By Tonnie Iredia
The transmission of partisan information through the electronic media which is generally referred to as political broadcast involves several materials. These range from political party manifestos, slogans, jingles, emblems and election promises. The significance of political broadcasts is that they offer opportunities to all political parties to publicise their manifestos and other party activities.
The types of partisan political broadcasts and the forms they take are greatly influenced by the political culture and system of government in a given society. When Nigeria adopted the Presidential system of government in 1979, the lot fell on the national broadcaster, the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), to regulate the subject.
For the purpose, the organisation had to produce guidelines on the objectives, philosophy, modalities and format for use for the Presidential elections of 1979. The guidelines were later legalised. This first happened when successive military administrations incorporated the guidelines into the “Political Parties Registration and Activities” Decree Nos 27 of 1989 and 28 of 1996 as schedule II to the decrees. The letters and indeed, the spirit of our subsequent electoral laws have also rested on some of the guidelines. Political broadcasts have thus become part of our electoral system since then.
The main types of political broadcasts that have been in use in Nigeria since 1979 are; Discussion, Debate, News Conference, Interview and Party Talk.
The most prominent is the debate. This is not surprising. When a political broadcast takes the form of “Debate,” it is expected that its topic would be essentially controversial. Indeed, the representatives of the relevant participating political parties are expected to canvass opposing viewpoints which would make the programme exciting. Although the “Debate” programmes do not hold before every election in Nigeria, they are usually exciting when they hold.
In 1993, the decision by government to have only two political parties – the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) created an enabling environment for the media to organise political debates that presented the opposing viewpoints of the two parties to the people. This enabled Presidential debates between the two candidates – Alhaji Moshood Abiola (SDP) and Alhaji Bashir Tofa (NRC) and their running-mates, Alhaji Baba Gana Kingibe (SDP) and Dr. Sylvester Ugoh (NRC).
A Political Broadcast is essentially a television business because the average voter desires not just to hear but, in fact, to also see a candidate who is appealing to him for his vote. But it is not only the media that can organise political broadcasts. Anyone can. In the United States of America, the subject is handled by a non-profit and non-partisan organisation- the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) which was established in 1987 ‘to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.
It is, however, important for the organiser to maintain the required balance and objectivity which is an ethical media value. More importantly, it is crucial for such an organiser to have a transparent agenda. Against this backdrop, it is instructive that the organisers of America’s Presidential debates are Americans; they are not affiliates of the Nigerian media.
It is also note- worthy that those who seek to organise American political debates do not receive financial aid from any Nigerian group. These thoughts randomly came to mind last week while listening to Mr. Ojo Madueke of the Jonathan/ Sambo campaign team sensitising the nation on national television on the need for Nigeria to have a Presidential debate ‘that is based on a national platform with institutional memory.’ We agree.
As usual, there are critics who would quickly dismiss NTA as a government organ. But, if opposition parties would not be part of debates organised by NTA because, as a government organ, it has an interest, why would the government party attend debates organised by the private media whose proprietors are pro-opposition parties? Is there any Nigerian organisation whose owner has no personal interest? The argument can hardly end. The way out is for everyone to seek to claim the NTA which rightly belongs to us all and insist that it must function as an impartial umpire particularly in the electoral process as provided for by law.
It will be recalled that in 2007, this writer led the NTA management to visit all political parties to invite them to take advantage of the opportunity of free political broadcast through its medium. The opposition parties publicly applauded the move and the ruling party had to let me be.
A manual was then produced on political broadcasts which spelt out empirical criteria for the subject. The goal was to premise the game of politics and elections on a level-playing field for all political parties. What each political party should do or not do, were stipulated. Similarly, the roles of the media were explicitly stated.
This naturally imposed a contractual relationship between the media and the political parties. We followed our conventional arrangement of convening a meeting of all registered political parties. At the meeting, the sharing of transmission time was done and topics were agreed. Also, the speakers proposed by the political parties were the only recognised participants during the broadcast.
To ensure smooth broadcasts, each political party was to name an official to represent it in a programme. Where a party was unable to meet the obligation, the programme proceeded without the participation of that party. In other words, no political party was allowed to use its failure to present a representative to veto a broadcast. Even where a programme was to be repeated, it was to be agreed to by all parties. I am confident that no political party can fault any of these claims for the 2007 elections as I still have a recording of the commendation by each of them.
Nigeria will easily progress if our societal institutions are allowed to perform the functions for which they were established. A Presidential debate should be organised by our media which have the capacity to be watched nationwide as the constituency of the President is the entire nation and not part of it. There should be no ambush and the absence of anyone should not be a topic for debate.
Rather, the debate should be on topical issues of governance such as employment, health, education, agriculture etc. and not on party logos and emblems. A combination of NTA, AIT, Channels and Silverbird will do well. Hopefully, it may help us understand the parties better because as of today all Nigerian politicians are members of the ruling party. Those who are out of it at this point are on leave of absence, They will return to base after the coming elections whether they win or not.