Nigerian media and political accountability

“Only a redeemed media can redeem the nation from drowning in the turbulence of malicious misinformation and hate-mongering that is already gathering”

 – Prof Ayobami Ojebode on Thursday, November 29 at the Radio Nigeria 2018 Annual Lecture in Abuja.

History has it that the first edition of Nigeria’s first newspaper, “Iwe Irohin,” came out on November 23, 1859. The newspaper, founded by Rev. Henry Townsend, was published every 15 days and sold for 120 cowries, which is equivalent to a penny. That means the Nigerian media has been in existence for 159 years!  There is an estimated 103 television stations operating in Nigeria with hundreds of other print and electronic media outlets. In order to add to the plurality and vibrancy of the Fourth Estate of the Realm, news broke last Tuesday, November 17, 2018 that the Federal Government had approved the issuance of operating licences to 213 new public and private broadcasting outfits in the country.

There is no gainsaying that the Nigerian media scaled a lot of hurdles to maintain relevance and contribute to nation-building. They played key roles in the struggle for the decolonisation, demilitarisation and democratisation of Nigeria. Newspapers like the West African Pilot, Nigerian Tribune and Daily Times were thorns in the flesh of the British colonialists. The role of newspapers like The PUNCH, National Concord, The Guardian as well as Newswatch, The News and Tell magazines in the return of Nigeria to civil rule from military junta cannot be over-emphasised. These news media outlets were on several times banned by various military regimes.

Section 22 of 1999 Constitution of Nigeria says, “The Press, Radio, Television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free…to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”  While playing this vital role, many journalists have lost their lives. The Independent of the UK on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 reported that, “According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organisation defending the freedom of the press, at least 43 journalists have been killed in 2018 so far.”

As Nigeria prepares for the sixth general election in this Fourth Republic, there have been a lot of capacity building programmes for political correspondents in the country. In fact, the Independent National Electoral Commission only last weekend trained its press corps in election reporting. A recurring decimal on the agenda of the training of the journalists is the need for “conflict sensitive reportage.” There is a growing feeling that the Nigerian media are purveyors of fake news and hate speech which usually spike during the campaign season.

Bothered about this negative development, the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, better known as Radio Nigeria, decided to make the issues the theme of its 13th Annual Lecture held on Thursday, November 29, 2018. It was a rainbow coalition of media juggernauts in Nigeria. The event anchored by ace broadcasters, Tope Ojeme and Harriet Parkinson, also had in attendance the Minister of Information and Culture,  Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Permanent Secretary in the ministry, Deaconess Grace Isu Gekpe, Chairman, House Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values, Olusegun Odebunmi, Director General of Voice of Nigeria, Mr. Osita Okechukwu, representatives of Directors-General of the Nigerian Television Authority, National Broadcasting Commission and News Agency of Nigeria. Also in attendance were the FRCN Board Chairman, Mallam Aliyu Hayatu, Director-General FRCN, Dr. Mansur Liman; zonal directors, management and staff of the corporation.

The guest speaker was the Head of Department of Communication and Language Art of University of Ibadan, Prof. Ayobami Ojebode, while lawyer cum journalist, Lillian Okenwa, and I were the discussants. Speaking on the topic, “Fake News, Hate Speech and the 2019 General Election: The Role of the Nigerian Media”, Ojebode said, “There are many definitions of fake news but they all come to two: the definition that we know and the one imposed on us by the politicians. Fake news is an account that did not occur. It is the product of a person’s imagination for purposes that may or may not be mischievous.” The speaker believes that we are in a post-truth era where nothing is sacred anymore. According to him, “Telling the truth no longer matters, and respecting the truth when told no longer matters. What should worry us is this: when we close our eyes to the truth long enough, we become totally blind to it.”

According to the scholar, “Hate speech emerges from a deliberate act of reducing the humanity in a person or a group, a process of making them a thing, an object of much little worth. It follows a process of essentialisation: collectively sizing up a group of people, selecting what annoys us most about them, and tagging it on their forehead as their name or identity or word by which they should be known. This tagging is then fuelled by relentless repetition until it sticks.” The academic opined that what should worry us more are twisted or fabricated contents driven by greed while we should also gang up against factual, twisted or fabricated news content which are meant to harm and are driven by hate.

Ojebode submitted that for the media to lead or support the fight against fake news and hate speech, it must first redeem itself. According to him, “Within the last one year, the National Broadcasting Commission has recorded and sanctioned 260 cases of hate speech on radio and television. It has sanctioned 347 cases of unverified claims, which is a cousin of fake news.” He enjoined the NBC, NAN, National Press Council, and other stakeholders to take the lead in the compilation of a directory of hate words and expressions and also proposed that media organisations could have an item on their website menu named “FAKE NEWS”, like a flying banner where citizens in search of truths can check and find the latest fake news.

In my presentation, I cited several cases of fake news in the past and quoted Section 95 (1) and (2) of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended which bans hate speech especially during campaigns. I also brought to the attention of the audience the latest effort by First Draft, an organisation based in the United Kingdom, which seeks to tackle the global problem of fake news. I informed the participants that Punch Nigeria Limited and 14 other major news organisations have formed a coalition against fake news. The verification project, known as Cross Check Nigeria, has launched a website, I called for strict adherence to the newly revised “Nigerian Media Code of Election Coverage” while I also emphasised the need for stiffer penalties for fake news and hate speech as well as enforcement of extant laws on the ugly phenomena.

No doubt, it is harvest season for the media, more so as candidates and their political parties jostle to outspend one another in political adverts. Although making money is important, I enjoin the media practitioners to be politically accountable by rejecting adverts that promote fake news and hate speech. As Ms Okenwa observed at the FRCN lecture, whatever does not uplift the people and unite the nation should be avoided, like a plague!

Follow me on Twitter @jideojong



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