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Extremities and public spaces in a season of denial

By Adigun Agbaje
16 August 2018   |   2:49 am
This book has established for itself the status of a tour de force in the study of political communication in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic not only because it is the first to pay serious and detailed attention to the ethical foundations of the politics, economics, sociology, law, structure and institutional culture of key elements...

This book has established for itself the status of a tour de force in the study of political communication in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic not only because it is the first to pay serious and detailed attention to the ethical foundations of the politics, economics, sociology, law, structure and institutional culture of key elements of the Nigerian media landscape (newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and online news sites) and their larger contexts in that troubled Republic that held so much promise of development, peace and democracy but has so far delivered more of the opposite. I quickly make this point upfront to underscore the unparalleled profile in excellence of those who contributed to the making of the book and the high quality of the outcome of their labour, and dispel any doubt that may arise about my professional and academic capacity to dispassionately review a book in which virtually every contributor, along with the editor (Ayo Olukotun) and publisher (Lanre Idowu), are my friends and colleagues in media practice and scholarship over a period of several decades on the average and many decades in instances. Thus, I disclose my ethical status and establish my credentials as reviewer of the book.

A critical challenge for the book is to lay to rest the ghosts of living in denial of the known and unknown that have come to characterize the soul of our Republic and often create in our minds unnecessary simplifications of images of our experience as a people in the form of antonyms and “black or white” (good versus evil) scenarios that have little to do with reality and hamper our capacities to think through meaningful strategies and actions to address that reality. Does it rise to this challenge? Yes; the book is a tour de force. And yes, its title also appears to me to have fallen victim of our tendency to see Nigeria in dualistic version, overemphasizing our dire straits while underemphasizing redeeming elements of our good practices, thus providing a reading of our lives that is more simplified than appropriately complexified (to use a word coined by my respected late colleague, Abubakar Momoh, who always weighed in on the side of complexification on matters of public and not-so-public life in Nigeria).

In a sense, the title of the book, obviously meant to present its very lucid contents in bold relief and thus attract debates, ends up doing some injustice to the book itself, and I will come back to this point later. For now, it is important to focus on details of the book as laid out in its 447 pages and 13 substantive chapters minus a perceptive if brief preface and competent introduction, succinctly crafted by the editor, and a seminal foreword put together by the most prolific scholar in African History, our own Toyin Falola of the University of Texas at Austin.

The purpose of this volume, along with the Big Puzzle that it seeks to unravel and the value it seeks to add to media practice and scholarship, is made clear in the opening pages by both Olukotun and Falola. According to Olukotun, the book seeks to establish the degree to which the Nigerian media (specifically the print, electronic, and digital variants) in the Fourth Republic “had kept the traditions of a watchdog media alive or whether it had been captured by the political class through the familiar spoil-sharing arrangement, which characterize much of Nigerian politics.”

In Falola’s words, the purport of the book is to answer a basic question. As he puts it, “the guiding narrative of the book is one of power and responsibility: if, as it is assumed, that the media is tasked with shaping society and curbing the excesses of those in leadership positions, how successful has it been? This is an important question as it relates to the conceptual balance of power in society, an informed citizenry, and critical opinions. And, as to the specific years in focus – 1999-2016, the Nigerian Fourth Republic, the period following long interlude of military rule – the connection of the media to which democracy was both critical and crucial”.
I also agree with much of what Falola considers as the book’s contributions to media practice and theory. According to him, the book has initiated a dialogue among media professionals and scholars, drawing as it has from the vast experience of leading mainstream journalists, writers, human rights activists, teachers and professors of journalism, other scholars, and editors. It has also offered comparative insights on its subject from Ghana, Kenya and South Africa. It has captured tensions in state-media relations, along with challenges on pathways to reform of relevant spaces and institutions while highlighting unfolding improvements and innovations in practice, process, platforms and technology.

The substantive chapters address their topics in authoritative and detailed manners not fully captured by the book’s title. For instance, chapter one by the widely regarded Christian Ogbondah provides a detailed analysis of how state-media relations have provided constraints on media freedom in the specific terrains of constitutional and legal provisions and extra-legal actions, including financial constraints and other obstacles of unethical practices internal to media organizations. The chapter directly queries the extent to which Nigeria could be described as an emergent democracy as indicated in the book’s title, and comes closer to my own understanding that, rather than marching toward democracy, there are in fact indications that Nigeria has been marching away from democracy, engaging more in democratism, indicative of a tendency by the ruling elite to use the appearances and symbols of democracy to subvert democracy. I will come back to this issue later.

