By Eric Teniola
WHEN my friend Mallam Mohammed Haruna presented a paper on Electoral process and violence on February 7, 2002, little did he know that 16 years after he would be implementing his proposals as a National Commissioner at INEC.
Mallam Mohammed Haruna is an authority on the media-his calling for the past 45 years. I now reproduce the contents of his paper of 2002 titled “The Role Of The Media In Policing The Electoral System”.
The role of the media in policing the electoral system is, at least in theory, simple and straightforward. Elementary Journalism tells us that the role of the media in society is to inform, educate and entertain the public. It is to inform and educate members of the public so that they can make the right choices for the peace and harmony and progress of society. While informing and educating the public, the media should also strive to entertain the public for the simple reason that all work and no play makes society a dull place.
Our Constitution has added a fourth role for the Nigerian media, which is almost unique. The media is universally regarded as the fourth Estate of the Realm, the others being The Legislature, The Executive and the Judiciary. As we all know, the first institution makes laws, the second executes them while the third interprets them. All three together make up Government in the broad sense of the word. Almost lone among the constitutions of the countries of world, the Nigerian Constitution has turned this role from a conventional one into a formal role. Section 22 of the Constitution, titled Obligation of the mass of the media says, “The press, radio and television and other agencies of the mass media shall not all time be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and UPHOLD THE RESPONSIBILITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE”.
I do not know of any Constitution in the world that formally assigns such role to the media. Certainly the Constitution of the United States, which is the world’s leading democracy, does no such thing. Indeed, the U.S. constitutions make no reference whatsoever to the press in its original Seven articles. Of the 26 subsequent amendments to the Constitution, the only reference to the press is the First Amendment where it say ”Congress shall make no law respecting, an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, OR ABRIDGING THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH, OR OF THE PRESS; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.
I think it is highly instructive that without a formal role assigned to the media by the American Constitution, its media is probably the freest in the world. Of course, the Country’s Freedom of Information Act, which makes it mandatory for Government officials to allow the media access to certain information, does strengthen the hands of the media in laying its role as the Fourth Estate. However, its strength is rooted more in a tradition of asserting its independence from the authorities built up over the years than in any formal recognition of its rights and privileges.
Journalists in this country often complain that the Constitution of this country, at least from 1992, is unfair to them by formally charging them to hold Government responsible and accountable to the people but without giving them the powers to do so. They argue that the media faces too many restrictive laws to be able to act freely, citing such laws as the Official Secrets Act, the Law of Sedition and the Newspaper Decree, 1993. They further argue that even without such restrictive laws, they need a positive law like the American responsibility to hold Government responsible and accountable to the people. Such a law may indeed facilitate the media’s constitutional role. The way I see it, however, Section 22 of the Constitution together with Section 39, which gives every right “to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinion and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference” provide sufficient guarantee for free speech and a free media. At any rate, the fact is that, inspite of all the restrictive laws journalists cite as hindrances to their effectiveness; the Nigerian media is one of the freest in the world. Indeed, visiting foreign journalists often marvel at the freedom which the Nigerian media enjoy, a freedom which they often see as bordering on license.
As Michele Marinques, a French Journalist, observed in her book “NIGERIA: Guerilla Journalism, the Nigeria press often “prints fanciful information or outright lies, and using the most dubious editorial methods”. Marinques, has dominated the country’s media, pointed out that “If government can call into question the truth of information published by what are regarded as serious news magazines, it is because the Nigerian press is often astonishingly negligent about checking and confirming its sources or even statistics. Errors and glitches abound, and are seldom corrected in the next edition”.
Giving the freedom which the media enjoys inspite of the legal restrictions they face, I think the greater threats to their freedom of operation lie somewhere. 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. 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 are 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. 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.
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 GURADIAN”, 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”. 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.