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‘Why media should promote civility in national discourse’

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Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo. PHOTO: Twitter/Nigeriagov

Keynote address by his Excellency, the Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, GCON, at ‘an afternoon of tributes for departed media leaders’ organized by the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) and the Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria (BON), held on Friday, May 21, 2021 at the MUSON Centre, Lagos. 

Let me begin by stating how privileged I am to be here at this unique gathering to honour the memory of recently departed leaders in the media. The roll call of these leading lights that have left us is a truly impressive one and it can be said without exaggeration that eternity has claimed a rich harvest. These men were remarkable and outstanding — giants of their craft in every right. While we recognise that their exit leaves a significant vacuum, this gathering serves a threefold purpose.

It is at once a celebration of their lives and the illustrious tradition to which they belonged, a reflection on their legacies and an affirmation of the great values for which they stood.

The Nigerian press has deep roots going back about 150 years. Indeed, it came into existence before Nigeria itself, and was instrumental to the birthing of this nation. The pantheon of the heroes of free speech as an institution to which our honorees belong is rich. Several luminaries of the anti-colonial and nationalist movement were also leading figures in the press. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ernest Ikoli, Anthony Enahoro and Herbert Macaulay first established themselves as journalists of repute. Indeed, at one point, Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo controlled five and ten newspapers respectively.

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Considering its origins as a bastion of the nationalist struggle, it is not surprising that relations between the Nigerian press and the Nigerian state were largely adversarial in the years after we gained our independence from the British. This dynamic was accentuated by the succession of military dictatorships that seized power following the collapse of the First Republic in 1966.

Since military rule is defined mainly by the abbreviation of civil liberties and in particular the right to freedom of expression, the press found itself on the opposite side of a confrontation with the military regimes of that era. The apogee of the tensions between the press and the military in the 1970s was the nationalisation of the Daily Times. Those with long memories will remember the 1970s as the era in which Gbolabo Ogunsanwo and Eddie Aderinokun came into their own as editors of the Sunday Times and Daily Express respectively. Both of these giants held court as two of the most respected journalists and public commentators of their time.

Who can forget Ogunsanwo’s interventions on the Joseph Tarka-Godwin Daboh affair; the cement importation scandal or Cement Armada; Kuku-TOS Benson tango etc.

Eddie Aderinokun was exceptional, an accomplished poet, Ebony on Snow, Dance of the Vulture and the prescient Dark Days are Here. He was one of the earliest and most influential promoters of Nigerian music and entertainment.

Broadcast journalism also had its shining exemplars of professional excellence. Thus, the late Ben Egbuna was the golden voice of the Network News of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) in the 1980s and 1990s that guided the nation through a turbulent period.  A 40-year veteran of the broadcast industry, he would serve as news director of the Voice of Nigeria (VoN) and rise to be the Director General of the FRCN and also serve as the president of the African Union of Broadcasters. But what will live long in our memories is the rich texture of his voice interpreting national events for millions of Nigerians for nearly two decades.

And there was also in that era another iconic figure Bisi Lawrence, a.k.a Uncle Bizlaw, whose multifaceted career saw him write a hugely popular long-running column in Vanguard, serve as General Manager of Radio, Lagos, from where he midwifed the establishment of Lagos Television, which pioneered 24-hour broadcasting in Nigeria.

He also earned acclaim as a seasoned sports administrator. Having begun his career at the Nigeria Broadcasting Service (NBS), the precursor to FRCN, Bizlaw’s remarkable footprint of excellence spanned radio, television and print journalism, as well as sports administration.

In the illiberal and hostile climate of the 1980s and 1990s, many journalists took to the front lines of civil society’s struggle against tyranny at great risk to their personal wellbeing and safety, using their publications to advocate for democracy. Many of you in this room and your absent colleagues are veterans of that period and paid the price of voluntary deprivation, imprisonment, exile and in some cases the ultimate price.

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Mallam Ismaila Isa, for example, who served as president of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) from 1995 to 2002 — possibly the darkest era in the life of the Nigerian media — was right in the trenches at the time rallying the press corps against official censorship of the press.  There are many stories of how he helped many news publications to stay alive in difficult times.

