passion for Peace, A Commitment to Serve, THE PRTV PERSPECTIVE, 2005).

The legendary Joseph Dechi Gomwalk, of blessed memory, the first Military Governor of the then Benue-Plateau State (1967 – July 1975), would later build on this legacy by establishing The Nigeria Standard newspaper in June 1972 and later a television station – Benue Plateau Television (BPTV) – on February 25, 1975. This visionary leader was inspired by the urgent need to give the minority ethnic nationalities of the Middle Belt a voice of their own in the emerging Nigerian nation state.

Work on the television station had begun in the second half of 1973 with the construction of the studios while test transmission kicked-off in the middle of June 1974.

“But soon, the new television station would make a landmark breakthrough that would sign-post a major turning point in the history of television in Nigeria and the entire African continent. About five months after it was commissioned, BPTV became the first station in Africa to begin transmission in colour. This was later extended to its Mangun and Makurdi sub-stations.

However, in 1977, the Federal Military Government took over all state-owned television stations in the country through Decree No. 24 which established the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA). These are the antecedents of NTA Jos. Notwithstanding, that take-over, the late Professor Girgis Salama, an internationally renowned television expert and administrator who had been the catalyst for these innovative breakthroughs as the first General Manager of the illustrious BPTV, was undaunted, even upbeat.

In 1980, a planning committee was set up for the establishment of a state television station headed by Nde Gideon Barde, a seasoned journalist who had served meritoriously as the Chief Press Secretary to Joseph Gomwalk. On November 18, 1982, the Plateau Television (PTV) was commissioned by the late nationalist and leading politician, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. He had come to Jos to also attend that year’s Nigeria People’s Party (NPP) national convention which was held at the Jos Township Stadium.

Late Chief Solomon Daushep Lar, the first Executive Governor of Plateau State (popularly known as ‘The Emancipator’), had initiated this project, following in the footsteps of Joseph Gomwalk. In 1985, the then Military Governor of Plateau State, Navy Captain Samuel Atukum, merged PTV and the state-owned AM radio station, Plateau Radio Corporation, to form the current Plateau Radio Television Corporation (PRTVC).

During the inaugural board meeting of The Nigeria Standard newspapers on October 31, 1972, Gomwalk had stated: “I believe that it is in the interest of good government and healthy society that a variety of organs are available for the effective enlightenment of our people on matters affecting their lives locally, nationally, and internationally.” He charged the new publication’s journalists to “join resolutely in the fight to eradicate the ills of corruption, greed, sectionalism and ignorance that are causing so much harm and wastefulness in our society, while at the same time emphasizing the positive and integrative aspects of our national efforts” (see J.D. Gomwalk, A Man of Vision, by Chief Anthony Goyol). These words continued to serve as the beacons for not only that flagship newspaper but the broadcast stations as well.

The Nigeria Standard newspapers and PRTVC would become training grounds and launch-pads for journalists and other media professionals from other parts of the country. This is more so when it is realised that the former Benue-Plateau State is present-day Adamawa, Benue, Kogi, Taraba, Nasarawa and Plateau states. The measure of the influence and reach of these media organisations was the running battles the valiant journalists in The Nigeria Standard would later have with military juntas bent on silencing the media from defending the rights of Nigerians against the injustices of jack-boot tyranny.

In this respect, the travails of my mentor and boss in the profession, Mr. Jonathan Ishaku, are very intriguing and dramatic. In 1986, the then Colonel Onojah, who had just been posted to Plateau State as Military Administrator, immediately proceeded to sack Mr. Ishaku, who was Editor of The Nigeria Standard, and the General Manager of its parent publishing company, Mallam Rufai Ibrahim. Apparently, the outgoing state executive council had been having a long running battle with the duo whom they had accused of turning the newspapers in the stable into a ‘Communist Manifesto’.

Col. Onoja had been persuaded during his first state EXCO meeting to sack the two journalists. Later, the military governor realised that his decision did not go down well with most Plateau and Nigerian citizens. Mr. Ishaku was reinstated in January 1987.

But he would once more be relieved of his position in August of that same year! The tabloid had penned an editorial criticizing the General Babangida junta for unilaterally sacking the CEOs of some banks. This had infuriated Babangida who personally drew the attention of the Plateau State military administrator to the offensive piece during a meeting with other governors. Interestingly, Mr. Ishaku got to know about his dismissal on Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria’s 4.00 PM network news bulletin.

