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The media and government: Partners in development or sworn adversaries?

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By Femi Adesina

Being Keynote Address by Femi Adesina, Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to President Muhammadu Buhari, at the launch of NIGERIAN MEDIA LEADERS: VOICES BEYOND THE NEWSROOM, on September 22, 2015, at Eko Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos

It gives me great pleasure to be at this landmark event, which promises to be a significant milestone in the annals of journalism in Nigeria.

Femi Adesina
Femi Adesina

NIGERIAN MEDIA LEADERS: VOICES BEYOND THE NEWSROOM is a project in which I was actively involved as President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE). In my many encounters with Mr. Richard Ikiebe of the School of Media and Communication, Pan Atlantic University, he never ceased to bemoan the paucity, nay the almost complete absence of home grown books on Nigerian media history. And, as it is usually said, without knowing where you are coming from, you may not know where you are headed. You may not know, in the words of Chinua Achebe where the rain began to beat you, or whether you were actually still in the rain, or home and dry.

But Ikiebe, a media scholar, did not just bemoan the lack of home grown texts and literature on Nigerian media. He decided to do something about it. Therefore, in conjunction and collaboration with his institution and the Nigerian Guild of Editors, the book project was given impetus, transcending the realm of ideas to, as it were, becoming flesh and blood. My immediate predecessor as NGE President, Mr Gbenga Adefaye, began the collaboration, and handed the baton to me at the expiration of his term in office. That same baton I recently handed to Mr. Garba Deen Muhammed, the new NGE President.

Fortuitously, this book is being presented at a watershed time in the history of the country. The no nonsense former military ruler, who had enacted Decree 4, meant to gag and shackle the press in the performance of its legitimate duties, is now a converted democrat, and champion of freedom of that same press, seeing the institution as a vital building block in national development. Instead of an adversary, President Muhammadu Buhari, has turned full circle to see the media as allies, critical partners in the quest to build a worthy new Nigeria, a country that can hold its head high in the comity of nations.

As we speak now, President Buhari is holding a mini summit of ECOWAS in Abuja, to fashion a way out of the Burkina Faso conundrum, where the military recently took over power. Because I had already given a commitment to be at this event, I had approached the President on the need to still keep faith, despite the crucial ECOWAS meeting he was hosting. When I explained to him the significance of the books being unveiled here today to the media industry, he willingly and delightfully gave his blessings. Thirty years ago, it is doubtful whether that would have happened. I believe this, in a rather imperceptible way, signposts the new reality in the relationship between government and media in the country.

And that brings me to the crux of the matter. What should be the ideal relationship between government and the media at this critical juncture in the evolution of our country? Should the media remain in an adversarial mode, or be more conciliatory, lending a critical hand as the government strives to build a new country, devoid of official corruption, greed and rapacity, a land where peace and justice shall reign, and no man is oppressed?

The Nigerian media has always played critical roles at different epochs in the history of the country. Indeed, the media industry was virtually born into activism and stood to be counted in the colonial days, right through to Independence in 1960. We can recall the roles played by Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Ernest Ikoli, Anthony Enahoro, Mokwugo Okoye, and many others, in the march towards political independence, using the instrumentality of the media.

In the days of military rule, Nigerian journalists equally refused to be cowed. Even when their heads were bloodied, they remained unbowed. They were battered, bruised, jailed and even killed, but they remained resolute till democracy was restored in our country. Can we ever forget the principled position taken by the media against the annulment of the election held on June 12, 1993, and won by Bashorun MKO Abiola?

Not even the inscrutable expression of Gen Sani Abacha behind dark goggles was enough to frighten the media, though they paid heavy prices for their audacity. There were long closures, leading to severe economic losses, intimidations, even deaths. Eventually, the country returned to democratic ways in 1999 and has been trudging on since then, with the media maintaining critical alertness as the watchdog of the society, demanding nothing but the best in democratic ethos and ideals.

Thirty years after he had been ousted in a military coup, President Buhari rode back to power on the wings of change and popular acclaim, this year. And contrary to the disposition in his first coming, when he felt that freedom of the press must be tampered with, the President has turned full circle. His democratic convictions have also come with a realization, understanding and appreciation of the roles of free media in the evolution of a new Nigeria. The President is now in a democratic mode, and has asked for the right hand of fellowship of the media.