Chapter two, authored by Edaetan Ojo, offers the most authoritative account yet of the eventually successful 18-year struggle (1993-2011) for the enactment of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The struggle was spearheaded by key elements of civil society with Mr. Ojo’s Media Rights Agenda providing technical support for the struggle while it lasted. That it took another 12 years into the Fourth Republic after the end of military rule for the Act to be passed speaks volumes about the “democratic” credentials of the Republic’s post-military leaders. The Chapter is rich with details of the manoeuvrings that finally led to the Act, patterns of recourse to the Act by the media, the frustrations that have attended such recourse, and ends with a cautious assessment of the prospects of the Act for media practice that ends on a note that “the media have a lot of work to do in monitoring compliance” of “all public institutions and private bodies covered by the Act” to obligations under the Act.

Chapter three by Lanre Idowu, who has literally invested his entire life monitoring media practice and encouraging best practices by the media in Nigeria through his Media Review and other platforms, is again most authoritative not only in its treatment of corruption in the media but also in its marshaling of data and insights on the media as actor and theatre in what he describes as the disorder called corruption and the wider ecology and lexicon in which the disorder plays out in the Republic. It details how widespread the practice is, but also points out exceptions to the general rule at both industry and organizational and personal levels to underscore a point often not fully appreciated that there is nothing inevitable or natural to/in corruption in the Nigerian media irrespective of the very harsh economic and political environment in which the media operate. He competently ends the chapter with a revealing list of factors predisposing to corruption and steps that can be taken in addressing them.

Between them, Ayo Olukotun’s chapter four and chapter five by Lai Oso and Tunde Akanni respectively address the changing economic, technological and ownership landscape of the media as well as the digital public sphere in a country that aspires to democracy. These issues are central to the determination of the nature of the public sphere in the contemporary world, and the two chapters masterfully interrogate them in the larger context of the mandate of the book.

Olukotun underscores the emerging geography of media failure in the midst of general vibrancy, highlighting the differential role in this regard of courage reflected in critical investigative content (largely negative to media health and survival) and ties to politicians (largely indicative of survival of media houses), given what he calls “the instability and the shoestring nature of media enterprise and the hand to mouth journalistic culture” that raises the cost of advocacy for the media.

On their own part, Oso and Akanni provide commendable insights into the relatively new terrain of online news platforms in Nigeria, including the phenomenon of citizen journalist, outlining the potentials for good (for instance, further liberalizing the media landscape and making it more interactive) and for ill (fake news, and the attenuation of divisiveness). On the latter, a critical element of Nigeria’s landscape, they quote a viewpoint (from the noted columnist, Adebayo Williams) of the media in general to the effect that “it is curious that for a nation of normally voluble and verbally talented people, we seldom hold genuine dialogue among ourselves.

Threats, recrimination, diatribes, infantile tirades, hate-suffused ethnic propaganda and summary state clampdown have become the currency of personal and group exchanges as well as the denominator of national dialogue. They end their chapter that weds reality to the theory of the public sphere by the celebrated Jurgen Habermas, with a warning that “the public sphere must not just be spaces for ethnic, religious and oppositional politics. This has been the main bane of the conventional media in Nigeria. The digital public sphere must be rescued from going that way”.

Chapters six and seven address matters relating to the electronic media. In a chapter (Six) of impressive range and intensity, Oluyinka Esan addresses the place of television in what she appropriately describes as Nigeria’s democratic aspirations, thereby in my view capturing the reality of Nigeria’s democratic status. She situates the Nigerian experience in the broader global and historical contexts, commending the increase in television stations, platforms, organizational structures, programme designs, as well as more participatory, instant real time, inclusive and innovative use of technology even as she notes the limiting factor of inadequate public infrastructure. Ownership pattern is equally important, with private interests, although occasionally partisan, now dominating the landscape unlike up to the 1980s and part of the 1990s when government ownership was prevalent. Even then, the point needs to be made that while Nigerian experience has shown that government ownership of media has translated often into government control, there are other African experiences in which this has not automatically been the case.

On the whole, she underscores how television “helps viewers to see, imagine, and re-imagine” society, contributing “to building the informed citizenship required to make informed decisions”. Overall, this is what she has to say about the state of the medium: “Changes in television’s landscape are most encouraging. There is a commitment to interpreting current events, attempts to predict the future, and guide the plans for same. Although it is not yet ideal, television does frame the democratic culture and supports Nigeria’s democratic aspirations.”

Funke-Treasure Durodola’s incisive discussion of the talk radio’s potentials and achievements as a democratic tool for citizen engagement in Chapter Seven reflects her outstanding experience in radio broadcasting, including being the first female journalist to manage an all-news radio station in the Radio Nigeria Network. Proceeding from the established fact that radio is the dominant medium and source of information in Nigeria (and I dare add, in much of Africa), she provides a rich narrative of the evolution of the radio in Nigeria, up to the Fourth republic proliferation and domination of the air waves by private stations (some owned by people with partisan interests) with talk shows in English and local languages enthusiastically and widely subscribed to by the people. She notes that although some radio stations and talk show hosts are becoming increasingly partisan, such shows are “helping citizens to make meaning of political developments and issues; and creating a deliberative democracy.”

