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Mohammed Haruna on the electoral process and violence (2)

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By Eric Teniola

THESE include internal problems like lack of professionalism, relatively poor pay, or in some cases, no pay at all, and bad management. The threats also lie in external problems like a stagnant, if not regressive economy, a decaying infrastructure, widespread illiteracy, ethnic and religious divisions in society and over dependence on imports for plant and machinery and other inputs in an economy with a volatile foreign exchange regime.

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There are, of course, such extra-legal restrictions like Government’s seizure of newspapers or the threat of withdrawing broadcast licenses and official harassment of journalists.

In spite of all these obstacles to media freedom, the media has had a proud record, going back to the pre-colonial days, of successfully standing up for the common man. In contemporary times, the media, the press especially, have played the patriotic role of standing up to military dictatorship.

They may have, as Marinques pointed out, often used dubious means in attacking military dictatorship or those they regard as enemies, but journalists were in the forefront of the fight to end military dictatorship. Given this patriotic record, by and large, one can say that the media is in good position to help the electoral system to ensure free and fair elections next year and beyond. I believe they do so inspite of all the external restrictions which I have enumerated above, if only they can get their internal acts together.

In theory at least, this should not be difficult. All they need is to be thoroughly professional. In other words, they should be fair, balanced and objective in their reporting. Unfortunately, in practice this is easier said than done.

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To illustrate this point, let me quote the words of Mr. Eddie Iroh, the Director-General of the Government owned Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, FRCN, in a recent interview with THISDAY (February 2), in which he tried to defend the FRCN from criticisms that it actively undermined the recent Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, strike against the recent increase of the prices of petroleum products.

“We are” he said, “not going to support any act that will put this country in danger merely because we want to promote objectivity, balance and all these values. All these noble values would be lost to us and to Nigeria if there is no Nigeria. We were convinced on that. But we found that the private broadcast sector were like foreign radio stations, formenting activities that in our judgment were not in the interest of Nigeria”.

As the Director-General of the FRCN, the country’s largest media by a long distance, Iroh’s words are highly significant as an insight into the prospects of a free, fair and objective media coverage of the next elections which should led to an effective policing of the electoral system by the media.

It is clear from Iroh’s words that he regarded FRCN’s hostile attitude to and negative coverage of the NLC strike as patriotic, whereas he regarded the private radio stations which had reported overwhelming workers’ support for NLC’s strike action, as least on the first day, as patriotic. On the other hand, the private radio stations must have apparently seen things the other way round, believing, it seems that the increase in the price of petroleum products were unpopular.

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In other words, whereas the new managers at FRCN-as well as that of the Nigerian Television Authority which acted in tandem with its cousin, the FRCN-saw patriotism as supporting Government position on the strike, the private radio station and televisions stations saw patriotism as supporting the public opinion, a position shared by Dr. Reuben Abati, a popular columnist of  The Guardian, who argued in a paper he presented at a seminar in August 1998 on Media, Transition and Nigeria  that “The responsibility of the patriotic press has been to defend the interests of the common people against the cynicism of government”.

Obviously, the new managers of the FRCN and NTA on the one hand, and those of private broadcast stations, on the other, cannot both be right. Fortunately, however, the effective policing of the electoral system, and for that matter of the larger society, is not a question of patriotism, however defined.

The fact is that support for or opposition to any position, on an issue does not preclude a fair, balanced and objective reporting of events surrounding the views and actions of all sides to an issue and this is not an impossible or even a terribly difficult thing for journalists to do, whether the ownership of their medium is Government or private.

In other words, it is not asking too much to expect journalists not to allow their view on issues get in the way of publishing the facts. In addition to being fair, balanced and objective, journalists will enhance their role in effectively policing the electoral system if they adhere to a number of guidelines for effective reporting as enunciated by Arthur Charity in his book Doing Public Journalism.

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These guidelines include: reducing issues to clear choices, expressing these choices by linking them to values that people respect, spelling out the cost and consequences of each of the choices, bridging the gap between the public and experts by deeding our jargon and pushing experts to speak or write in everyday language, facilitating dialogue rather than debate because dialogue is collaborative, searches for the pros in the viewpoint of the other side, exposes assumptions for re-evaluation and concedes that there are more than one solution to any problem. Debate on the other hand, is essentially confrontational, searches for the cons in the viewpoint of the other side, defends assumptions as God-given truths and assumes that only one answer is correct; and promoting civility in language.

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