That we have a democracy today owes in large part to the sacrifices of the media, of those of you gathered here and those that have departed. These are sacrifices that should never be forgotten.

As I said earlier, your departed colleagues were true giants of their craft whose significance in public life loomed larger than their chosen vocations might have indicated. Alhaji Lateef Jakande is best remembered now for serving with great distinction as the first elected Governor of Lagos between 1979 and 1983. But even before then he had an accomplished career, as a journalist that started in 1949 from the Daily Service and led him in 1953 to join the Nigerian Tribune where he rose to become Editor-in-Chief. He was also the first President of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, (NPAN).

Tony Momoh was an authentic Prince of Auchi, Edo State. He was the 165th child of King Momoh I of Auchi. (The king had ‘just 257 children). Momoh’s personal battle for press freedom earned him a place in the constitutional annals of Nigeria in the famous case of Tony Momoh and the Senate. Joseph Wayas, former Senate President, summoned him to appear before the chamber over an ‘uncomplimentary’ and ‘contemptuous’ publication. The Senate sought to compel him to disclose his source of information. Momoh sued the Senate at the Lagos High Court over what he described as an attempt to infringe on press freedom in the country.

Momoh argued that a journalist had the constitutional obligation to hold the government accountable at all times and that this duty would be jeopardized if he had to disclose his sources. The High Court agreed that an individual had the right to refuse to disclose their source of information.

However, an appellate court, overruled the high court holding that the 1979 Constitution did not shield a journalist from disclosing his source of information. Momoh went on to become one of founding fathers of the APC.

Sam Nda-Isaiah was also another media icon whose path led from journalism to politics. Though originally a pharmacist, what earned Sam national acclaim were his forthright and uncompromising columns, first in the Daily Trust and then in the Leadership, the paper he founded in 2004. And he carried that principled forthright disposition into politics. In the years before and after his presidential bid in 2015, he established himself firmly as one of the most principled voices in the media.

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One remarkable attribute of the luminaries we are celebrating today is the wide-ranging nature of their careers. Their vocational pursuits cut across the public and the private sectors and they scaled impressive heights of accomplishment in both domains. I have in mind a gentleman like Mallam Wada Maida who served as Chief Press Secretary to President Muhammadu Buhari back when he was Head of State. He went on to serve as Editor-in-Chief of the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN, between 1985 and 1994 before becoming the Agency’s Managing Director in 1994. He would go on to co-found the Daily Trust and was Chairman of the Board of NAN until his passage. Such was his work ethic that he was at work right until his last day on earth.

I am gratified that members of the media profession are honouring the memory of their departed colleagues. There is a great need to memorialise those who have gone before us and ensure that their words and deeds are kept aflame as a guiding light for successive generations, especially so that the young Turks grasp the significance of the tradition to which they belong.

I have gone to these lengths in exploring history because the true character of an institution and the true weight of its calling is revealed by its past – by its trajectory through time. At times, it may seem that the media and the government are mortal foes, but the occasionally turbulent nature of our relationship is part of the natural creative tension between our institutions arising from our differing mandates. Those of us who govern must do so with the understanding that power is a public trust and it is your calling as journalists to invigilate us and hold us accountable. I urge you to continue to do so relentlessly, fairly and unapologetically. When we are both true to our respective callings, our democracy is strengthened.

However, there is a reason the media is described as the Fourth Estate of the Realm. In terms of the sheer ability to influence hearts and minds and direct the public imagination, no other institution comes close to its power. You can shape how people think and you can interpret reality in a way that animates our most constructive public-spirited instincts or in a way that summons our darkest and most destructive impulses. You have the power to elevate public debate in a way that no other institution can.

It is said that journalism is the first rough draft of history. It is true that reportage shapes the perception and understanding of events. It shapes memories. And because of all this, it can influence behaviour. There are arguably no bigger influencers than those who report and interpret the world to us. This is considerable power and it comes with responsibility.

