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How to curb abuse of state-owned information organs


Mohammed-CopyRECENTLY, the Minister of Information and Culture interfaces with the heads of media agencies under him. In what appears like given a direction on how they should operate, he did not only lampoon these heads of agencies, he also demanded that they must depart from the old ways of the government in power practically dominating the media space with little or nothing for the opposition parties.

Hear him, “It is true that while we were in opposition, we were treated as outcasts by these public broadcasters. They denied us the use of their platforms, they rejected our adverts and even made themselves available for the most abhorrent hate campaign ever in the history of electioneering campaign in our country.

“But in an era of change, which is our mantra, that cannot and will not continue. Opposition members are Nigerians, just like members of the ruling party. Even the ruling party will benefit when the opposition is allowed to air their views freely because you learn more from people who disagree with you. Therefore, let the ruling party and the opposition air their ideas and let the people, who wield the ultimate power, decide at the end of the day.”

Is the minister’s remark, especially his first paragraph, a statement of fact or fiction? Dr Akintunde Akanni, a Journalism teacher at the Lagos State University (LASU) said, “it is.” To the Director, International Press Centre, Mr. Lanre Arogundade, it is also a statement of fact, but Arogundade noted that what Lai Mohammed didn’t say is that opposition parties in states controlled by the APC were equally substantially denied access to state media.

On what is responsible for the conduct of public broadcasters as painted by the Minister? Akanni maintained that it is the logic of “he who pays the piper dictates the tunes. This combined with the fact that previous civilian administrations never bothered about the pedigree of those appointed to run the organizations.

On his part, Arogundade felt it is because state media have not been turned to genuine public broadcasters. “The other reason is that the legal framework establishing the state media is such that the managers are more or less errand boys and girls of Ministers and Commissioners of Information.”

As Communication scholar/expert, what theoretical proposition captures this scenario? Akanni said it readily brings to mind the communist media tradition in which the media are owned and controlled by the state. For Arogundade, the scenario is captured by the authoritarian theory of the press, where the state substantially controls the media.

On what should have been the disposition of people (who wield the ultimate power) in that kind of circumstance?Akanni said that they should have been fairly minded, but that remains a wish, but politicians want to be overbearing everywhere.

“Even this Lai’s move, I’m only wishing him well. I hope it is not sheer exhibitionism. I expect him to sound even trendier. Media space has since expanded to include the Internet. Nigeria doesn’t have any such thing as Internet policy yet. I am in the league of the campaigners for internet freedom in Africa but I haven’t seen Minister Lai buying into our vision yet even as APC and other parties are already benefitting from the ubiquity of the internet. Jonathan’s government signed on Elbit Systems of Israel to monitor Nigerians’ activities on the Internet but this government of Buhari too hasn’t announced that it has dumped that contract.”

Arogundade, however, argued that the disposition couldn’t have been different since the state media was serving their purpose.

Moving forward, are there signposts, since May 29, 2015, that the ruling party intends to walk the talk going by the Minister’s outburst: “that cannot and will not continue.”

Akanni said “We can, in future, remind him of this if he deviates. I personally applaud this stance of his. It’s a bold and promising one. However, the recent vote against the UN resolution to protect human rights defenders by this government is really disturbing and raises a very strong question mark on the disposition of this government to human rights and allied issues. How do you fight corruption and shy away from human rights violations by being indifferent to whistle blowers who, in all respects, are human rights campaigners?”

On his part, Arogundade said not until the legislative and institutional frameworks are comprehensively reviewed and Nigerians start seeing lead stories on NTA that are not about the President, Vice President and other serving officials like Ministers.

Is the media environment in Nigeria ripe enough to foster the opposition being “allowed to air ideas freely” Akanni said it is the healthy and ideal thing to do. Arogundade felt why not? He further said the profession is not without a code of ethics and the real stumbling blocks are the politicians from the biggest political parties.

Public broadcasters and Change mantra: where should the work begin? Change in leadership, reformation of policies or enforcement of existing regulations? Akanni noted that there is a particularly obnoxious provision in the law that established NTA and the
federal government owned radio stations that contradict the public broadcaster status claim. “It should be repealed. In other words, a comprehensive overhaul is inevitable if this government will convince us of its genuine commitment with this move by Minister Lai.”