And, what has the government done to display sincerity, and set the tone for collaboration with the media? It is striving to engender an environment that encourages freedom of the press. There is free access to information and no journalist is harassed or intimated, at least not from official circles. This will be maintained in the months and years ahead. In fact, no effort will be spared to assist journalists do their work as professionally as possible.

Permit me to sound like a salesman for a couple of minutes. Yes, as Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to the President, I should be able to sell my principal and his ideals, or get the hell out of the job. And here’s the new Muhammadu Buhari and the media for you:

In the run up to Nigeria’s historic 2015 presidential elections, certain people with deep pockets had sought to drown out the loud cries of CHANGE emanating from different corners of the country.  They sponsored all manner of falsehood and smear campaigns against the then APC candidate, Muhammadu Buhari.  In fact, they were in mortal fear of the man, and threw everything at him, including the kitchen sink.  However, all the efforts failed.  And, that resounding failure owed in large part to the efficacy of the Nigerian media, which, despite all the temptations to bend narratives and propagate untruth, still lent itself as a platform for the expression of the masses’ voices. On TV, radio, in newspapers, on the Internet, despite the dangling of financial inducement and patronages, the yearnings of the Nigerian people were still clearly portrayed.

And the cry for CHANGE soon became one huge wave that swept into every nook and cranny of the country, as shown during the  March 28  presidential elections.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Shortly after his election, President Buhari, in a meeting with the press, acknowledged the key role they played in bringing about the much desired change in the country.  He thanked them for standing by him, for their support, even when he had no cash to dole out, unlike those he contested against. He also promised to work hand-in-hand with the press.

He assured that the same CHANGE in the areas of security, the economy and anti-corruption would also be seen and felt in the Nigerian government’s engagement with the media.  He promised that his administration would mark a new beginning in government/media relationships. And that is where we are now, as the promises are being kept to the letter. Very significantly, on his very first day at the Presidential Villa, the President visited the State House Press Corps, where he interacted with them, and solicited their support.

In this dispensation, the public and the press can expect statements on any issue of national concern, without having to rely on speculation or rumor. And, why not? It is the right of the public to know. And we, the media managers of the President, are guided by that fact. For us, it is a credo. If any issue of national importance arises, you can be sure that a press statement would soon provide further information and clarity.   Gradually, this strategy should soon lay to rest the sad culture of a section of the media publishing speculations that eventually turn out to be false.

And, accessibility is our watchword.  None of the President’s media aides is so big that the media does not have direct access to us.  None of us is so sequestered from reality that we do not engage with the media and provide relevant information. Why then are we there to interface on behalf of our principal, if the media, particularly, cannot reach us? The whole idea is to let the public know what is going on, and in a timely manner, too. We remain committed to that.

In the face of all these, one is then led to ask: Should the press remain in an adversarial mode? Should it be pre-occupied with seeking the soft underbelly of government to stick a knife into? I leave the answer with this distinguished audience.

One is by no means asking for a compliant, patronizing, manipulated and manipulative media. That will be a tragedy for any country. In fact, woe to the country that does not have critics, as the people would all sleep and face the same direction. Just as The Guardian Newspaper had observed in a recent editorial, “rebuilding the nation is best done with constructive criticisms.” This government would appreciate such constructive criticisms, and so does not seek a media that is in bed with officialdom, but desires one that is a partner, not a forsworn adversary. That, I believe, should be the thrust and priorities of the Nigerian media, without necessarily turning itself to a conniving and patronizing institution.

The author, Richard Ikiebe, says VOICES BEYOND THE NEWSROOM seeks to “fill the foundational gaps in the study of Nigerian journalism,” and Chido Nwakanma, another media scholar says the work is “a labour of love for Nigerian journalism.” The love of Nigerian journalists for their profession has never been in doubt.

That love will be further nurtured by the Buhari administration, even as it seeks further collaboration with the media, for the good of our motherland. The government will appreciate the interpretation of its visions and policies to the people. It will appreciate good counsel and constructive criticisms. It will listen, and make amends where necessary. It will serve, and serve faithfully.

It will be an error to see vibrant, progressive media as we have in Nigeria, as adversaries. It would also be greater error for the media to see government, particularly a progressive one as we now have, as something to be harassed, hounded and hunted down. What we need is a middle of the road policy in which both institutions collaborate for the good and development of our country.

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