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Presidents and the Press/Media

By Dele Sobowale

“Few active Presidents actually believe in a free press [or media]…Truman didn’t, nor Kennedy, nor Johnson…whenever their own personal stakes are involved..”. Gay Talese in THE KINGDOM AND THE POWER; s best seller about the NEW YORK TIMES.

“Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed.” I.F. Stone (VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS p80).

The report published in the PUNCH concerning imminent clampdown against some media houses, namely, PUNCH, NATION and Channels TV, could only have surprised and alarmed people in the media who have not accepted that when a nation is on the brink of disaster, the media, if it does its work as the watchdog of society, is always the first target of those in government.

As for me, my only surprise was that it took Jonathan so long to get to us. I welcome the threat and the challenge it poses. He won’t be the first head of government to try, and he won’t be the last. The media will always write the obituaries of tyrants; never the other way round.

My advice for my colleagues, especially those like me, who are sick and tired of Jonathan, remains the same now as in the Abacha days. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. This is a battle for the soul of Nigeria, and there will be no quarter given none demanded. Our freedoms will not be abridged by Jonathan or anyone else –unless we allow them. But, having made that observation let me attempt to place the government’s panic reaction in historical perspective. Jonathan’s response to impending doom is not original; in fact, it is the usual disposition of those in power to challenges to their authority. So nobody should consider this as endorsement of what we are told is planned. This is reality in action; not any theory about democracy.

2014-media-chatMost of us have lived under the illusion that American presidents favour a free press. We have read, as if it was absolutely true, that President Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826, pronounced that “Were it left to me to decide whether we have government without newspapers [there were no radio or television stations in his days], or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” (VBQ p 200). But, Jefferson was not yet the President when he expressed that lofty sentiment which media people, including me, love to quote. The test of Jefferson’s sincerity, or lack of it, as it turned out, came when he successfully got a journalist jailed for publishing what was the truth about his government, when he and his former Vice-President, Aaron Burr, 1756-1836, like our own Obasanjo and Atiku, were at loggerheads during their second term. The question is: why do presidents, even in the leading democracies, want to gag the media?

Two answers will do for now – because we still have elections coming up. Perhaps, there will be time to return to this later on. If not the two observations will do. They fall under two headings: desperation and power, or more precisely, delusions of power.

When Joseph Goebbels, 1897-1945, Hitler’s propaganda chief, exclaimed that “there are no desperate situations, only desperate men” (VBQ p 38), he did so during the last hundred days of Hitler and Goebbels himself. By then, it was clear to everybody in the German armed forces that the war was lost and humiliation would follow. People who hitherto had driven down the autobahn, surrounded by armed soldiers and looking contemptuously at ordinary citizens faced jail or the firing squad. The disaster was not Hitler’s alone; it included all those in the German high command. So, they became more brutal than ever before. Those in the corridors of Aso Rock are human beings too.

Delirium of power strikes when leaders, under personal attack, look back and find the followers have all but disappeared. When persuasion appears to fail totally, the temptation to resort to persecution becomes great – especially when some advisers counsel that it will succeed at minimum cost to the leader. They very often forget that “Brute force, without wisdom, falls under its own weight” (Horace, 65-8BC, VBQ p 63). Despite the denials by Reuben Abati, media people in all the media houses, including NTA, would be well advised to get ready for battle. The worst mistake we can make is to take government at its words – as I.F. Stone, a US journalist, had warned us. Just as there is no free lunch, as economists remind us, freedom of the press must be fought for with every government – including which ever one follows the present one.

MY GEN SET DISPUTES JONATHAN’S CLAIM.

“I have fulfilled all my promises” — announced President Jonathan.

“No”, said my generator set. “I still work as many hours as I used to work.

Truth is constant. Despite my acceptance of the fact that most people in government are conscienceless liars, something in me still expects the Head of Government in any country not to be caught telling an outright lie. Even if he believes, like Mark Twain, 1835-1910, that “Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it”, a good head of government should leave the outright falsehoods to other officials. President Jonathan launched the ROAD MAP FOR POWER in 2011 and promised to supply Nigerians 14,100MW by end of 2013. This is 2015 and yesterday, February 11, 2015, only 2,869MW was supplied. Has the promise on power been fulfilled? You judge; but tell the truth.

P.S. Part two of INEC SHIFTING POLLS AND CONSEQUENCES, will follow next week. Freedom of the press is vital for all of us.


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