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Ombudsman: Towards free and responsible press

By Editorial Board
20 April 2023   |   3:55 am
The establishment of the National Media Complaints Commission (NMCC), known as the National Ombudsman, is reminiscent of the Hutchins Commission in the United States of America (USA), and is a commendable effort by stakeholders in the Nigerian media to improve freedom of expression and simultaneously task media practitioners of their core responsibilities.

The establishment of the National Media Complaints Commission (NMCC), known as the National Ombudsman, is reminiscent of the Hutchins Commission in the United States of America (USA), and is a commendable effort by stakeholders in the Nigerian media to improve freedom of expression and simultaneously task media practitioners of their core responsibilities. Under the auspices of the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), the nine-man board (National Ombudsman) was set up to strengthen confidence in the mass media in Nigeria. The Hutchins Commission released its report in 1947 where it advocated a free and responsible press. It also among other recommendations urged the media to “offer a truthful, comprehensive account of the day’s event in a context which gives them meaning.”

This move by NPO though long in coming, is a welcome development, given the suspicion with which the media are viewed by the public despite great strides in its operations over the years. Within the seeds of the technological strides are also the worrying developments. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the media landscape is like an unweeded garden where things rank and gross in nature possess it merely. The NPO, comprising the Newspapers Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN) the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), facilitated the constitution of the new commission with other strategic media players and the civil society organisations, including the MacArthur Foundation.

The commission, according to a statement by the President of NPAN and NPO, Mallam Kabiru Yusuf, was a major step by the industry to strengthen public confidence in the media through the prompt resolution of issues bordering on ethical breaches in media content.
The commission members, drawn from the media, Bar, academia and civil society include Mr. Emeka Izeze, former Managing Director of Guardian Newspapers (Chairman); Mr. AB Mahmoud (SAN), former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and member of the Body of Benchers; and Prof. Chinyere Stella Okunna, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academics), Paul University, Anambra State.

Other members include Dr. Hussaini Abdu, a Development and Humanitarian Specialist and Country Director, Care International (Nigeria); Mr. Lanre Idowu, Editor-in-Chief, of Diamond Publications Limited and Founder of Diamond Awards For Media Excellence (DAME); Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda (MRA); Mrs. Dupe Ajayi-Gbadebo, a journalist, lawyer and arbitrator; Mrs. Eugenia Abu, broadcaster, author and columnist and Managing Partner/CEO, Eugenia Abu Media, and the Chair, House of Representatives Committee on Information. They are charged with restoring public confidence, which has been the role of the Ombudsman throughout modern history. The term itself originated from the Swedish legislature in the early 1800 meaning “the official investigator of citizen complaints.”

For Nigeria, an earlier attempt to resolve ethical and professional issues with the media was made by the Gowon administration when it set up the Ekineh Commission on the future of the Nigerian media. The report was never made public. Again, an attempt was made through the Nigerian Media Council Act of 1988. The present NPC is the product of the repeal of the 1988 Act to establish the NPC to “promote high professional standards for the Nigerian press, and deal with complaints emanating from members of the public about the conduct of journalists in their professional capacity or complaints emanating from the press about the conduct of persons or organisations towards the press and for other matters connected therewith.”

Despite these government-led attempts, the ombudsman function has been largely ignored both by the public and the media, for reasons connected with the stranglehold of government appointees on the council. The board of the council is headed by a chairman appointed by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and 18 other members. Thus, instead of being an independent body, critics argue that the body is tied to the apron strings of government. Historically, the relationship between governments and the press has always been that of mutual suspicion. Regulatory agencies controlled by governments are more often seen as agents poised to pocket the press and muzzle its operation. Governments, on the other hand, are weary of an adversarial press that would question its operations rather than being “partners in progress.” In that spirit, the press and CSOs refused to give needed support to NPC thereby making it a toothless bulldog.

In light of this, the NPO’s latest attempt at self-regulation is worthy of support by the media and the general public. The best form of media regulation is the one done by the media in conjunction with CSOs and other critical stakeholders outside government. Most of the time, it obviates the need for governments to interfere in the affairs of the media. Nigerian experience in recent times is a case in point. The failed social media bill, the faceoff with Twitter and fines unilaterally imposed by the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) on the broadcast media are sore points in the public domain.

We are all witnesses to the great disruptions wrought by the advent of the Internet and the social media. The explosion of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), media convergence and the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), among other developments, have put the press under new pressure. The positive developments enabled by these developments are also enormous and need to be harnessed for the development of society but this can only be done by a press that is aware, ready and poised for positive action. That press must also be free and responsible; it must be reliable and believable by the populace. The near collapse of the gate-keeping function in media operations is a grave cause for concern. Along with the democratisation of information and communication is the lingering concern for ethical conduct and high professional standards. Just about anybody with an Internet-enabled phone can pose to be a journalist even without the ethical and professional training of the real professionals.

Against this background, the need for the Ombudsman has become imperative. It is a great move for self-preservation and the enlightened self interest of the media. From the list of distinguished members, there is real hope that astounding professionalism and ethical standards can be achieved. Members must therefore discharge their duties with consummate disinterestedness. The media industry and the Nigeria populace are in high anticipation of their expected performance. The Guardian wishes them great wisdom in carrying out this much needed duty.

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