Thus, according to her, “journalists cannot become silent for fear of criticising a government they support. To do so is to abandon their watchdog role in society.” Specific attention is understandably paid to the role of the media in ethno-religious conflicts in two chapters (Chapters Eight and Nine).

In Chapter Eight, against a backdrop of the ethics of the media’s role and functions in conflict reporting and a consideration of diversities in interests and in reporting, Nathaniel Danjibo offers a perspective from his field of peace and conflict studies, drawn from seven case studies of media coverage of such conflicts, two of them with international connections. That perspective scores the media above average but also notes constraints in this regard such as inadequate welfare for journalists, media ownership, ethno-cultural and religious biases, as well as inadequate investment in investigative journalism.

In Chapter Nine, Ayo Olukotun and Margaret Ayo Jesuminure provide interesting data on ownership and location of major media houses, selected cases of ethno-religious violence in the period 1999-2012, as well as a timeline of incidents of violence specific to herdsmen-farmer clashes in the period 2012-2016. They note that while there is no evidence that the media directly incite violence, they do adopt positions once violence breaks out, engaging in what is called “enemy framing” of issues. They then proceed to make recommendations for diversity training, enhancement of professional standards, more focus on objective reporting rather than opinionated journalism.

The next three chapters (10, 11 and 12) provide insights from the comparative experiences of African countries, namely, Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa. The Kenyan case highlights government’s recourse to sophisticated, “silent” but effective process of emasculating the media in spite of the robustness of the constitutional, legal and institutional frames for media behaviour. The author, Peter Kimani, notes further, however, that investments in the technology sector have led to an empowered citizenry and helped to reorganize the way news is sourced and disseminated, particularly through mobile telephony. According to him, “this, it is safe to predict, is the next news frontier, and start-ups and other fringe news portals are likely to problematize power relations between media barons and the state, and provoke reassessment in the way censorship is/will be exercised in the near future”.

Writing on the Ghana experience of the media as watchdog, Kwame Karikari shows that the conditions for the media to exercise the level of independence and freedom required for them to perform that role exist in Ghana, but the media’s performance in this regard is adjudged by even industry stakeholders as falling far short of what is possible and necessary. Such a self-assessment, according to him, suggests that in spite of the favourable environment, the generality of the Ghanaian media lack what media scholar Curran calls the “disciplined moral passion, hard work and intelligence” and “robust independence” required for the media to perform the role of watchdog in a democracy.

Chapter 12 by Abiodun Salawu and Kayode Eesuola rounds off the book’s comparative section with a report on the media and elections in Nigeria and Ghana. It offers a succinct political history of the two countries against the backdrop of scholarly writing on the relationship between the media and politics/democracy and then caps it all with a focus on its subject. The chapter ends on the note that, in regard of elections, the media in both countries “are indeed watchdogs, not captured”.

The book’s concluding chapter offers a retrospective and prospective look on the fortunes of the Nigerian media in the Fourth Republic in terms of the original question that the book set out to answer: watchdog, or captured? Here, Ayo Olukotun, editor of the book, does an admirable job of putting together the matters arising from the various chapters to revisit the performance debate, an activity that appears to have led him away from the imagery suggested in the book’s title toward a more complex assessment. Although made in regard of the specific subject of media corruption, I take editorial license to generalise his conclusion to read that “the media and their performance cannot be fixed” into one extremely beautiful/positive group of watchdogs contrasted with another extremely ugly/negative group of the captured, indicating that “it is difficult to uphold a verdict that the media have become a captured institution”. The chapter further note exceptions at the corporate levels to such generally held views of the media as corrupt, and unable to pay living wages. It goes on to show how, despite the broad inability of the media to fully reenact its “magnificent” role against military rule, “the flames of daring and investigative journalism continue to flicker now and again” in the Fourth Republic.

Thus, in the face of compelling evidence from excellent studies of cases, issues and events, this important book concludes appropriately on a note that its core mandate to examine the extent to which the media have evinced the elements of either watchdog or that of capture has not been as unambiguous as originally conceptualized. In the face of overwhelming evidence, the mandate has led to ambiguous, mixed and therefore more realistic results, showing that between watchdog and capture is a continuum rather than a disconnected choice of antonyms as options. Such a continuum operates at several levels of practice and of analyses, from the level of individual media professionals to that of their unions at the level of beats/units/specializations and at broader levels, from corporate levels to industry level, from issue to issue, event to event, country to country, and time to time. This realization offers a more complex template for seeking appropriate recommendations for practice, policy, and scholarship that neither simplifies such enterprise nor seeks to apply solutions crafted from one experience indiscriminately to different contexts.

