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‘Nigeria media environment not free of government interference yet’

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Prof. Umaru Pate

World Press Freedom Day has been celebrated globally on May 3 since the famous Windhoek, Namibia, Declaration of 1991 to reawaken government of commitment to press freedom. The yearly event also enables media professionals to re-evaluate issues around press freedom and ethics. With the theme of this year’s celebration as, “Information as a Public Good”, communication expert and Vice Chancellor, Federal University of Kashere, Gombe State, Professor Umaru Pate, interrogates the theme in relation to practice in Nigeria. He spoke in Kano to MURTALA ADEWALE.

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What is the significance of hosting the 2021 global conference not only in Africa but Namibia where the journey started 30 years ago?
The relationship between the media and government all over the world is mostly characterised by what you will describe as ‘a lockhead relationship’. There will be moments when the relationship will be good and some other moments when they are difficult for obvious reasons that one of the major responsibilities of the media is to check and ensure that the government remains accountable to the citizens.

And in several situations, especially places like Africa and part of the developing countries, there could be challenges where governments falter in the delivery of their responsibilities and the media is critical to raise issues around this.

Situations like that, more often, lead to clashes or some kind of friction between the two institutions and this is why you often find invasion and incursion into the media freedom space and without freedom, the media will not be able to perform its responsibility. 

A typical journalist needs to be psychologically free, needs to be physically free, and must be enabled economically for him to perform his duties. So, the media needs free space to be able to perform considering the nature of the responsibilities that are expected of it, regarding investigative journalism, making the government accountable.

Don’t forget the media represents the voice of the general population and is like the moral gauge that checks things in the society. So, naturally it will attract both positive and negative comments from people.

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When it does something that is in line with the thinking and interest of an institution or individual, you see the media being commended, and likely also, if they do something that is being view as negative, which might not necessarily correspond with the interest of an individual but perhaps not in the larger interest of the society, you will see it attracting, sometimes, hatred and even harsh punishment from those who feel affected, and sometimes, it could be the authorities. So, we need to understand this entire situation.

When the decision for the Windhoek declaration was made with the support of countries and the United Nations, it was basically aimed at projecting, promoting and protecting media freedom as well as ensuring standard and strengthening media institutions wherever the media operates in the world. 

So, going back to Windhoek is like celebrating the foundation of the declaration made some 30 years ago and evaluating while accessing the successes made over the period of declaration.

In what ways has the yearly commemoration impacted in the production, distribution and consumption of news and information in Nigeria believed to have the freest press in Africa?
The word freedom is relative. What may not be free in Nigeria may be free elsewhere and equally what is free in Nigeria may not appear free to some people. Basically, when you talk of freedom, it is not just allowing people to publish what they want or allowing what people want to say on radio stations. 

You cannot say the media is totally free in Nigeria for obvious reasons. When the media is economically challenged certainly something will give way for the media to survive. And not only that, when journalists themselves are economically challenged, when they are not financially safe again, it will also impinge on their professional integrity. We know what the economic situation is in the media sector in Nigeria.

Currently, there are only two models of survival in the media industry in Nigeria. First by depending on the government’s subvention and secondly relying on advertisers to survive. And going by the dynamics of new information and communication technologies, things are completely changing. Things are no longer the same, the models are gradually failing and the more they fail, the media organisations appear more recharged and desperate. This will definitely reflect in the quality of media production and content.

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So, to say, the media is totally free in Nigeria, I think the question is to first check the economic condition of the media organisations. Also let us look at the psychological dimension of press freedom, as a journalist, how psychologically safe are you?
But how many journalists in Nigeria today can be bold to say he or she is psychologically free? In fact, can our media organisations say they are psychologically free? There are several ways of intimidating journalists in Nigeria. Government needs not go to the extreme of arresting journalists to intimidate him where there are several options available. Again, if you look at government owned media organisations, certainly, you would not say the media is free, especially, the state-owned media organisations. Apart from the economical challenge, many governments considered the media organisations as appendages of government to say anything the government wanted as PR tools. They simply do not have freedom to operate as professionals in line with the ethics and laws establishing them. When you even look at their career progression in those state owned media, it is based on interest and probably it is subjected to external influences. 
What is your opinion about the theme in the light of the practice and teaching of journalism in Nigeria?

