Wednesday, January 27, 2016 4.07PM / OPAN Press Release
In issuing the broadside on the reportage of a ‘meeting’ between the Honourable Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Muhammed and ‘Online Publishers in Nigeria’; we appropriately responded to a “brand and trademark” issue; one that bothered on the use of the name “online publishers association” we have consistently defended.
Trite as it may seem, it is well to establish that the Online Publishers Association of Nigeria (OPAN) is all about defining and confronting critical, big picture issues that its members face when creating original digital content experiences for consumers and marketers.
OPAN is not a peer-group or a union but a dedicated entity comprising of stakeholders whose ideas, vision and focus is invested in establishing a self-regulated industry of stakeholders involved in digital publishing and best practices across the value chain, which includes journalism.
The press release however by GOCOP, an ‘association of online journalists’, titled “disregard charlatans, blackmailers posing as online publishers” and with a content designed to invoke character assassination - dripping with misrepresentations, inaccuracies, unsubstantiated allegations and personal attacks has elicited spontaneous concern and outrage from discerning publics – yet represents just another hurdle in what unfortunately appears to be a phantom, low-simmering civil war for the soul of online publishing in Nigeria.
That is not the case. This is not what we do, who we are and most certainly, not what we are about. OPAN welcomes the creation of clusters and groupings including GOCOP who affirm their aims as “promoting a reading culture, inculcating of moral/ethics of the profession and publication of events, peoples and cultures”; a notion we are not remotely opposed to and should be complementary to our objective.
At an institutional level therefore, we recognize that a public response is necessary to address the ‘scapegoating and public-baiting’ in GOCOP’s blowback; one that needs to be debunked and properly deconstructed.
To the discerning publics and stakeholders therefore, we offer two clear positions – an issue-based response on what is at stake and a public clarification and denunciation of the release.
What is at Stake?
The key issue beyond the diatribe over the years was how does Nigeria respond to the current positive disruptor that empowers and expands the boundaries of publishing, not as a fad but as a feature of social interactions permanently? How do we deliver ethical publishing in a way that it balances and protects freedoms and “free expression” without compromising “compliance with journalistic ethos and extant laws”?
It was this concern that propelled an intellectually diverse group of individuals in 2010 to go beyond the moment and understand trends in practice and convergence where we can get to a point of self-regulation based on best practice rules and practices. This grouping recognized the limitations of narrow affiliations, primordial sentiments and age-old approach to turf protection in setting up OPAN with individuals and entities that approximated its goal and guided its work between 2010 and 2015.
Our remit was never limited therefore to the base relationship of a new genre of journalism in its isolated sense but went further to link the stakeholders of this new order under a platform to help the country make the transition from a disruptor phase to an industry phase; leveraging on best practices our collaborations with and learning exposure to other climes provided.
OPAN therefore has conducted itself, in a measured manner, with heavy sacrifices from all concerned in its public engagements and funding over the years culminating in its launch in Q4 2015 at a time it felt both the research and reality where in-synch with its objectives; and this was evidenced by the groupings it invited for its launch.
OPAN has ramped up activities with engagements with the Nigerian Senate on the ‘frivolous petitions bill’ where it had a constructive meeting with the Senate President; initiated a court process on the same matter; commissioned a paper to be presented at the public hearing on the bill; written to the Federal Board of Inland Revenue for guidance on tax compliance for online publishers; agreed partnerships for digital publishing business trainings for members; and now look forward to an engagement with the Honourable Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation next month to present its case for a review of the laws as it relates to online publishing. This is what we are about.
The Specific Allegations Made
While it is not our wish to engage in unnecessary verbal altercations, a couple of themes were prominent in the GOCOP pushback against our release that requires setting the records straight.
OPAN as another group of online journalists
This could not be further from the fact. First, OPAN was mooted in 2010 (not 2001) and got its certificate of incorporation on November 14, 2011. There was no hurry to launch or engage and the association was self-funded as annual returns filed to date will show.