It could, for instance, be counterproductive to engage in the training of Nigerian journalists on the ethical foundations of the watchdog role of the media with tool kits developed from the United States experience not only because the contexts are broadly different but also because of the fact that even the Americans are still trying to grapple with the challenges of not only fashioning out appropriate ethical frames for their own media but also because Americans do not appear to have arrived at substantive consensus on the ethics of media work.

For instance, the view generally identified with much of media mainstream in the United States is that the construction and pursuit of professional and ethical codes must be contextualized (see Ferre 2008: 164-166). Thus, while media professionals in the European tradition tend to be more readily disposed to mobilization to support and promote campaigns for freedoms of expression for political opposition and the broad spectrum of the media, those in the American tradition tend to be swayed more by the argument that the mainstream media and their journalists should not be too active in political and social struggles.

As indicated above, cases from the United States underscore the extent to which perception of media professional and ethical codes differ even within a single country, and from one media establishment to the other (Ferre 2008: 164-166). A classic example of the latter was captured in a study of codes of ethics in 33 media organizations commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors whose findings included many disparities among the media houses on the boundaries of the acceptable and the unacceptable on such matters as plagiarism, whether or not gifts, including sponsored trips, should be accepted in exchange for publishing a story, standards of privacy for public figures and private citizens, contributions to political campaigns or membership of political parties by journalists, the extent and importance of distancing “the interests of the newsroom from the advertising department,” journalists in private media establishments drawing stipends from government for working in support of domestic and foreign policy goals of government, as well as the correction of errors in published content (Ferre 2008).

Ethical considerations in the quality of election reportage in the United States, a gold standard of conduct for many countries, including Nigeria, also continue to attract attention. It has, for instance, been observed over the years that voters have become the central victim of election campaign reportage that focuses on trivia and is basically “substanceless – when it hasn’t been deliberately deceptive.” Such reportage prefers to define standards for attracting media and electability in terms of personalities over and above campaign ideas, and privileges event-driven reportage over and above issue-based reportage ”(Alterman 2012: 12).

Also at the centre of current concern is a creeping process of commoditization and corporatization (Editors 2002) of media fare, including election reportage. All this has been complemented by the incursion of elements of public relations practice into journalism, raising questions in regard of media morality and creating a “Catch-22” situation for journalists wants to stick to professionalism even at the risk of losing privileged access to news sources. Matters of loyalty to “clients,” adoption by journalists of such traditional public relations practices as “front groups,” essentially involving the “manufacturing” of news, and “astroturfing,”involving schemes to “manufacture” or generate grassroots support, have slowly but steadily seeped into journalism practice, and especially so into election reportage.

The paragraphs above underscore the point that ethical debates and practices around the world in regard of the role of the media in bringing about, consolidating or sustaining democracy remain largely contested and unsettled, and are often shaped by specific contexts. That, of course, is not to state that, in the realm of aspirations and ideals, ethical issues should not be stated in absolute terms. They should be. In the realm of practice, however, we have to continue to debate and valorize the boundaries of the possible and seek ways to approximate the ideal in all its positive prescription while finding ways to reduce the negative stumbling blocks on our path in this regard at various levels from individuals to corporate organisations to the national and international terrains.

As former editor of The Guardian, Mr. Martins Oloja, who was present at the public presentation of Watchdogs or captured Media, recently put it (Oloja 2018:13), “proprietors of news media firms in Nigeria should brace up for serious public service journalism in the coming months. 2019 is too important to be left to the vagaries of citizen journalism alone.”

For now, we are stuck with a “Republic” officially committed to democracy, labeled an “emergent democracy” since its beginning almost two decades ago while all along being literally led away from democracy by its political elite. In effect, the “Republic” has largely been characterized by the use of the appearances, symbols and language of democracy to subvert democracy (democratism), complemented by the use of the appearances, symbols and appurtenances of regular elections (electoralism) to subvert the substantive dimensions of meaningful elections, leading to a whole regime of recession signposted by democratic, electoral, institutional, infrastructural, ethical, moral, federal and leadership recession, and a rampart growth in the culture of impunity and the weakening of the sinews of restraint in public and private life.

I believe that Ayo Olukotun and his team have, with Watchdogs or Captured Media?, ensured that soon, Nigerians will start talking again with renewed vigour on the complexities of the role of the media in the difficult terrain described above – and that would, indeed, be a good thing.

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