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Extremities and public spaces in a season of denial

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ed. Ayo Olukotun

A review of Watchdogs or captured media? A study of the role of the media in Nigeria’s emergent democracy, 1999-2016, ed. Ayo Olukotun (Lagos: Diamond Publications, 2018), 448 pages)

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.”


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