Pressure points of the Nigerian press- Abdulhamid Babatunde

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By Abdulhamid Babatunde

Journalists have had a field day flaunting their profession’s pre-eminence in defence of democracy and human rights and demanding unfettered freedom to write off constitutional and statutory restraints.

The Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) took the lead by staging a two-day conference themed “Media In Times of Crises: Resolving Conflict, Achieving Consensus,” in October. However, proceedings at the conference showed that the Nigerian media’s assumed entitlement to the privileged role of resolving conflicts and building consensus in times of crises was totally out of synch with its composition, character and capacity.

It would be more realistic for journalists to consider the media as a factor in conflicts and breakdown of consensus, particularly in the context of politics and democracy for nation-building. During one session, two veterans spoke confidently on opposing sides of the press freedom /state security debate, expressing deep seated views that captured the irreconcilable mindsets and conflicts of interest which rule the pen.

One highlighted the irresponsible tendency to exaggerate and misrepresent facts and issues in news reports and commentaries, violating ethics and fuelling crises. The other had no qualms pitching the media uncompromisingly against security agencies by insisting that journalists are supposed to expose while security agencies’ duty is to cover up! National security considerations are therefore professional taboo in journalism!

Another instance of reality check came when the attention of members was drawn to the seemingly forgotten plight of news reporters whose fend-for-yourself work conditions are regularly on display at media events and in the declining standards of news reporting, much to the embarrassment of editors who respond with unprofessional aloofness. Can the journalism profession perform its constitutional roles credibly while parading untrained, unqualified, poorly remunerated and disoriented reporters?

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But the most unsettling poser came from the one who wondered why editors flaunt their “power” and “independence” as if they are not accountable employees of the publishers of their newspapers? The publishers’ power is the ultimate repository of the editor’s purported independence , yet it is rarely mentioned in reference to the proverbial might of the pen and its role as the fourth estate of the realm. The legendary sentinel of democratic society is on a leash and its bark is its master’s voice! So, members of the Nigerian Guild of Editors are in fact answerable to their paymasters in the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) in the exercise of their “freedom of expression” and “editorial discretion.”

Incidentally, the president of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Malam Kabiru Yusuf recently gave an insight into the post social media status of the industry when he disclosed that prevailing decline in readership has resulted in dwindling revenue for newspapers, leaving advertising as the only source of income.  “The business is much more difficult. How will newspapers survive if people don’t read? Some of us are surviving on prestige and the saving grace is advertising,” he admitted. That raises questions as to how the independence of the Press can survive when its proprietors are in dire straits at the mercy of advertisers’ highly selective lucrative patronage among other tempting options?

As distressed newspapers consider adopting the “business model” in place of ”social service” we must not feign ignorance or be at ease with the aggressive encroachment of  foreign interests notorious for ulterior motives, usurping the vacated domains and abandoned responsibilities of distressed proprietors. From BBC and VOA slots all over our local FM stations and social media to masquerading “foundations” cashing in by funding “capacity-building” and “investigative projects” which stealthily incubates a network of beneficiary-journalists with tweaked mindsets, it is disheartening to contemplate the subtle subjugation of our “fiercely” independent Press by obstinate off-shoots of colonial masters who, once upon a time, succumbed to editorial eviction powered by “fathers of Nigerian journalism”.

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When this review of the back-sliding independence of the Nigerian Press is factored into the prevailing political and democratic configuration it unravels the derailment of the patriotic journalistic attributes selflessly infused into the historic nationalist campaign against imperialist colonial rule and excesses of military rule. What was proudly identified as the Nigerian Press has retreated from the national front into various survivalist geo-political blocs. The agitation for press freedom in Nigeria which is supposed to have one of the freest in Africa, could therefore  further unhinge the fragmented factions of the Nigerian Press as they bark in response to the partisan promptings of their owners.

The recent orchestrated campaign against reviewed broadcasting and press regulations necessitated by alarming impact of inciting social media disinformation on national security but hijacked and manipulated into an absurd clamour for unfettered press freedom and “self regulation” is a pointer to the perils of partisan press cartels.  How could the Press, already operating in serial breach of statutory, professional and labour regulations seek to perfect the perfidy by demanding to be self-regulating? Ironically, the NGE conference communiqué “stressed the need to tackle the monster of misinformation and sanitise the media against unprofessional and unethical behaviour”! So who will bell the cat?

It is unrealistic if not deceptive to ascribe nationalistic motivation to the narratives of hired pens drawing from sectional ink wells. This is not to demonize privatized practice of journalism but rather to raise the alarm lest the ranting of regionalists becloud the indispensability of a truly Nigerian Press with unrepentant determination to preserve and protect the national interest as vigilant stakeholders. The need for sober introspection by all media stakeholders including the Federal Government must not be swept under the carpet of what appears to be siege mentality whereby governance is portrayed as anathema to democracy by opposition propagandists, even as their desperation to take over power heightens by the hour.

The national media and the Press in particular must be as representative as possible to reflect interests of political stakeholders beyond regional and sectarian divides, and prioritize national sovereignty and interest. The current deplorable state of Federal media organizations coupled with the glaring absence of a federal government newspaper should be regarded as a critical deficiency in this context and rapidly remedied.  This will also guard against the misperception of government as a mere instrument of exercise of partisan political power and associated privileges, to be hacked down by opposition at all costs, regardless of term limits as vistas for change.

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The diversionary campaign for self-regulation of the Press is a threat to peace, stability and ultimately sovereignty.  Given the media’s internal inequities, fragmented political and ethnic configuration, geo-political imbalance and scant regard for national sovereignty, constitutional and statutory regulations should be maintained, if not strengthened.

It is disappointing that in all the supposedly frank and informed Press commentaries on the issue of Press freedom and national security, the existence and relevance of Section 45 sub-section 1 of the constitution is no-go because it provides for the “restriction and derogation from the Fundamental Rights” to freedoms of privacy, thought, conscience and religion, expression, assembly and association and movement and renders them “not absolute.”

It categorically declares that none of these freedoms shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justified in a democratic society in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons. For the avoidance of doubt, it maintains that “the exercise of any right carries with it duties and responsibilities which may be subject to certain restrictions necessary for the rights of others and in public interest.” This important aspect of the human rights provisions has been edited-out by a Press that is ethically-bound to be accurate and objective –and demands self-regulation !

Babatunde, fellow Nigerian Guild of Editors, writes from Kaduna

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