Last week, the Edo State Governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki said his administration will privatize the state-owned Nigerian Observer newspaper and Edo Broadcasting Service (EBS). His reason is that the state media outfits were not self-sustaining. This was at the annual public lecture series organized by the Correspondents’ Chapel, Edo State council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) as a reaction to a request by the State Chairman of the NUJ, Sir Roland Osakue, who urged the governor to reconsider the plan to do away with media outfits.
But with all due respect to our beloved Governor, I hold a contrary view to this move for the very obvious reasons, not because I was the immediate past chairman of the Board of Directors of the Bendel Newspaper Company Limited, publishers of the Observer titles even as my friend and colleague in the pen fraternity, Hon. Josef Omorotionwan held sway as Chair of the Board of Edo Broadcasting Service (EBS), but because of my love for our governor and my unflinching loyalty to our party, the All Progressives Congress, APC and by extension to our Governor, who by the grace of God is the leader of the party today in Edo State.
Going down memory lane, it will be important to draw some lessons from where we are coming from with both media houses and what they have come to represent in our contemporary world. The then Midwest Newspapers Corporation, now Bendel Newspapers Company Limited, publishers of the Observer titles was established by Dr. Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia as a child of necessity in May 29, 1968. The newspaper was published as document for daily circulation that would inform the public on the activities of government of the then Midwest State, educate as well as provide a forum for a two way communication to get feedback from citizens at the grassroots.
In all fairness, the founder of the newspaper and then Governor of Midwest, Colonel Samuel Ogbemudia, even though a military officer, demonstrated his penchant for a free press, which is the hallmark and essential ingredient of democratic society. He observed that “if the publication is to discharge its sacred functions effectively and efficiently too, it should be free from government control as to what it should write or not write, it should also be free to criticise any aspect of government policy which it considers worthy of criticism in public. He gave the management and staff of the newspaper house free hand to operate a free press and provided all the resources needed to make it the flagship among its contemporaries. Little wonder the NUJ observer chapel instituted an annual Samuel Ogbemudia Forum even before his death, an honour he cherished so much before he took his glorious bow from mother earth.
Ditto for the State broadcast outfit which was established by same Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia as Midwest Broadcasting Service, later Bendel Broadcasting Service (BBS) and with the bifurcation of Bendel into Edo and Delta States, it became known as Edo Broadcasting Service (EBS).
But we must give it to all those who have been working in the company all these years. In spite of the numerous challenges they face, The Nigerian Observer has defiled all odds to still be on the newsstand till date.
Most government newspapers that were established within the same period have since gone into extinction. The Observer still comes out every day, compulsorily. Though its area of coverage and the daily circulation are limited, it still meets its obligation of informing and educating its public.
In the past, the Observer was reckoned with in the country, as it competed and outshone many other government-owned newspapers of its generation. Granted that the newspaper is leveraging on the euphoria of its past glory to still operate today, it renders some unquantifiable services to government that should be sustained.
Everyone knows that in those days, the newspaper was read all over the country, but at the moment its coverage is restricted to the state and its environs and sometimes circulated in certain areas of the Federal Capital Territory.
Despite the difficulties faced by media houses in the country in terms of replacement of obsolete machines and acquiring newsprint, the management ensures that the newspaper is printed daily.
The truth remains that for the newspaper to operate optimally, most of its current challenges needs to be frontally addressed.
Major challenges facing the newspaper include: obsolete machines and absence of newsprint in large quantity as well as shortage of some categories of staff. If these problems are addressed adequately and a good newspaper marketing strategy is put in place, the Observer will bounce back to increase its print runs and circulation which is what government direly needs.
The truth be said. Since the bifurcation of Bendel, it was only the administration of Governor Lucky Igbinedion that made conscious effort to revive the Observer and EBS. At that time the newspaper improved in its operations and circulation, even the commercial printing press received a boost. Other Governors after him didn’t sustain that effort let alone improve on his own. The consequence was the reduction of the State Government media outfits to what they are today.
When the immediate past administration of Comrade Adams Oshiomhole contemplated privatizing the observer, some notable Leaders: Oba Erediauwa and Dr. Samuel Ogbemudia were amongst those who prevailed on him not to privatize it for the obvious reasons that even the government needs the Observer and EBS.
Although Governor Obaseki is looking at the issue from a business perspective, as he was quoted as saying: “Government has no business in some of these businesses. If the media outfits cannot run by themselves, I have no option because I cannot take money meant for the renovation of primary schools and other infrastructures to service them.” But methinks the issue is not just business, it is also highly political. From next year, Nigeria will move again into another rounds of electioneering campaigns and my beloved Governor Obaseki and the APC cannot rely on private media alone for the task ahead. The Observer and EBS would be needed as government media to complement whatever the private media outfits would offer.
Even though Ogbemudia who established the paper gave free hands to the workers to operate freely, he knew that the newspaper and EBS needed to also market the activities of government. So, even though it was self-sustaining on establishment, it was still one hundred percent owned by government.
Besides, experience of privatization of government assets in the country such as PHCN, NITEL and even the Public Private Partnership of Bendel Brewery have all left sour taste in the tongues of citizens.
What I propose government should do is to retool the Observer. Government should procure for it brand new four web colour newspaper printing machine, circulation vehicles, brand new machines for the Commercial printing press. It should also procure state- of -the art computers for the outfits and employ competent hands to man them. It should buy some tonnes of newsprints and stockpile for daily production.
Also, the EBS Studios should equally be digitalized and its sub-stations revamped and government can then give management of both media organisations some Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) targets to meet monthly based on the investments. Kano State Government recently realised that it made a costly mistake to allow the state newspaper, The Chronicle to go down, it has recently began reviving the newspaper. Delta which started The Pointer Newspaper and had to rebrand it recently under Emmanuel Uduaghan. But none of these can compare with the Observer.
Government should also be prepared to use its powers to get its Ministries, Departments and Agencies to patronise the observer both for the newspaper services and commercial printing press. The Observer printing press was printing sensitive materials such as certificates of Higher Institutions of learning and other security materials. It was also printing examination question papers and answer sheets, books and important documentaries for members of the society and government in all its operations.
However, worthy of note is the fact that despite current challenges, the staff are as good as their contemporaries in the industry. Many big names we have today in the Guardian, Vanguard, Thisday, Nation, The SUN cut their teeth in the Observer. Many of the big names in NTA, AIT, Silver bird, Radio Nigeria and others cut their teeth in the EBS.
The start point is for the Governor to send some consultants to carry out an independent Organizational Capacity Assessment (OCA) or better still rely on the report prepared by Professor Julius Ihonvbere when he was Secretary to Edo State Government. Ihonvbere visited the Observer and EBS and made recommendations to the Edo State Governor which was not implemented. The report and recommendations could give Mr. Governor a clue on how to proceed with the task of repositioning the Observer and EBS for greater productivity while they remain 100 per cent Edo State Government media outfits, instead of privatization. The Governor should equally carry out consultations on this issue going forward.