Nigeria 2015 general elections have been characterised by heightened tension. Several factors ranging from ethnicity, religion and money politics are contributory to the tension. But, the role of the media in this charged political atmosphere is also open to question. Though the Nigerian media has contributed significantly to the struggle toward the attainment of political independence in 1960, and the fight against military dictatorship that dominated the post independence era, its role during the democratic dispensation has been less than remarkable. The 2015 general elections have further revealed the fault zone of the press.
In democracy, the media is expected to stimulate citizen deliberation and build public understanding of issues, and report on major public problems in a way that advances public knowledge of possible solutions and the values served by alternative courses of action. The media in Nigeria has not performed optimally on this score in the recent time.
For instance, issues that are most relevant to Nigerians presently are the basic concerns of social welfare. These include the provision of uninterrupted power supply, security, employment, high quality education, infrastructure, improved healthcare services, housing and a few others. But the premises of media discourse and interpretation at this critical moment do not prioritise these important issues. Rather the dominant discourse in the media is being built around scandals and political rivalry among parties. News narratives across media platforms foreground spectacle instead of substance. A quick glance at headlines on the front page of the Nigerian dailies or footages of television programmes sometimes confirms the narrow conception of news in the Nigerian media. Yet, how such dramatic reportage advances or limits the growth of democratic culture remains uninvestigated.
Last year, key stakeholders in the Nigerian media industry adopted the media code of election coverage. The code sets out guidelines that should regulate the professional conduct of the media organization and journalists during election period.
Section 5.8 of the Code states that: “A media organisation shall exercise good judgement in the choice of news stories and headlines,” while section 4.3 notes that “A media organisation shall reject any material intended for publication or airing by parties, candidates and other interests that contains hateful or inciting words and messages.” In fact, the Code forbids political advert with tendency to create hatred or incite violence. So far, most media organisations including the mainstream media establishments have been acting in breach of this code. That there is no functional regulatory body to sanction the unprofessional conduct of media organisations and journalists is another failing of the media in Nigeria.
Today, the real condition that most Nigerians experience is powerlessness and hopelessness; but instead of ascribing this reality to the social and economic way the Nigerian society is organised, people are made to view it as eternal forces of nature which can only be stopped by persistent prayer to God. Several factors indeed may have contributed to the sustenance of this distraction, but it is undeniable that the media discourse also serves as an instrument of obfuscation. The media’ s obligation as articulated in the Nigerian constitution to hold government to account by cultivating active citizenship has not been creditably discharged.
Further, explanation for the somewhat subversive role of the press in a democracy is anchored on the political economy of the media. Media organisations like every other business exist to generate income. And in the service of this commercial interest, public interest is undermined. In Nigeria, most media organisations rely on government patronage (adverts) or from corporate bodies since proceeds from circulation is marginal. This paradigm of revenue generation shapes the news construction in a particular way. This is the reason why the news discourse on power generation will be slanted to show government’s efforts to generate electricity, and fail to analyse the performance of budget on power; this is the reason why public debate during elections will rather focus on religious affiliation, ethnic loyalty, and not the general welfare of the people.
Notwithstanding, the Nigerian press is going through certain reforms engendered by the rise of citizen journalism. With the help of social media, citizens themselves now play active role in the monitoring of the society. Photographs of human rights abuses, video footages of public officials’ misconduct now appear regularly on Facebook or Twitter. This is good for democracy.
But the professionals have to provide leadership. They have to work harder to produce good journalism that will serve the public interest without undermining the commercial interest of the media ownership. It is in the interest of Nigeria and its citizen that the media play roles that enrich democratic culture. “Our republic and its press will rise or fall together,” wrote Joseph Pulitzer many years ago. This statement underscores the importance of the media to democracy.
Presently, the identity of the Nigeria press oscillates between being the Fourth estate of the realm or fourth estate of the wreck, as Professor Ralph Akinfeleye disclosed in his inaugural lectures 13 years ago.