For Arogundade, a comprehensive review of existing frameworks and adherence to professional standards by media professionals in the pubic media is critical. “As for the so-called ‘change mantra’ one can only say that change does not exist in vacuum, it has to be seen and felt for it to be real.”

Professor Umaru Pate of Mass Communication Department, Bayero University, Kano, stated that stakeholders should understand the background the minister is coming from, as the spokesman of the opposition party and knowing what happened at that time. “So it is understandable if he is angry with the set up. But all the same, it shows the weakness in the institutional mechanism in our system.

Pate however maintained that if the minister is really serious, he must allow the media organisations to operate based on the provision of their laws, existing guidelines and ethical provision of journalism.

“If he and his party would be able to do that and allow the independent of the media, I am sure what we experienced in the past will not happen. Again, the government must be ready to fund its media organisation efficiently otherwise they end up commercializing everything including having entertainment programmes at the detriment of real social issues.” On if Nigeria was ripe for allowing the opposition ample media space in government owned media, Pate said certainly yes.

For another Professor of Mass Communication, Chinyere Stella Okunna, the problem of partisanship has been very central in communication studies and practices. “Governments tend to control very rigidly the media they own. So if APC can do that, it would be a major achievement for their party because if you ask yourself, if you look at NTA critically or FRCN, whose voice is any of them, are they neutral?”

She said she doubts if the Minister would walk his talk because the tradition is for the government in power to dominate the media space. “Moreover, you use what you own and because the media are funded by the government, they tend to reflect the people who are funding them.”

He also suggested that those to head the media agencies should not be card-carrying members of political parties, because once they belong to a political party, there is a limit that they can be objective. “Then the regulatory agency should be up and doing.”

She also felt Nigeria is ripe for the era where opposition parties are given ample media space like government in power. “Why not; if we really work towards it. And it is easier when you have a government of unity where it is not the winner takes all.

“He was a very partisan person and the spokesman of the then opposition but if he makes the efforts and changes his attitude to politics, it is do-able and the media will follow suit. It all depends on the politicians, it is their activities that the media are reporting, if they comport themselves and are pro-peace, the media will preach peace. So a lot depends on Lai Muhammad and his team.”

Former Executive Secretary, Nigerian Press Council (NPC), Mr. Bayo Atoyebi said the statement reflects the perception of an aggrieved representative of a contestant that electoral media guidelines were not adhered to by political parties, media institutions on the one hand and the electoral umpire,media operators and regulators failed to ensure the playing field was level to all.

The “public broadcaster” not just government funded but even the individually funded who claim “independence” both failed to have their “internal fit for publishing (previewing) mechanism” work.The “neutral” regulators failed to monitor if they monitored then they failed to identify the “perceived breaches” for the purposes of regulation; to ensure all played according to the rules of the game. Furthermore, though breaches were in the public domain, nevertheless the crying bereaved also failed to take advantage of the complaints mechanism and put their complain in the public domain. This would have challenged the electoral and media regulators to act upon what they deemed to be breaches of the rules of electoral contest.

He said the scenario then was one of a “cultural shock” for the audience for the level of “personal attacks” and “prying into the privacy” of an opponent.

“Though novel to our clime, it is the consequence of importing Western PR Consultants who applied what was seen as a cultural taboo here in their campaign strategies. Elsewhere they may say its alright. ‘if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen’. But the media is a vehicle for transmitting culture. All said, we have had our baptism of fire, the next time such ‘abhorrent hate campaign’ would be less of a shock. We should either brace up for such stunts for using foreign promotional strategies or begin to set our cultural limits.

“There were hues and cries about documentaries; Documentaries are creative treatments of actualities. The media and regulators ought to have noted the “factual errors” in the context of and the extent to which they violate the rules of the game and reacted appropriately.

Changing the face of a human to a wild fierce predator may be in ‘bad taste’ culturally but was it an acceptable creative way of making a point. Be that as it may, it had its boomerang effect, as it may have won some ‘sympathy votes’ and cause many to have empathy with the one perceived to be vilified. That promotional strategy may have become a double-edged sword…cutting positively to some and quite negatively to others.”

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