And I emphasize this because we are at yet another defining moment in history. The age of technology revolution. Where, once the dissemination of news was the preserve of states and corporations, the information revolution has completely democratised the media environment. The very meaning of the term ‘media owner’ has changed and no longer refers to people with your profile. In this era of citizen journalism, everyone now has a voice whether through blogs, websites, online publications and podcasts.

The democratisation of information unleashed by the information age has also introduced related risks with implications for economic and sociopolitical stability. Individuals and private interests now control means of information dissemination that were once the exclusive preserve of corporations and governments.

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These capabilities are increasingly used in all sorts of maligning ways by those that harbour ill-intent. Fake news is being trafficked on a scale that is capable of warping the perception of reality by huge numbers of people and inducing social conflict.

I believe that media leaders must use the  considerable influence you have to seek ways of achieving a consensus on the responsible use of social media. But that is a matter for a much fuller discussion. For the moment, these developments converge with this period of turbulence in the life of our nation, there is really only one question that matters – are we building up our country or are we tearing her down? This is a question that we must ask ourselves in every sphere of endeavour. It is the plumb line with which history will judge our generation. Because there is really only one divide at this point. It is the line between those who are committed to constructive action and those who are pursuing a destructive course.

Our country is not perfect and we all know this. But the cure for her imperfections is most certainly neither destruction nor a heedless descent into anarchy being promoted by some voices. We all have a share in the much needed work of rebuilding, redesigning, reforming and healing our nation.

Creating commonality of purpose in ethnically and culturally diverse societies is challenging the world over. However, nation building is not the sole preserve of politicians and governments; in fact, it is just as much a task for civil society of which the media is an important member.

The giants we are celebrating today understood that journalism operates in a social context and cannot be value-neutral.  This same cognitive commitment is incumbent upon all media practitioners. We are at a time in our national odyssey in which retailers of discord and merchants of strife are working assiduously against our collective potential as a people.

Among the powers of the press is the ability to amplify and drown out voices. Media practitioners have a responsibility to exercise discernment in their deployment of their platforms. In this regard, we must ask ourselves whether we are empowering and amplifying the most insensate, intemperate and incendiary voices in our midst, while marginalising voices of reason. It is true that freedom of expression is enshrined in our constitution, but we all agree that society, progress and order depend upon the responsible exercise of freedom, otherwise the end result will be anarchy.

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As we struggle to build our nation with the bricks of mutuality, plurality and tolerance, I would suggest that those of us that stand, as gatekeepers in the fourth estate must demonstrate a greater awareness of the sensibilities and sensitivities of our society. Debates over our country’s future will always be intense and passionate, but they need not be toxic or polarising. The media can help to promote a climate of civility in which even the most contentious national issues can be discussed in full and frank terms without degenerating into chaos. Let us reject the temptation to fracture our society and chose instead to elevate those constructive elements in our midst that can promote justice, healing and togetherness.

The media has been at the forefront of all our epochal struggles from the fight against colonialism to the struggle to entrench democracy. A third struggle is now underway. It is the quest to deepen democracy and to realise our collective possibilities as a just, prosperous and progressive nation. I remain unyielding in my belief that we have a common destiny and that we, the constituents of this nation, are stronger together. I believe that all of us have a stake in advancing the cause of justice, equity and progress. This is a task that is incumbent on all of us.

The media leaders in whose name and memory we have gathered today are giants precisely because they understood the struggles of their times and embraced their roles in them. In so doing, they wrote their names in gold and remain reference points for succeeding generations. Today, we too must embrace the quest before us, make common cause with progressive nation-builders across all divides, take ownership of our country and build a sustainable future for our children.

Finally, let me commend NPO and BON, who conceived of a memorial of such taste and magnitude. Among our people, there is a common saying that the care or loyalty demonstrated by those championing our cause when we are long gone is far more genuine than the obsequiousness of those engaged in ‘eye-service’ when we are still in a position to pay back.

For this, let me therefore salute the exemplary leadership exhibited by NPO and BON. With this, you have really lived up to expectation as the ultimate custodian of the finest of Nigeria’s own media tradition. Well done.

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