While it was not entirely about journalists, a low hanging fruit in an open market place where censorship was not an option (for bloggers and self-publishers) was to create awareness through research findings just as it was important, to sell benefits of membership as being beyond access to patronage – public and private.
In 2012, we received a group in our temporary secretariat and welcomed them, sharing our thoughts on what is possible including the four key issues we identified as being critical and needed to be addressed: viz:
1. The absence of laws that provided a basis for an online publishing industry business model in Nigeria beyond that which merely recognized the print media (who equally had an online presence as a matter of modern reality and business economics) in our laws but one extended to all genres (present and future) to enable genres to earn legitimately and on an equal footing;
2. The need to balance this changes with extant laws that provided the basis for proper accountability of practitioners in this new model of social interaction and engagement as it relates to responsibilities, obligations, inter-connected liabilities and standards/ethical conduct;
3. The necessary framework for linking the digital / online publishers in Nigeria with the global dynamics of a digital generation – including publishers of original content, platform owners, technology firms, value-added service providers, OEM’s, solution providers, marketing practitioners, information aggregators, value added partners like Google, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc; domain name providers, server providers, cloud technology providers, venture capitalist, private equity investors, banks etc; and
4. The deliberate promotion of niche information providers (select publishers in security, military, community policing, healthcare, education, aviation, infrastructure, social services, etc) that can help aggregate the linkage between information, technology and social development which emerging countries can rely on as it builds institutions for social change.
We stated that for a proper digital publishing industry to thrive; it must embrace stakeholders as mentioned in (3) above. Most importantly, we recognized the need for a review of the extant laws in the country that will provide the basis for online publishing to thrive. We equally informed the group that the news and information service industry as we used to know it will forever be altered and no-one can control the right to and use of information like it existed before; but we can learn from how others have managed this transition.
During this meeting, we proposed that the benchmark OPA UK, who because of its legal and business history with Nigeria offered us a learning curve and they had all the tools we needed. We also informed the team that they can additionally confer on qualified Nigerians an international status if we become an affiliate body for which we have to pay the sum of$68,000 equivalent of fees. The meeting rose with this group asking for time to consult on all they heard and revert back. This never happened but is now misrepresented as a demand. How disingenuous!
Sometime in 2013, the two individuals who visited were acknowledged in a news report as members of a new group known as Nigerian Online Publishers Association (NOPA) who had just done a launch. Our lawyers, Lawworks & Partners who brought this to our attention raised concerns with the similarity in names and OPAN gave instructions to the firm to write formally to the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) in October 2013 to clarify how similar names could be so registered; and to seek a resolution. NOPA was duly copied and notified of our concerns formally.
The CAC responded, in December 2013, that it made an ‘error’ in registering same and asked that the names submitted for registration be changed. This eventually happened in 2014 and we have never had any other issue with NOPA (now GOCOP).
As to GOCOP’s spurious allegation about the role, interference and possible influence of the CAC by persons other than OPAN, we call on the CAC as an institution to defend their institutional integrity, process and compliance rules. We have issued a formal letter to the CAC on this allegation to govern accordingly.
Orchestrated campaign against Femi Adesina, SA Media to the President
GOCOP stated that Femi Adesina is an integral part of the association, something we agree he is naturally entitled to given that this happened long before he was appointed into office. We have no issues with professionals playing a mentoring and guiding role in areas of interest.
It however remains a matter of personal discretion for Femi Adesina to decide on the perception of a potential conflict of interest and roles in the discharge of his current national responsibility as the custodian of the office of the special assistant, media & publicity to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
We continue to relate with and accord him the respect he deserves from all as a former President of the Guild of Editors, former Managing Editor of a popular title to which our member had the privilege of co-publishing with for two years and in his current role, representing us all.
This was the same approach we adopted in the case of Reuben Abati as a trustee of OPAN where we took conscious steps to acknowledge and reflect in our arms-length dealings leading up to our eventual launch in November 2015, long after he had left office and when we now had a critical mass to make changes a larger grouping required. We have no record of any engagement or involvement during his tenure.
