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Electoral contest and curbing uneven access to media space

By Niyi Bello (Abuja Bureau Chief)
09 December 2018   |   4:19 am
As campaigns kick off for the 2019 general elections, there are allegations that democratic institutions may be compromised...

Ishaq Modibbo-Kawu

As campaigns kick off for the 2019 general elections, there are allegations that democratic institutions may be compromised and that the ruling party was planning to tamper with the media space against the opposition.

As one of the pillars of representative governance saddled with task of information dissemination, which in itself enables the electorate to make informed decision, the media plays a very significant role especially in reportage of electioneering campaigns, balloting and post-election management.

The media has therefore become a potent instrument in the hands of politicians not only to sway public opinion and set agenda, but also for destructive politics and spread of wrong information by politicians who seek to control it. Sometimes, operators become overzealous and at outside their brief to shut out opposition elements.

And because the media has been used in the past to encourage violence by inciting the population against some set of politicians, distort truths and cause general chaos, like it occurred during the political disturbances in earlier Republics, Nigeria’s electoral guidelines and regulatory and professional bodies have in place sets of rules to control media engagements to prevent descent into anarchy. Another issue is one-sided access and absence of level-playing field for all.

It is not unusual to find the media becoming a major subject of discussion at the approach of every election as both the government and the opposition, would want to engage it for the promotion of selfish political agenda, rather than general good.

It will be recalled that both the Radio and Television arms of state-controlled Broadcasting Service of Ekiti State (BSES) were closed down by Federal authorities in the wake of last July governorship election, when former governor Ayodele Fayose, against the regulations guiding announcement of election result, made a live broadcast declaring his Deputy and candidate of his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Olusola Eleka, as winner of the poll at a time collation of returns was still ongoing.

Although many commentators regarded the action of the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) in the closure of Ekiti broadcast media high-handedness of an institution under control of Federal Government and All Progressives Congress (APC) against government of opposition party. Others saw Fayose’s action as illegal and an attempt to short-circuit the system, and the arguments quickly showed that management of media space during the period of election is a very sensitive issue that requires patriotism on the part of all.

And with the unbridled social media platform contributing large chunk of unverified news into the media space, management of information flow has become an Herculean task, making the Executive Secretary of Nigerian Press Council (NPC), Nnamdi Njemanze to declare at a workshop on “Responsible Media Coverage of Elections” held in Akure, Ondo State capital that “the Electoral Act had clearly spelt out guidelines for coverage and reportage of elections, which must be obeyed by journalists to avoid overheating the polity.”

With another round of elections fast approaching and the polity getting heated by political activities, media management and control has therefore provoked expected controversy as opposition parties accuse the ruling APC of attempts to shut them out and gag free press.

Last week, some stakeholders alleged that advertising agencies were getting reluctant to take media briefs from the opposition for fear of a backlash from the ruling party, a situation they described as detrimental to the country’s democracy.

They further accused the Federal Government and the APC of engaging in blackmail and threats of closure to dissuade the free press from making their platforms available for the opposition while government-controlled outfits that are supposed to be held by the authorities in public trust are allegedly being coerced to toe lines of partisanship and outright denial for opposition use.

About three days after the allegations were put in the public domain, even while government was yet to respond to them, there were reports that the country’s official television network, the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), refused to broadcast a live programme linked to Atiku Abubakar, former Vice President and presidential candidate of the major opposition platform, after the required fees had been charged and paid.

The programme, organised by the American University of Nigeria (AUN) owned by Atiku, had in attendance all the major personalities that are opposed to the continuation of the APC administration at the federal level.

The roll call was impressive, from former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan to Senate President Bukola Saraki and other opposition politicians, the gathering was one that the ruling party would not ordinarily be comfortable with.

While the PDP, in a press release by its Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, pointed to the development as an example of the ruling party’s tactics to gag the press and shut out the opposition, the management of the NTA made a feeble attempt to blame technical hitches for the non-live coverage.

The impression that was effectively created in the public consciousness was that the Federal Government may have directed all the media outlets under its control to shut out the opposition, a development that is not new in the country’s political firmament.

As if that was not enough, penultimate Tuesday in Port-Harcourt during the opening of the 71st General Assembly of BON, presidential candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), Oby Ezekwesili, while opposing the riot act being read by the organization against media outlets, was reported to have been interrupted by the General Manager of a Television Station owned by an APC state in what the fiery former Minister described as an attempt to cow her as she was making a point in support of free press.

While reacting to warnings handed down by both the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Muhammed and Director-General of National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Ishaq Modibbo-Kawu to media houses, Ezekwesili was quoted to have said: “You are threatening to shut down broadcasting stations. This cannot happen in a democracy that we fought hard to attain. Patriotism is to support government when it deserves it and to support the people at all times.
Anything that can be a hanging threat against the media must be rejected.”

Although the two scenarios and others may have portrayed the Federal Government as against press freedom or desirous of closing the media space against the opposition, Lai Muhammed said nothing could be farther from the truth as the Muhammadu Buhari administration only wanted sanity in the country’s media management.

Speaking during an exclusive encounter with The Guardian in Abuja last Thursday, the Minister said opposition parties, particularly the PDP, was only trying to hold on to any straw to present the ruling APC in a bad light to Nigerians.

He said allegations that the media is being gagged against the opposition “is absolute bunkum and irresponsible on the part of those making it.

“I will start first with the Yola issue. The NTA never entered any contract with Atiku Campaign Organisation. On the contrary, it was the authority of the American University of Nigeria (AUN) that approached the NTA for a live coverage of their Founders’ Day and the station went the extra mile to mobilise their outside broadcast (OB) Van from Jos to Yola hours before the programme started.

“But unfortunately when the event started the equipment in Abuja failed to receive the signal from Yola and every attempt by the Engineers to rectify it failed until towards the middle of the programme. They felt that they should not start live streaming in the middle and they decided, and professionally too, that as soon as it is over, they would now beam it which they did for three hours uninterrupted and unedited. That is a professional thing to do.

“In any event, I have been a victim of that before in town hall meetings where the equipment would simply fail. Mr. President has also been a victim of that. Many times at programmes where the president is attending, there have been technical problems that engineers were not able to resolve and the event would be broadcast later.

“You see, it is like the PDP would hold to any straw today to make this government look bad. The truth of the matter is, if anybody is saying this government is closing the media space, they should give us one tangible example.”

But as the country marches towards the election, it is certain that the battle in the media space will get more intense as politicians on both sides of the divides would attempt not only to take control but also to whip up public sentiments by dishing out misinformation, while regulatory agencies would find it increasingly difficult to act without bias.