By Sam Akpe
When the Ray Ekpu Prize for Investigative Journalism was instituted in July 2021, I was one of the few people who doubted whether a clear winner would emerge at its first outing. I even suggested, silently, that the execution of the award should be delayed till 2022. I had my reasons.
First, my scepticism stemmed from the fact that journalism in Nigeria has, in recent times, unfortunately, moved from purposeful investigations to mere run-of-the-mill reporting. Worse still, with the advent of a misnomer called citizen journalism, which is simply an embellished gossip by another name, news, instead of being reported, are manufactured or cooked up by quacks who have invaded the business.
Under this scenario, my genuine concern was whether the people tasked with the execution of the award would not settle for something rather too inferior just to ensure that a winner emerged. I considered that my colleagues operating within the jurisdiction of the award, would not be ready for the competition in 2021. I guess I was wrong.
Second, I also considered that the integrity of the award could be rubbished if it were given to an unqualified winner in an attempt to meet the deadline. Our man Ray Ekpu, symbolises quality in several fronts. In journalism, he ranks among the best anywhere. Therefore, giving the award to an incompetent winner would be amount to devaluing the person in whose name the award was instituted.
I also thought of Udom Inoyo—the man who voluntarily instituted the award in honour of Uncle Ray. I recall what he told journalists on the day he unfolded the Prize in Uyo at the Press Centre: “…let me draw your attention to one more thing which you can do for yourselves, and by extension, society. It is called differentiation. Many self-styled journalists may be doing damage to this noble profession. You must help separate the wheat from the chaff so that the integrity of journalism remains undiluted.”
I thought of how he would feel if a “chaff” and not the “wheat” were to win the award. Someone told me that the former ExxonMobil Chief had thought of being a journalist when he left the University. Thank God he changed his mind. I can only imagine his regrets by now if he had chosen that path. That’s a story for another day!
Udom, without doubt, was compelled to institute the award based on his lifetime admiration of Uncle Ray; whose professional integrity remains unquestionable. Over the years, he said Ray has engaged in investigative reporting and sound journalism in ways that have contributed to the growth and development of the Nigerian nation.
The award therefore is meant to inspire young reporters towards aspiring to become another Ray Ekpu—a tested, unblemished symbol of quality, bold and truthful reporting. Udom chose, in his wisdom, to limit the award, which carries a N500, 000 prize, to journalism practitioners in Akwa Ibom State.
In my last analysis on this award, shortly after the panel of judges was announced, I suggested that it would be better not to have a winner than to have an unqualified winner. But then, after taking a look at those who formed the panel, I was relatively convinced that nothing would deliberately go wrong; and that professionalism would be allowed to overshadow every other consideration.
About two months ago, the award committee came public with its guidelines and identities of members. My confidence soared further. Nsikak Essien, the chairman of the panel, came ready-made for the job. He had edited the defunct Business Concord—a paper noted for quality contents and professional handling. He was later moved to edit the National Concord, all owned by the late M. K. O. Abiola. Both publications died when the owner passed on under questionable circumstances; while in detention.
The panel also has Kayode Komolafe; a fine professional and a columnist with Thisday newspaper; Akpandem James, former managing director of Independent Newspaper; Akwa Ibom State Chairman of the Nigerian Union of Journalists, Amos Etuk, Professor Ini Uko of the University of Uyo; and Mrs Emem Nkereuwem, from Inoyo Toro Foundation.
Some aspects of the guidelines put forward by the Committee stated that each entry for the award would be assessed based on depth of investigation; conformity with the ideals of journalistic excellence; style and language of presentation; its contribution to good governance in public office; and its impact on the fight against corruption and impunity.
Other criteria are: contribution of the report to national unity and ethnic cohesion in the state; promotion of human and individual rights; its relevance to the fight against societal ills like rape and girl child abuse; efforts to check poverty and abuse of the environment; and attempts to check drug abuse, cultism and general insecurity.
Let’s get something clear here. The award is for investigative journalism. That means, I can pick any issue of interest as long as the facts are undeniable. My report must also have depth and conform with the ideals of sound journalism. By stating that the report must be impactful on the fight against corruption, rape, girl child abuse, check poverty and abuse of environment sounds like attempt at compartmentalising the issues that could win the Prize!
The clarification offered by the chairman of the award committee for excluding submissions by online media reporters in the 2021 entries was quite clear though unacceptable. I still believe it was an embarrassing mistake. The good news is that the Committee found a winner without compromising standards.
On December 10, Nsikak announced the winner of the award in the following words: “May I on behalf of the members of the Committee thank all stakeholders in journalism practice in Akwa Ibom state for this opportunity to contribute to the effective delivery on the professional mandate.
“We are particularly grateful to the Inoyo Toro Foundation which instituted this award in honor of Mr. Ray Ekpu, our own poster boy in good journalism and the most decorated journalist from Akwa Ibom state.
“The Committee called for entries for the pioneer edition of the award from all media genres except online media. The online media were excluded in the maiden edition because we wanted more information on their Akwa Ibom State based media practitioners on this platform. From next year practitioners on the online media platform will be considered for the award.
“At the close of acceptance of entries, the Committee received 18 entries only. The distribution stood at: Radio, none; Television, none; Print media, 17; Online media; one.
“In order to hopefully expand the volume of entries and hence enrich journalism practice in the state, the mandate of the Committee has been expanded by the Inoyo Toro Foundation to include collaboration in hosting workshops and seminars on investigative journalism. We have already secured commitments from three institutions for collaboration next year.
“Beginning from next year there will be consolation prizes for first and second runners up. We have equally secured commitment on this from a very reputable corporate house.
“All entries were scored on the following criteria: relevance of subject; authenticity of investigative work; depth of investigation; presentation and language; and impact on society and democracy.
“The winning entry is: Akwa Ibom Governor, SSG in Multibillion Naira Scandal,
published in the November 17-23, 2020 edition of The Mail newspaper. The report was authored by Ekemini Simon and Abasifreke Effiong.
“By the powers conferred on me as the Chairman of the Committee, I declare Ekemini Simon and Abasifreke Effiong as the joint winners of the 2020/2021 maiden edition of the Ray Ekpu Prize for Investigative Journalism.”
That was it. Winners finally emerged. A standard has been set. I congratulate the Committee on some key aspects. First, it refused to bend the rules. I am aware of situations that would have caused that to happen. Second, by finding a local, hitherto unknown weekly newspaper fit for the big prize, a message has been sent that excellence does not necessarily need to wear national colours.
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said in a lecture in 1871 that “If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbour, even if he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” The Mail has just fulfilled that prophesy. Henceforth, people would pay more attention to whatever The Mail publishes.
The Committee has also initiated certain moves that would turn the award into something bigger than what Udom dreamt of. The moment workshops on investigative reporting are mounted with the aim of improving quality of reporting, in terms of ethical standards and depth of presentation, then this Committee would have succeeded tremendously.
For instituting this award, Udom Inoyo has made a historic move towards reinventing and enriching journalism practice, not just in Akwa Ibom State, but in Nigeria. He has ignited an intellectually creative and rewarding competition for something in the mould of the Pulitzer or even the Nobel Prize. Ray Ekpu Prize for Investigative Journalism is a visionary initiative that should be well-applauded and sustained.
Sam Akpe, Journalist, writes from Abuja