Repositioning the media to recapture valour
It is gratifying even in these austere times to learn that such issues as the changing and diversifying profile of the media, changing technologies, the explosion in newspapers and online media, the bounce-back of Northern newspapers as well as the continuing vibrancy of the media could engage the attention of a fine spread of town and gown. Gathering at the serene conveniences of Adeola Odutola Hall under the auspices of the Professorial Chair in Governance generously endowed by Oba Sikiru Adetona, the Awujale of Ijebuland, (the chair is warehoused or domiciled at the Olabisi Onabanjo University), a public lecture held recently for exploring the role, record and changing profile of the media in Nigeria’s emergent democracy. The pioneer occupant of the chair, inimitable Ayo Olukotun, a professor of Political Science, characteristically discharged his instruction creditably. Although the lecture considered the media in their amplitude of genres such as print, electronic and digital from 1999 to 2017, the lecturer focussed primarily on the print media in the mould of newspapers.
The return to civilian rule, the promulgation of the belated Freedom of Information Act, etc. will appear to have objectively provided a conducive environment under which the media in a democratic setting can thrive. Truly, these events liberalised the discursive space even though there are a number of infractions as exemplified in the intimidation of journalists, suspension of television stations, as well as harassment of media across genres, etc. This is the background to why most international rankings that produce quantitative measures of civil and political rights gave the Nigerian media the verdict of “partly free” even as their Ghanaian counterparts were rated free for the years under Olukotun’s survey. But the Nigerian media could boast of an outstanding legacy or tradition of protest dating far back into the colonial era, the anti-military struggles, etc. Buoyed by the enabling instruments of the basic law of the land, the media have been able to keep elected leaders in check, widened the democratic space and deepened civic participation.
The crusading role of Nigeria media with respect to the salutary requirement to achieve good governance, the protection and enforcement of human rights and the fostering of democratic values is the cornerstone of the media’s responsibility to society. This role is happily formally engrafted into or preserved in Chapter II, Section 22 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended. So journalists have been armed not only with the tools or custom of their trade but also with an enabling environment in the form of an objective law. The strident but gallantly fought opposition to military dictatorship in the 1990s which featured guerrilla tactics in journalism and the disturbing presence of a ubiquitous pirate radio station are eminent examples of the aluta continua credentials of the Nigerian media. This advocacy role is often at great cost even in a democratic setting as there are few identifiable differences under the jackboot of a dictatorial regime and the civilian autocrats who succeeded them.
The Obasanjo attempt to extend or elongate his tenure by another term and the vehement opposition thereto will stand as one of the spectacular highlights of the battles fought in the media in the first decade of the present civilian democracy. Despite official arm-twisting tactics and overall intimidating bearing or mien and direct assault on a number of media outfits notably, the Kano-based Freedom Radio, the media continued their campaign against the self-succession project until they shot it down or stymied the enterprise. Continuing their sentinel or watchdog role, The Guardian of January 12, 2012 in a scathing editorial lampooned the Federal Government concerning its budget estimates for foreign travels in 2012 in clear unambiguous language: “Emerging indications that ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of the Federal Government will spend a whopping N11.25 billion on foreign trips alone in the 2012 budget is deplorable, scandalous and shamefully insensitive to the state of the nation. It amounts to no more than unbridled expenditure and wastage of tax payers’ money in frivolous entertainment of a few privileged public officials under the guise of official foreign trips…”
It is important that the media maintain and enlarge their crusading and reformist mould or distil their temper with vigour even as their contemporary performance is foreshadowed by an exciting historical trajectory. Journalists must recognise that their craft or the practice thereof is inextricably leaked to society. They must abjure the general impression among their kind that journalism is made independently of the bulk of the community and that it is their business to accept things as they are without troubling themselves to rise above the morass in society or the corrupt polity. Journalists ought to take the values they canvass seriously.
There is a curious blindness to the importance or relevance of certain political institutions. It is difficult to imagine contemporary society without a vigorous media. Many people will prefer to live in or belong to society in which their government is accountable and effective, where such government delivers prescribed services in a timely and cost-effective way. But few governments are actually able to do both or either because institutions for effecting them are weak, corrupt, lacking capacity or, in some cases, absent altogether. The passion of protesters may be sufficient to bring about “Change!” but the latter will not succeed or endure without a long, costly, laborious and difficult process of institution building. This is the challenge of building a vigorous, free and unfettered media.
The future of our politics, for instance, rests not just in our brand of politics, but also on society. Our ability to deal with the challenges of governance is fostered by the growth and power of entrenched interest groups. Trade unions, banks, the organised private sector and a host of other organised lobbies often exercise an effective veto on legislation that they perceive as hurtful to their “bottom line”. The media is a great and dependable ally in efforts like this. Even as it is perfectly legitimate for citizens to defend their interests in a democracy, it is the function of the media to reflect or highlight the social realities that may be at odds with society’s legitimating principles.
The media is capable of re-setting the social agenda to conform with an agreed underlying legitimating philosophy or framework. There is no automatic mechanism by which political systems adjust themselves to changing circumstances. Institutional inertia can be jolted or confronted by a sensitive media thereby provoking a change in the status quo. In the absence of such a vigorous or sensitive media or of such powerful force that will knock the system out of its slumber or inertia, the situation will continue to worsen. This is the relevance of a vigorous and free media.
A number of drawbacks to media reformism may be named just to balance the equation regarding the proper or otherwise performance of the role of the media. The basic division of the media in Nigeria into ethnic, regional or religious lines is worrisome although counterbalanced by a fair spread of the ownership table. In spite of efforts of the media to build trans-ethnic identities, ethnicity, region and religion still remain notable divisive tendencies. Media corruption is yet another blur. Although a global phenomenon, the foible has assumed a distinctive Nigerian character. The alleged receipt by some Nigerian newspapers of slush funds through the office of the former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki, is easily the most high-profile indictment and a moral dark spot for the media regarding their professed or covenant crusading role.
Generally or overall, the performance of the media has constituted a good example of attempts at improving governance through the vigilante or oversight role of a pro-active “arm” of government. There is truly nothing more damaging to the cultivation or growth of a democratic culture than a supine, sycophantic, mendacious or grovelling press or media. It is a tribute to the adaptability of the human kind or to the indomitable nature of the human spirit that sooner or later we get used to mournful as well as to a cheerful atmosphere. How our media plodded through the fiercely debilitating period of military dictatorship or of weak-kneed or do nothing civilian regimes is an undying testimony to the valour, clear headedness or clarity of vision of the leading lights of the Fourth Estate of the Realm.
Rotimi-John, a lawyer and public affairs commentator, wrote from Abuja.