We hold no position against Femi Adesina’s and indeed believe that professional groups should make the best use of experienced members as best as they can; subject to best ethos of corporate governance.
It is counter-productive to suggest any other inference from our release as the blowback would have the public believe. This is not an informed position on their part about the enormous challenges confronting Femi Adesina in the discharge of his responsibilities where he has his work cut out for him and needs to work with all stakeholders.
As regards the personal attacks, regurgitation of falsehoods from platforms that signpost all that is wrong with the current online journalism genre as to real and imagined members of OPAN; we wish to state that our membership does not fit the caricature painted by GOCOP.
OPAN wishes to state that individuals and members maligned are encouraged to take all legal steps to seek redress from these unproven allegations, which falls below the standard of sound journalism. The idea of scapegoating the institution by membership is nothing but an appeal to sentiments and an attempt to create an us-them dichotomy, a red herring at best.
We consider this grave and unsubstantiated allegations irresponsible and unbecoming of professionals to make without facts or evidence which is one of the major concerns of the Nigerian public subjected to poor journalistic practices premised on cyber bullying, intimidation and reputation smearing which in 2016, reflects that we still have a lot of work to do to improve standards of engagement and building trust with the public. GOCOP provides justification for those who seek to stifle free use of the digital space with such conduct as seen in recent steps to muzzle the digital space by a legislator.
GOCOP issued an open threat: “We do not intend going beyond this for now as documents in our possession will be made available to the public on the atrocities of these charlatans if they push their luck any further.” This “intimidation and resort to power flexing” does not represent best practice as we know it.
Our basic argument about actions like this is simple and unassailable: they reflect the conduct of narcissists – persons who inveigh against elites and trample on the weak and sincere to get their way. Nothing in our conduct, set up or approach to the issues at stake including our press release warranted such an undignified attack.
We will put this down to the exuberance of a few and we call on GOCOP to refocus on their aims and the state of practice to see how the current disconnect affects sound business models that includes public perception, reputation and positioning of the online publishing industry as well as that of an otherwise marginalized group of people – journalists of all genres; who they seek to serve.
Recall that in our public position to the Nigerian Senate, we surmised that: If the Senate is really interested in providing national interest governance over the use of the internet or electronic communication, as indicated in Sections 3 and 4 of the proposed Bill (bearing in mind the cybercrimes bill of 2014), there are other areas of intervention that can be in public interest such as ensuring that online publishers enjoy the same business opportunities open to print media (publication of audited accounts, change of name, public notices and other legal publishing requirements), address gaps in our laws relating to copyright/intellectual property, anonymity/pseudonymity regulation, editorial rules compliance, obscenity, privacy, child and sex pornography, pedophilia, cyber bullying, threats, online harassment, competition rules etc.
Perpetuating the old order of pushing the terror of the pen as was done in the past cannot work and will not be a way to manage the enormous challenges facing Nigeria (and the Nigerian media and publishing industry), where we now have a unique opportunity for online platforms to offer ‘quick wins’ as one of the sectors of growth.
We encourage the public, some of whom have been victims of narcissist type encounters with online publications to rest in the belief that a new dawn will emerge form all this where laws that aggregates this new social order with the laws of the land will berth a new industry devoid of such releases. We believe there is a space for group learning for all involved in this ‘disruptor phase’ and it will be won at the level of ideas unfettered from patronage and motives.
We re-iterate our position that the generic use of the word “Online Publishers Association in Nigeria” is a trademark and corporate identity issue for which we are invested in and will continually defend. What GOCOP and other similar interest groups can do is to focus on building trust and value with the public to help us all align reality with the law such that concrete steps are taken to recognize the role, place and value of online publishing in our extant laws.
OPAN is benchmarked against Online Publishers internationally where online publishing has since expanded both its scope, objective, membership and terminology to embrace the new age thinking on digital publishing. Let the records therefore reflect that no comparison with, or ambiguity about what OPAN stands for exists. Thank you.