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Improving media-military relations

“Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. He who molds public opinion goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes or decisions possible or impossible to execute.” – President Abraham Lincoln

THE Nigerian Military is rated high in local and foreign peace keeping or peace enforcement operations. Its contributions to national unity, security and development are not in contest.

Therefore, the military is increasingly concerned about its image and reputation mainly on its professional disposition and the civil-military relations that could improve its relationship with the media. The media – military relationship in Nigeria in most cases has been insalubrious and often contemptuous.

The basic explanation is that the history, natures and cultures of the two institutions are, however, fundamentally adversative. The media by its very nature is skeptical, intrusive, freewheeling and entrepreneurial.

The media responds to the basic tenets of its very existence to expose the actions of the governments, including the military to public scrutiny. This is more so because the military’s involvement into politics and governance in Nigeria made it more susceptible to press inquiry, – sterile of military permutation.

The military, however, is hierarchical, regimental with great inner pride and loyalties. It is non-democratic, action oriented, audacious, intolerant and impatient to outside interference – all these are tendentious, and must be so if it is to be effective in exercising its constitutional responsibilities!

Hence, the military prefers to carry out its activities behind closed doors, more so because the nature of its business somehow offends the sensibilities of the public on whose support it must rely on for its meaningful existence in protecting the territories of Nigeria against internal and external enemies.

Many things the military legitimately does make little sense or impact to civilians who may have slight knowledge of military matters. Military operations are usually conceived, planned and executed in secret. Actions or inactions are on the need to know basis even at the unit level of the military.

Consequently, any attempt to “giraffe” or expose its activities by or to unauthorised persons is considered in the military as “subversive”. As a result, there are always divergence of interests and friction between the media and the military.

Thus, this writer is concerned about public perception of the military visa vis understanding the friction, minimizing it and significantly improving media – military relationship in Nigeria. Hence, there is need to study media reportage of military activities overtime and its impact on the relationship between the two institutions.

For example, one of the national dailies in Nigeria defied logic and ethics of the profession to extensively report on the country’s operational orders during her war with Cameroon over Bakassi Peninsula.

Similarly, recently, the media was agog with unsubstantiated stories that the Joint Task Force in Borno State was involved in extrajudicial killings, arrest and detention of innocent civilians and suspected Boko Haram terrorists.

Any of that singular act can change the fundamental contour of media – military relations. It was also a typical example of unethical journalism, as it is a common knowledge that world over, war plans must be jealously guarded.

The army for example, may decide to strategically expose its capability but obviously not its operational orders or war plans.

The army for example, may decide to strategically expose its capability but obviously not its operational orders or war plans.

On the other hand, military’s involvement in politics and governance of the nation and its draconian decrees intended to silence and control the press can also not be ignored in any serious attempt at understanding the friction between media and the military in Nigeria.

For instance, the military, through various decrees, proscribed few newspaper houses, harassed, victimized and in some cases jailed some journalists expectedly to check, restrict or silence the press.

For the purpose of this write up, two examples of such obnoxious decrees are worth mentioning. Decree No 4 of 1984- Public Officers Protection against False Accusation.

Section 1(1) of the decree provided that: “Any person who publishes in any form whether written or otherwise, any message, rumor, report or statement being…. (Is) calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of the state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offence under this decree”.

It was under this section that Mr Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, both of the Guardian Newspapers were charged for reporting and publishing that some of Nigeria’s foreign missions were to be closed, Maj Gen IBM Haruna was to replace Maj Gen Hananiya as new envoy to the United Kingdom and that eight senior military officers have been tipped as ambassadors.

There was also the Newspapers Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation Decree No 48 of 1993. It was this decree that was used to proscribe the Concord, Punch and the Nigerian Observer newspapers.

Therefore, it is obvious from the above, that the basic explanation for the contemptible media – military relationship in Nigeria is that the history, natures and cultures of the two institutions are antagonistic. Historically, the media in Nigeria was an instrument of colonial liberation, the weapon used by nationalists to expose colonial injustices, fight for freedom, equal rights activism and subsequently political independence.

On the other hand, the military, particularly the army, was allegedly used by colonial bedbugs against the people as an instrument of oppression and repression.

There is also a feeling that at independence, the army was used to further serve and defend the interest of colonial power and later to serve the interest of military regimes or domineering political parties.

Another reason for the disdainful media – military relationship is based on the inherent nature of the media and military. Military, like most bureaucracies, usually do its activities (operations) in secret, away from the preying eyes of the press that it often sees as a spy or at best insubordinate.

The press, however, responds to the requirements of its very existence to bring government, including the military, to public scrutiny. Even in normal situation, the press has a responsibility to question government actions, inactions, decisions, indecisions and the matching of policy with strategy.

One cannot question the press for asking searching questions about a poor policy/ strategy match. This is more so because the press sometimes shapes policy as well as influence strategy and outcome of battles.

For example, in his May 2004 well publicized article entitled “Kill Faster”, Ralph Peters, a New York Post Opinion Columnist and Fox News First Class Strategic Analyst exposed the fatal power of the media thus: “The U.S. Marines in Fallujah weren’t beaten by terrorists and insurgents, who were being eliminated effectively and accurately.

They were beaten by Al-jazeera….the media are often referred to off – handedly as a strategic factor. But we still don’t fully appreciate their fatal power…”. And use it to our maximum advantage.

Similarly, as Douglas Porch rightly observed that “the institutional cultures of the two institutions are virtually antithetical….if the world of the journalist is freewheeling and entrepreneurial, the task of managing violence imposes on the soldier an organisation and attitude that is hierarchical and disciplined.”

In the same vein, an Army Public Affairs Officer observed that “the natural tendency of the military is to keep things under control…”. The military man or woman particularly values loyalty and is deeply suspicious of, even offended by, the “publish and be damned” journalistic ethos.

It may be right to state that there are still firm believers of press censorship in the Nigerian Armed Forces.  Bowdlerization of information or outright denials of information to the press are some of the trademarks of the military in developing countries.

Hence, the cultures and to a certain extent the goals of the media – military institutions are different and hostile; the journalists seek to tell a story of interest to the public in good time and without any hindrance.

The military is, however, to pursue national objectives by fulfilling specific missions assigned by the Constitution and political leaders. And the mechanism by which the military performs its roles is war or the threat of war which are dreadful, planned and executed in secrecy and with maximum surprise.

The belief in military circles that reporters are proletarians in fundamentals of military profession, also lack the most elementary notions of military secrecy and invariably hostile to military values and missions, is just only recently beginning to decrease in acceptance and practice in developing countries.

Lt. Col SAGIR MUSA is with the Nigerian Army.


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.