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Taking on the monitor

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THE Nigerian media took a revolutionary step during last week when they came  out boldly to accept that as monitors of the goings-on in the polity on behalf of the people of this country, someone should be there, funded by them, who will attend to the complaints the public may have against them.

This bold step was the outcome of a meeting of the publishers of newspapers and magazines in the country that someone to attend to grievances in media performance should be appointed. The reasoning was born of the recognition that many in the polity have more fear of the media than respect for it.

I am happy because, looking back, the many paths and sidewalks we have trodden in search of an effective monitor for the monitor bring forth memories of failure.  The failure was both from government that wanted discipline in the media through regulation, and the media that wanted freedom but insisted on avoiding responsibility.

I fought on the side of the media when I was  editor of the Daily Times and later general
manager of the publications division, and was there to do what I believed the media needed to garner respect for the profession when I was in government.

But something was always there to frustrate the coming together of a team that would tell the media where it erred. The body just inaugurated by the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria may be a short-term solution but may enjoy a much longer life span if and only if what it does changes public perception of media from disdain and fear to respect.

His official name is the Ombudsman.  But what is the ombudsman and what does he do and where does he operate and who is it that its services bind?

The ombudsman is a monitor of the observance of rules set in a polity for the operation of its affairs. The modern use of the term began in Sweden, according to Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia, with the Swedish Parliamentary Ombudsman instituted in 1809, to safeguard the rights of citizens by establishing a supervisory agency independent of the executive branch.

An “ombudsman” in general  refers to a state official appointed to provide a check on government activity in the interests of the citizen, and to oversee the investigation of complaints of improper government activity against the citizen.

If the ombudsman finds a complaint to be substantiated, the problem may get rectified, or an ombudsman report is published making recommendations for change. Further redress depends on the laws of the country concerned. Ombudsmen in most countries do not have the power to initiate legal proceedings or prosecution on the grounds of a complaint.

The major advantage of an ombudsman is that he or she examines complaints from outside the offending institution, thus avoiding the conflicts of interest inherent in self-policing.  However, the ombudsman system relies heavily on the selection of an appropriate individual for the office, and on the cooperation of individuals or bodies within the institution that set up the system.

All over the world, and in all areas of activity, private and public, the ombudsman system has come to stay. By whatever name called, the ombudsman will ensure that, in the case of the national ombudsman, the executive performs its duties strictly in accordance with brief.

The organization’s ombudsman looks at the officers of the organization and ensures that what they do accords with their job specifications. A profession’s ombudsman looks at the ethics of the profession and pronounces on complaints from the public in response to their complaints.

The promise of the appointer of the ombudsman is that being an outsider to the operations of the body being monitored, its findings will be binding on the operatives in the appointing body.

What the Newspaper Proprietors Association has done in the appointment of an ombudsman should now be getting clearer. The president of the association, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, introduced the media ombudsman to the public in Lagos last Tuesday. The gentleman to receive complaints from the public is a retired Court  Appeal justice, Mr. M. O. Onalaja.

The ombudsman in Nigeria, as in many other countries, is not a court. It is not empowered by law, like the press council, but it is a body the media itself has packaged to look into complaints against the media, both print and electronic. How it will work was clearly spelt out by the president of the NPAN.

When I reached out to some other professional bodies in     the media during the week, they did not seem to have been fully consulted. But as I see it, the initiative of the publishers of newspapers and owners of radio and television (hoping that the Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria, BON, is on board) is to the advantage of the journalist. This reason is simple.

What is guaranteed in the Constitution – section 39(.2) – is not freedom of the press, but freedom to own, establish and operate a medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions to those who are willing to receive it.

This means that constitutionally, he who pays the piper must dictate the tune. But over the years, I have argued that although there is no specific press freedom clause in the Constitution, the obligation to monitor governance imposed on the media in the Constitution – sec 22 – has built into it the power to do.

The one who owns, establishes, and operates a medium is the newspaper and magazine owner in the print segment of media ownership, and the owners of radio and television stations, be they government or private persons, in the electronic segment. The battles that have been fought have had to do with editorial independence for the operators of the media. This is where the journalist comes in.

He operates with a code of conduct, and in Nigeria, the Ilorin code of 1998 is what the Nigerian Press Organization (the NPAN, the Guild of Editors and the Nigeria Union of Journalists) has adopted and which the Nigerian Press Council is by law expected to use in its adjudicatory role.

But the council has been comatose since 1995 and the disagreement with the media that certain clauses in the 1999 Nigerian Press Council Act be amended before inauguration has still not been done.

There has thus been no body outside the courts to go to in trying to redress complaints arising from press performance. The recent action by government to appoint politicians into the board without reference to the law establishing the press council has killed that body.

It is, therefore, to be seen what the owners of media can do to bring some honour and respect to media practice through the operation of the office of the ombudsman whose activity the media owners will fund.

Members of the Guild of Editors and the NUJ who are employees of the media owners and are the ones who must play the tunes professionally (to accord with the demands of the ethics of their profession) should jump at the concession the media owners are handing over to them – that henceforth they accept that in dictating the tune as owners of media, only trained  musicians would constitute the orchestra.

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