Professor Chinyere Stella Okunna is the Honourable Commissioner for Economic Planning & Budget and immediate past Commissioner for Information in Anambra State. She is also the first female professor of Mass Communication in Nigeria and a member of editorial boards of several national and international journals of Mass Communication. A Fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, she talks of her journalism experience with LEONARD OKACHIE. Excerpts:
As an expert in journalism education, how would you compare the industry today with your time?
You know my bias will definitely be in favour of my generation. In my days, standards were higher probably because the numbers were not as many as we have today. One thing militating against journalism today is the large numbers they are admitting into the profession. For example, If you go to the polytechnics you discover the large number of students being admitted to read mass communication even when there are shortage of teachers for the courses. Many people are not teaching journalism and those teaching are most times not as committed. Having said so, the profession is waxing very strong. You can see there are so many schools of journalism today. Every university, polytechnic now has a Mass Communication Department, and that attests to the popularity of the discipline. It is a wonderful course. Whether you are teaching or practising it, journalism is good and I foresee a bright future.
In spite of the bright future you mentioned, how do you reconcile the seeming poverty of practitioners in the country?
My heart bleeds each time I realise that the profession is taking a nose dive. I remember as a young academic and any time we hold conferences we used to urge the government to take appropriate measures and ensure that practitioners are properly remunerated. When they are well paid they will resist some of the temptations that come their way. We still keep praying and hoping that government will eventually begin to pay media practitioners like their counterparts elsewhere. I think some journalists in the private sector are better paid than those in government. So, it falls on those still paying peanuts as salaries to realise that the profession requires commitment and that should not be compromised at the expense of the ethics guiding the practice.
More entrepreneurs are now investing in the media. What does this portend for the industry?
That is how it is done in the advanced countries. There, people in business invest in the media as part of their business conglomerates. There are number of reasons for this: one is materialism, another is power because they want to have a dedicated medium to publicise their financial empire. Sometimes, it is a disadvantage but overall, it is also worth the investments because many a times the media arm is too weak to stand on its own so the conglomerate comes in to help. But whoever owns the media, the most important thing is to make sure you give freedom to your employees so that they can perform creditably.
Do you not think that social media is having an adverse effect on the traditional media?
It should not because that is the direction of the emerging global media. After all, journalism is for the people. There is a way of accommodating one another. Journalism is a vibrant profession. Remember when TV came they said cinema was dead. Look at the way cinema has bounced back and it is waxing strong in America, India and elsewhere. Somehow when a new wave comes, the old one might shift a little bit but eventually, they bounce back and find a way of accommodating one another.
Shouldn’t there be a way of regulating it?
I think so. They are already thinking about it in America. It should be because what sometimes appear on the Internet is scandalous. It is unregulated, it is a war out there and I think people are beginning to notice. Even those who talk about freedom are also beginning to see that there is a need to edit what is sent out for public consumption. That is why what we recommend in journalism is the social responsibility theory. You must be free as a journalist but you must also be responsible. If you can’t regulate yourself, the government will do it for you.
Some years ago you championed the cause of women journalists. Today, how would you assess their performance in this profession?
They are working hard. There are challenges. Women in our society are not yet as ‘free’ as the men to do what they can or say what they want. But they are growing. It wasn’t always as robust as it now and I have a feeling that if we keep encouraging them by not forcing them into a corner or intimidating them, they will grow stronger. Even in academia, I am hoping that soon, we will have female professors of Mass Communication. I need somebody to come up here and keep me company. Women journalists are growing. You notice that most schools of journalism have more female students than males. That means that the women are interested and we have to encourage them.
Was that the reason you used “She” rather than “He” in your books on Mass Communication?
That is a gender issue. I think the new journalism is beginning to recognise that there are women. If you call a man a woman he would not like it. The idea of addressing journalists as men came from an era when there were no women in journalism. When journalism began, it was an all-male field. Then, if you call all of them men it was right. But when you see young ladies in the profession today, you can’t keep calling them men.
As immediate past commissioner of Information and now Commissioner for Economic Planning and Budget, how would relate your experiences in the two positions?
Governor Peter Obi thought I was good at planning and for me, it is a major elevation. A lot of what I’m doing now is really communication because I came to coordinate all the donors, partners, ministries and MDAs. They all make their inputs into the budget of their ministries and then we coordinate them. A lot of communication goes into that. Also, with the MDGs it is communication that we do. So, there is a meeting point between the two ministries and you know communication is a component of everything. In Anambra State, my governor has done very well and in all honesty, we need communication, not just the information ministry. We make sure we are communicating the work we are doing and we are doing that.
Would you say journalism has served you well?
Yes it has. If I come back again, I will go back to the profession. It is a wonderful place to be.