Ibim Seminitary, Former Senior Journalist with Newswatch Magazine, Tell Magazine and Immediate Past Commissioner for Information in Rivers State spoke with Seye Joseph at the recent Biennial Conference of Nigerian Guild of Editors in Lagos on her journey to the journalism profession and how she served River State as the Commission for Information.
You were a journalist, former Commissioner for Information in an oil rich state in the country; do you think you have gotten to the peak of your career?
The peak of my career as a journalist is being an editor, being a commissioner for information is not a career path for me. It is foray; it gave me a chance to contribute what I have gathered in my career to the public service. My greatest joy is the fact that I was able to rise to become an editor and to become a publisher. Interestingly, being a publisher does not mean you have gotten to the peak of your career. I am proud of where God has taken me to.
How did you feel when your name was announced as the Commissioner of Information in River State?
For me it was not a decision I took very easily, at that time my magazine was just two years old, my son, the baby of the house was just nine years old. My husband and I as a matter of policy have never left the path from each other so I have full concentration. When all your life investment is in a publication, it difficult to just walk away because when you are not there you cannot guarantee what whoever is there will do with do with your business, that is on a one side, another part is that I have never had the idea of working for government is all about, I have in the media and civil society so I all knew was to holding government accountable. I can recall when the governor made the offer to me; I called my dad and asked him if I should take the job, he said to me that I have worked with the private sector but public service. Public sector will help you in your private and business. He said to me that you have been to the pinnacle of your career but you have never done anything to your people. So when he gave me the two considerations, I taught of considering the offer. So I feel at that time, I was very careful to accepting the offer; the other thing for me was that it was a question of service and I asked myself would I be able to serve in a manner that will make to be ethical. I could remember that I told my boss that I could take this offer on the atmosphere that allows me to practice what I preach and would encourage that this government run on open government policy approach because I am an advocate of freedom of expression and access to information and therefore I would unable to work in government that does not subscribe to access to information.
How was the journey like for you being the commissioner of one of the most controversial governors in the country?
It was very stressful, I will confess to you. When I resume as the commissioner, my main concern were issue of professionalism in the state owned media houses. You have a situation where government owned media houses were not meant to be professional or profitable. The information officer I met at the Ministry of Information almost tie me to a clue as to what news was, so my take was that as a ministry of information if you don’t understand news how can you then ensure you push out the news to the people, so we have to deal with the challenge of mindset and value orientation. I must confess it was obvious task. After doing value orientation, I created core values for the ministry, core values for different agencies under the ministry. We had management retreat and try to get the management to come up with laudable ideas that could improve the ministry. We got new equipment for the state newspaper, changed the editorial policy of the newspaper to make it more acceptable newspaper for people of River state so we created a concept of community journalism and made them to have multiple platforms. We equipped Garden City Radio, digitized it. We got new digital equipment for Radio River. We put in place open government policy, we did a rebranding project. Don’t forget that I became a commissioner when the state was seen as a state of militants and I have to battle to change the perspective that the state is a state of responsible citizens that are willing to work. We changed the logo, made it a destination choice for people and it came back to its proper positioning.
Managing the image of governor Amaechi that most people think he is a controversial governor, how were you able to do that?
Let me correct this wrong impression that most people make, the Commission of Information doesn’t manage the image of the governor, it is the job of the Chief Press Secretary to manage the image of the governor. However, the governor is part of the big picture of the main stream of the Ministry of Information of interpreting the program and policy of government. The governor is the first person when it comes churning out the programs of the state. The ministry has the responsibility to explain what the governor is saying at different points in time.
Before you went into the public service, what are the things do you think governor Amaechi sees in you that could have made him to invite you to be the Commissioner of Information in the state?
Honestly, I think you are going to meet governor Amaechi to explain that to you because I don’t also know. I was only doing my business; I did not lobby or impress anybody for the position.
Are you a hardworking person?
You have to be a hardworking person to be a good journalist. I am a fairly good journalist. I don’t think one can excel if he or she is not a hardworking journalist. I work in hard news so it a big work. When I started as a journalist, the hard news department was dominated by men. As a female reporter, if you really want to go far you have to work twice as hard as the men to make good impact because it is what the men has filled. Part of my greatest joy is the professional award I have received and i think you don’t just seat down to win award.
In the practice of journalism, what do you think are the things missing in the profession?
Oh help me God! As a matter of fact, I don’t recognize the profession anymore, I ask myself how we got here because of what some young journalists do, I scream sometimes. I can say it very proudly and I can beat my chest that no one can say I finish an interview with him or her and waited for a kobo from them. I remember when I was with Newswatch to interview a sculptor in Surulere on the job he just did for First Bank. All I had with me was 5 Naira for my transport fare. After finishing the interview on the Sunday afternoon, he gave me 50 Naira and I declined though I did not have enough money with me at that time but I declined it. When I got to the office on the next day, I did my job and took an “I Owe You” from the company. After that, I made up my mind that nothing will make me to request anything from anybody before doing my job. With the “I Owe You” that I got, I took 10 Naira out of it and stated a small business where I was supplying fried meet to shops along Ikorodu Road on my way to work.
What Year was that?
Would you want to be a Commissioner again?
I just pass the baton to you.
Would you want me to go through what you went through also?
Yes! Because if you want to do it right, you will make many enemies. In a society where people still don’t trust government information so it a lot of hard work to make them believe in government programs and policies. Your integrity and credibility is always on the line. Also colleagues in the media industry always have high expectation, I scream sometimes when journalists ask for some requests because they thing everything is rosy.