Information is ordinarily supposed to be open for public consumption, supposed to be shared and should be a thing for everybody. But you have what is called classified information that should not be opened for everybody for obvious reasons for security purposes. At the same time, the public needs information to be guided and informed about development. As common as it may look, information may not be available to everybody and some people may be denied information to use for their survival. Government, perhaps, is the largest supplier of information and you can’t have access to information if you don’t have an organisation that could act like bridges between government and people.

But a situation where the media organisation are poorly equipped or better do not exist or battling with many restrictions affecting their performance, which means, they will be unable to source for the information on their own, they will be unable to undertake responsibilities of checking the government through the instrumentality of investigative journalism to be able to set agenda for the society. Rather they will be involved in negative dissemination of information to the public, that could be propaganda and this is the era of misinformation.

So, the media can be negatively used instead of informing the public, agents of disinformation would make active use of them either because they have the money or the influence to do that, or they have the manipulative power or above all, they have the intimidating power to force the media to do what is not necessarily be in the interest of the general public but in the interest of select few for whatever reason which can be mischief sometimes.

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And like, I said majority of people need basic information for their guidance, for their opinion formation, as a citizen to build information on your government or on the direction to vote during election and for several other things, you need correct information. 

Considering the theme, do those in government see information as a public good?
Now, the government can influence access to information. Without permission of the government, these platforms of information especially the social media cannot operate in the country. So, what the government wants and they will determine the availability of information to the majority of people. And the government can also make it very expensive to restrict access to information, making it available to the few that is when the government is not willing to invest in the technology, it becomes highly expensive for the people to access the internal and use the social media. 

When you talk of information, you don’t just restrict yourself to information on the radio or TV alone, what about access to government information, access to documents readily available to the people?
And at the end of the day, the social media end up misinforming the people. The consequences of misinformation may lead to loss of lives. So, people are entitled to information, to receive and impact information as part of fundamental rights if you check the United Nations declarations on fundamental right. 

So what we are concerned about is what is the quality of the enabling environment in Nigeria, what is the legal instrument, what is the economic situation and social environment. So by the time you evaluate all these variables you may not subscribe to the ascertain completely that Nigeria is free.

In this era of fake news, how can the populace be galvanized to see information as public good? 
First you need to understand the impact of fake news. The effect of fake news is multiple. One, it undermines the legitimacy of the media organisation, people will no longer trust the media because there are several other competing outlets out there. People now find it difficult to believe what is coming out of the media as completely truthful. Many people don’t care to buy newspapers again. They don’t watch TV or listen to Radio rather they depend on their handset.

Secondly, fake news has always been there but at the lower level but with the availability of smart phone and cheap data, it has become very easy for people to access internet to become their own reporters, their own editors and whatever, distributing the information base on their own judgment not really on the professional criteria of news judgment. 

Also, we must promote media literacy to educate young people what is true and fake, how to select what is good and what is bad for them. They need basic media knowledge to do that, how they can access information on social media. That will equip their brains with the right facilities of detecting what is truthful and what is not.

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Again, the government itself must also be ready and willing to provide information to the media in real time. This is not the era of hiding information or delaying the release or response to information. Once you do that, alternative media outlets that are not so credible can exploit it.

Government must also be ready to provide information where it does not do that, it must be ready to respond to negative and damaging information which could also have a consequential effect on the part of the citizens.

How do practitioners see information as public good in the era of commercialisation in the media industry?
Commercialisation is a must for the media because they are not charity organisations. Media organisations are investments made by individuals who invested and expected to make profits. Unlike government media organisations that operate like a public service. 

But even those government agencies are now poorly funded to the extent that they are also told to go and source for advert.

And you could see the consequences many of the organisations cannot even pay salaries and discharge responsibility because of low revenue generation.

One of the alternatives to survival is diversification of operations. It is no longer enough to set up a newspaper house and expect money to start coming. It is not happening any more. There must be a diversification of business interest in the organisation. 

And because of the convergence, you will notice many media houses now running radio and TV houses at one point and even engaging in some other subsidiaries business that could make funds available to sustain the business.

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