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Sustaining democratic culture, lessons Nigeria can learn from US media

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After the Capitol riots Leah Millis/Reuters

From tomorrow, January 20, 2021, the American media will begin to breath an air of freedom — That open, peaceful dialogue and the free flow of information, which are vital for every society to thrive — which they lost during the administration of President Donald Trump.

Though the media, no doubt, has contributed greatly to the sustenance of democratic culture in the US, in the last few years, US journalists faced Trump’s challenge. President Trump had declared war on American media, describing it as a disgrace. Journalists who dare to challenge the Trump narrative were frequently attacked as “enemies of the American people” and repeatedly mocked on social media.

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The fabric of press freedom in the US was frayed and weakened by political stigmatisation of journalists and cries of “fake news” by Trump. His well-documented attacks on the news media emboldened and energised media organisations to double-down on probing investigations, incisive analysis and up-to-the-minute auditing of everything from alleged Russian election interference to the While House Easter egg roll.

With daily hard-hitting stories from media outlets ranging from the New York Times to CNN, it is tempting not to conclude that the Fourth Estate and the public that depends on it weathered Trump rather well.

Many have argued that the Nigerian media should learn that culture of tenacity of purpose, which sustained the opposition against Trump. They noted that what happened in the US these past four years is a signed that media can triumph in the face of harrassment, stigmatisation and violation of rights.

According to the Acting Head, Department, Mass Communication, University of Lagos, Adepoju Tejumaye, who is an associate professor, the Nigerian media landscape is crippled as a result of underdevelopment and thus may not be able to achieve the same thing as the US media.

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He said so many things are still at the infancy stage of “development in our clime. In our clime, we have what we call media influencers. We are talking about owners of the media and friends of the owners, so what we have in our clime is that either the owner of the media is a politician or friend of politician. At the end of the day, what will happen is that the same owners of media houses are government contractors or friends of the government.”

Some state governors, he noted, also set up media houses, “you don’t expect objectivity in such situation. But in the US, you have individuals who own media houses, who don’t have affiliation with the government. Religion is also part of it.”

At a forum some months back, Tejumaye said, “the problem of the media is deeply rooted in our culture not until the electorate is ready to go about merit system. In our system, we believe n the spoilt system than the merit system. And the spoilt system does not do anybody any good.”

Making reference to CNN, he said the medium is anti-Trump but most of their coverage is objective. In this part of the world, if you are objective, you may end up being sacked.”

He said media literacy is also key. To him, if Nigerians were media literate, they’d be able to distinguish falsehood from truth. “And if we do that regularly, any media house carrying falsehood will be off the market, but a lot of Nigerians cannot distinguish falsehood from the truth.”

Veteran Journalist, Ray Ekpu, observed that in the US, institutions like the media, security agencies and electoral systems are strong and that keep their democracy strong.

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“America is not a country of persons; it is a country of strong institutions. When Trump was living in denial, American institutions were ready for it. Whether Trump was ready to leave or not, the institutions were ready to leave him behind and preserve America’s democracy. That is the way a country ought to work.”

He argued that impunity and lawlessness should not be condoned. “The people that invaded our National Assembly a few years ago and took the mace away, have they been tried or convicted? Donald Trump cannot say he will not hand over. But someone in Nigeria can say, I will not hand over, I control the military, I control the police,” he said.

Programmes Director, Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Ayodele Longe, said some Nigerian media houses are suffering backlash for holding government official accountable because in Nigeria “we have systems and institutions, which ought to hold government officials to account but are impotent. Rather it is individuals in these institutions that are strong. In Western democracies, the reverse is the case; they have very strong systems and institutions, which are able to hold serving government officials to account for their actions and inaction, including the President.”

He observed that in Nigeria, there is a belief that appointees’ loyalty is to their principals and not the nation, which is wrong, insisting that this is what is fuelling a lot of the impunity in government. “Public servants and government officials read the lips and actions of their principals and act to satisfy them because if they don’t, they will be shown the way out and the system is such that they are not protected. So the backlash on media houses that don’t dance to the tunes of government is as a result of weak and impotent institutions and systems.”

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Conclusively, he added that some people say the breach of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 and the subsequent banning of Trump’s account by the big tech giants including Twitter and Facebook are attacks on freedom of expression. “They forget that President Trump went overboard to incite an insurrection against the government and that much of the incitement took place or was amplified online on these platforms. Five persons died as a result of the invasion of the Capitol. Don’t forget that no freedom is absolute, including the right to freedom of expression. The tech companies took down Trumps’ account to prevent further breakdown of law and order.”

Similarly, renowned media scholar and Oba Sikiru Kayode Adetona Professorial Chair in Governance, Political Science Department, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ogun State, Prof. Ayo Olukotun, said a section of the media has been incorporated, adding that journalists now act as Chief Press Secretary or Special Advisers to public office holders. “So, the watchdog role has been diluted. Now media practitioners also join political parties whether formally or informally.”

Olukotun said that the media should also align with civil societies because they cannot fight the battle alone. “In their agenda setting role and responsibilities they should carry along civil societies institutions along. They should also employ the power of persistence. We should not forget the media was extremely powerful under the military. There was the underground media like Radio Kudirat, Tempo, Tell and so on. Though there is difference between the military and democracy, nonetheless the media can still re-ignite the watchdog role it once played.”

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