He is a towering media figure in Nigeria, a brilliant, hardworking, fearless, fecund and honest mind who believes firmly in the power of investigative journalism. Femi Akintunde Johnson, famously called ‘FAJ’ across Africa’s most populous black nation on earth is a role model in all ramifications for any media practitioner. In this interview, FAJ decides to break his long silence to answer flurry of questions regarding: Appraisal of Nigerian Journalists performance under the incumbent administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, adventure into journalism, how Fame Weekly Magazine reigned as Nigeria’s leader in Celebrity/entertainment and Society reporting; his relationship with Mayor Akinpelu, Kunle Bakare (two top media personalities in Nigeria) and much more…
How will you rate the performance of the Nigerian press under the present democracy?
I would say commendable… within the context of the prevailing economic challenges that have restrained print runs, sales and advertising budgets, the Nigerian Press has continued to perform at the height commensurate to their relative capacities. Some have been outstandingly consistent, some have improved in quality and distribution; of course, some have had to downsize, or even suspend operation, and focus only on their online versions. One can say the past decade has been challenging for the press, but they have sustained the pressure, maintained some level of professionalism, and acquitted themselves as the voice of the voiceless fairly well.
Will you say the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has emasculated the press or offered freedom to the press to operate?
Well, I don’t see acts of emasculation in any way disturbingly obvious… There’s relative freedom of expression in that columnists still lambast acts and officials of governments…many of our editorial materials are critical of government policies as best as they can…there have not been draconian reactions, or overt repressive actions from the Federal Government. Rather, it’s the little known state government officials, and political actors in concert with the police, on a number of instances, that have arrested, detained and terrorized journalists for vexatious articles, reporting and filming news activities. A case in point is Jones Abiri in Bayelsa, or Jonathan Ugbal in Calabar; Agba Jalingo has been in detention as a consequence of alleged complaints of the Cross River State governor…we remember the Kano State house of Assembly face-off with the journalist that exposed the dollar-bribe allegation… Actions of our security officials in cohorts with well-positioned Nigerians should engage the urgent and considerate attention of the Federal Government in establishing an atmosphere of mutual respect and security of life, for media practitioners to thrive.
Couple of days ago, Omoyele Sowore, owner of Sahara Reporters, convener for Revolution NOW movement was released from Nigeria’s State Security (DSS) custody. Will you agree that international pressure from United States of America lawmakers, unstopped legal representation from Attorney Femi Falana led to Sowore’s release?
I strongly doubt that the agitation of few American legislators made the release of Sowore and Dasuki possible. I have no fancy explanations to underscore the true reason for their release…but I don’t believe the American angle.
Recently, Punch Newspaper in its editorial described Nigeria’s incumbent president as a ‘General’ , his government as ‘regime’…do you agree?
I can only say I read the newspaper’s opinion, and believe it’s right to hold such stance, and sustain a frankly constitutional role of speaking truth to power. On the other hand, as the spokesman of the President said, the fact of that stance, and Punch’s capacity to reiterate that stance, against all odds, and yet flourishing in its operations and business, is a clear testament to the regime’s respect for freedom of expression and free speech. Of course, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
You pioneered investigative journalism in Nigeria and has been a role model to millions of Nigerian journalists. Can you take us into your adventure into journalism in Nigeria?
I think you’re too generous in characterizing my contributions to Nigerian journalism. Well, I’ve always loved journalism right from my secondary school’s press club activities… Even while at the University of Jos where I studied English & Literary Studies (1983-87), I tried to freelance for The Guardian newspaper, ThisWeek magazine, etc. It was a struggle, often frustrating but I was never deterred. Upon completion of National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, in 1988, I made for The Guardian with my mentor, Mr. Ben Tomoloju on the most powerful Arts Desk in Nigeria. It didn’t work out as I expected. He however introduced me to his colleague in The Punch, Mr. Ademola Osinubi… and my sojourn in full-time journalism began. Punch was a great place to learn the ropes – it was frenetic, completely engaging and tremendously exhilarating. I got involved in one page or the other almost on each day’s edition. It was in Punch I got introduced to Entertainment. It was also in Punch I got my first award.