I also recall how a record number of six senior editors/members of the Editorial Board of The Nigeria Standard resigned to protest the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election widely believed to have been won by the late Chief Moshood Abiola. They had written an editorial condemning that decision. The Babangida administration applied all manner of arm-twisting methods to make them retract the publication but they stuck to their guns. But they would be vindicated some years later when all of them are unconditionally reinstated.

For Gomwalk, launching the then Benue-Plateau State into the media industry in the early 1970s was an act of profound defiance against entrenched interests deliberating working to confine his people to the sidelines of history and stunt their overall human development. These fearless journalists were doing no less. They were defying and confronting a more vicious and despotic order that had virtually succeeded in cowing the majority of Nigerians into submission.

Clearly, the media had put Plateau State, especially Jos, in the national spotlight and turned this part of Central Nigeria into the mecca of journalism in Northern Nigeria. Its centrality in the Middle Belt, the relatively high educational standards and hospitable nature of the people, the cosmopolitan mix of Jos and its salubrious weather combined to make journalism practice very conducive and flourishing for journalists and media practitioners from within and outside the country.

As a matter of fact, there was a time in the history of Nigeria when you could hardly find a journalist, media practitioner, politician, technocrat, bureaucrat, academic, human rights activist, etc, in the country who had not had a stint in (or indirectly influenced by) one of Jos’ media houses or the academic and other institutions they had attracted to the state.

THE PLACE OF THE PRESS CENTRE
Because of the unique nature of the work of journalists, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) Press Centre (referred to variously in different parts of the world) has become a major fixture and embodiment of journalism practice.

The NUJ Press Centre is not only a place for the convergence, work and relaxation of journalists and other media practitioners, it’s also an open space for citizens to freely express and disseminate ideas, views and their democratic and civil rights – be it in a democratic or despotic dispensation.

It is also a source of revenue for the NUJ. Aside offices for NUJ officials and a hall for hosting press conferences and other public/union functions, also located at press centres are shops and offices which are rented out to individuals for the purposes of restaurants, business centres, bookshops, grocery stores, boutiques, etc.

This is one of the main sources of revenue for journalists. It allows them a level of financial autonomy and saves them from the shame of perpetually going cap in hand begging governments and individuals for funds to pay staff salaries, carry out maintenance of the Centre, fund their activities (such as workshops and advocacy) and attend meetings at the zonal and national levels, among others.

A leader imbued with uncommon foresight, the late Solomon Lar had anticipated all of these needs and obligations when he graciously donated the current Press Centre building to Plateau State journalists in 1982. Its strategic location at the iconic Hill Station Roundabout confers on it the added advantage of a prospective commercial and tourist monument.

THE GOVERNOR LALONG INTERVENTION
Over the years, successive NUJ leaderships in the state have struggled to upgrade this property, which was built in the 1960s, so as to fully tap its huge commercial and other potentials but to no avail.

However, in December 2019, the Governor Simon Lalong administration decided to step into this long-standing gap. It launched into a major re-modeling of the Press Centre which has transformed it into an architectural masterpiece. The official NUJ offices, shops, commercial spaces and restaurant are now more spacious and tastefully laid out to enhance the comfort and pleasure of both journalists and other citizens that would converge therein for various purposes.

No doubt, the Plateau State NUJ Press Centre is on the cusps of becoming a major attraction that would become the envy of journalists all over the country. This would, in effect, redound to that illustrious history of journalism in the state painted above.

However, only a little more work needs to be done to render it whole. Our findings show that what is outstanding – painting, installation of fittings, landscaping and furnishing – would cost about N30 million. Having completed 90% of the work, Plateau journalists believe that this bit of it would be completed within the shortest time possible. As they hopefully look forward to its completion, they are optimistic that this would finally release to them those major revenue streams which had dried up since the commencement of the project in 2019.

The completion of this project will no doubt unleash the huge potentials of this Press Centre which had laid untapped in the past decades. And the credit for this would go, in great measure, to Governor Simon Bako Lalong.

In a democracy, the press is referred to, and serves as, the Fourth Estate of the Realm, after the other three arms of government – executive, legislature and judiciary. This underscores the critical role journalists play not only in governance but in the overall development of societies and countries. Also known as the watchdog of society, the media ensures that governments live to the terms of their social contract with the governed.

Viewed from the above perspective, these gigantic steps of the Governor Lalong administration towards giving journalists a befitting press centre is a worthy venture that will further nurture and sustain Nigeria’s democracy and promote the values that underpin it.

(GYANG is the Chairman of the N.G.O, Journalists Coalition for Citizens’ Rights Initiative – JCCRI. Email: info@jccri-online.org)

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JOS, JOURNALISM AND THE PRIMACY OF A BEFITTING PRESS CENTRE

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