Then came stints as deputy editor in revitalising Climax magazine. About a year after, my friends (Mayor Akinpelu and Kunle Bakare) and I started Fame Weekly magazine. We hit a spectacular patch…it was perhaps the busiest and most joyous period of my professional life. After six years, came time for National Encomium magazine… four years thereafter, the New Treasure arose…and the rest is history.
Many also regard you as the ‘godfather of Journalism in the soft-sell genre. How true is that?
I don’t know much about “god-fathering soft-sell”, as I know some people who were way ahead of me in what I prefer to call general-interest journalism…people we looked up to professionally, like Mr. Muyiwa Adetiba, Mr. Ladi Ayodeji, Mr. Fola Arogundade, Azuka Jebose Molokwu, Hakeem Ikandu, and few others. I believe one was just graced by God to be in the right place, with the right mix of people, and little capacity to express one’s industry and resourcefulness. So, some people may feel all right calling me “godfather” of this or that, I personally dare not fall into such delusion.
What was your secret behind the unmatched success story of the then FAME Weekly magazine?
It has to be the basic premise that the three of us had started carving a larger than usual image amongst Nigerian readers as one of the best in Entertainment reporting (FAJ), Celebrity reporting (KB) and Society reporting (Mayor) pooling talents and resources to create one magazine! Then added to that mixture was youthful exuberance, incredibly demanding work ethics, self-sacrifying devotion…and then, it was the right time, I suspect. However, beyond all that is the grace of God.
You and Kunle Bakare (KB) outstandingly brought National Encomium in its formative stage to Nigeria’s national limelight. So, why did you finally move to higher media challenges to leave the publication in the hands of Bakare?
After stabilizing Encomium, 1997 to 2001, it was time to do something else… A magazine where no one could complain of being misquoted – an interview magazine. It was too overwhelming a dream to let go… So, we moved on… to start New Treasure.
Tell us about your lectures at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism?
Very interesting. I teach PGD students a semester on a course called Topical Issues In Mass Communication, with Celebrity Journalism being the keystone. We discuss issues around the excesses and diminishing factors involved in the practice of lifestyle or general interest reporting in Nigeria, and sundry regenerative measures now available in a digital world. We also dance around the sad reality of the paucity of reading or historical materials on the genesis of entertainment or celebrity reporting in Nigeria. The most exciting thing for me is the enthusiasm of the students to cover the huge chasm of ignorance or misunderstanding that gape at them about what the Nigerian media was between the 1980s and 2000s, especially when the lecturer was an active participant and notable presence within the practice and foibles of those decades.
So far, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself, and I must not forget to thank the Provost, Mr. Gbemiga Ogunleye for the unique opportunity, and his deputy, Dr. Jide Johnson and other academic staff, for the support and encouragement to function as an associate lecturer in Nigeria’s premier journalism institute.
Can you tell us the highpoint of your journalism career in Nigeria?
Every opportunity to start a new publication…from ideation, to graphic representation, to organic structuring, to development and execution…these processes have always been tremendously satisfying for me… When I tried, with little luck, to change the direction of Climax…when we sat in KB’s dad’s house in Ijeshatedo to craft and conjure a tabloid never seen before in Nigeria (FAME)… to the spontaneous and chaotic emergence of Encomium… to the deliberate and painstaking realignment of focus in Treasure…to the imagination and innovation invested in the birthing of the first National Mirror (I was invited by Prince Emeka Obasi)… I have had an incredibly gratifying and successful romance with Nigerian journalism…and long may it persevere.
Do you see yourself starting another print media publication soon in Nigeria?
Well, I’ve got to a point where I’m no longer in control of my future…if I’m graced with any opportunity to be part of a major media operation, I will give it a good and long thought, and if all boxes are ticked, and I’m led to flow along that line, I will not deny myself the joy of sharing and contributing as best as I can.
What is your message to aspiring journalists and how can good news stories be done without such being a fake report?
Everyone aspiring to be a journalist ought to understand that this practice thrives on trust, integrity, diligence, accuracy, competence, consistency, abiding interest in public good, etc. You will only succeed if your flair or skill is deepened in determination and hunger to faithfully and relentlessly abide by these values I’ve mentioned above.
So, when you’re guided by values bigger than your stomach or greed or self-delusion, more often than not, you’ll turn out a good and successful journalist. All the best. Culled from: Naija Standard Newspaper