Last week Wednesday in Abuja, majority of the political actors in Nigeria and other stakeholders were gathered at the instance of President Umaru Musa Yar’adua to explore ways on how to restore integrity to the electoral process in our country. In the course of the lunch break, I encountered the Delta State Governor and chief host of today, His Excellency, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan. Taking my hands and chuckling, he said in proper waffi pidgin: ‘Segun, una dey see differently for this side now o!’
I got the message. It is usually the lot of those of us who have had the privilege of reporting events and analyzing same, criticizing what we see as the failings of those in power to be exposed to cynicism whenever we cross the line. But the import of his remark hit me more in the course of the closed door six-hour meeting. From the contributions of some participants, any discerning observer would imagine it was the press that should be held accountable for the flaws and violence that usually attend elections in Nigeria.
But even at that meeting, there were people who stood up for journalists and journalism, and with the investment of the Delta State government in the Pointer newspaper which we launch today, it is evident Dr. Uduaghan is one of those public officials who recognize that in the final analysis, reports in the media are merely a mirror of the society.
It is from that premise that I want to assure His Excellency and others that I do not see issues more differently now than I did as a reporter and columnist even while conceding that my current position offers me a rare privilege of also seeing the other side. My perspectives and interpretations of events in our beloved country have, however, not changed and that is because I come from a questioning and noble profession, a profession I intend to return to when my tour in government is over.
This said, permit me to thank the organizers of this event for considering me worthy of offering some insights into an arena which happens to be my first constituency – the media. But I have a challenge. How can I presume to enlighten a gathering like this, comprising respected senior colleagues in the profession and veterans? Well, having been given this platform to impose my ignorance on the audience, I might as well make good use of it.
Media, Society and Democracy The role of the media in shaping the structure of modern society has been well documented. Scholars ranging from Marshall McLuhan, Jurgen Habermas to John Thompson have demonstrated beyond doubt how the mass media impact both on the individual and the society, shaping perception, knowledge and attitude, influencing social relations and setting agenda for the public.
We do not need to go far to locate the impact of the media in setting public agenda. Here in our dear country, the media has always been a socially engaged institution, not only informing, educating and entertaining the public, but also in shaping the course of history. The valiant role of the Nigerian Press in the struggle against colonial and military rules and in the campaign for democracy and good governance is well known to everybody here. Right from the early days of Iwe Irohin in 1859 to the present, the progressive and constructive heritage of the Nigerian Press is one that we should all be proud of.
Going more directly to the topic at hand, so much has also been written about the linkage between Media and Democracy. The consensus has been that the media, especially a free media, is a necessary condition for democratic development. The reason for this consensus is equally apparent. Even if we take the simple definition of democracy as the government of the people, by the people and for the people, we could easily see the importance of the mass media as an instrument of creating, deepening and sustaining democracy, especially in the post-Greek city state era.
This is the reason why most modern constitutions not only guarantee freedom of expression, but also create a special role for the media. For example, Section 22 of the our 1999 Constitution says: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.” The framers of the 1999 Constitution inserted this special responsibility because of their conviction about the agency of the media not only in holding the government to account, but also as a platform for enlarging people’s voices, empowering the citizenry, and guaranteeing the essence of democratic rule.
According to Clarence E. Ayres, at the essence of democracy is the idea that each citizen has a voice, actualized in the right to vote, and when these diverse voices come together a majority rule is formed. But democracy is not just a ‘game of number’ as most Nigerian politicians often glibly say when rationalizing electoral malpractices, it is the process of inquiry by which consensus is formed.
As Ayres wrote, “Surely the essence of democracy is to be seen not in succession of electoral accidents but in the process of public information and discussion and resolution by which the accidents of the ballot box are mitigated”.
Ayres would argue further that the true essence of democracy is as John Dewey envisioned it: the continuous process of education and enlightenment. This is also evident: you need to the media to have an informed citizenry, without which democracy is a mere farce. Denis McQuail underscores this instrumentalist linkage between media and democracy when he wrote that: “it has been largely up to the press to ensure that voters are well informed and capable of actively participating in public life to subject politicians and governments to scrutiny and evaluation and to express public feelings and provide a platform for ideas.”
The US Secretary of State, Ms Condeleza Rice recently, at Edward R. Murrow Journalism Programme at the State Department agrees with the above when she held that, “There is no more important pillar of democracy than a free and active press,” what Thomas Jefferson called “the fourth estate.” Jefferson, according to Ms Rice, meant without a free and active press, “the people could not be certain that their views would be known to their leaders and that their leaders’ views would be known to them.” With little question therefore, a free and independent media is one of democracy’s most important institutions.
Examining the media as an institution, however, requires an understanding of what constitutes the sector; it would also help to define the terminology. But in this presentation, the terms “media” and “press” will be used interchangeably, being contextually coterminous. In the broadest sense, the media embraces the television and film entertainment industries, a vast array of regularly published printed material, and even public relations and advertising. The focus here will be on the press, which in this electronic age is generically referred to as the “news media,” and was memorably referred to as “the guardians of the public sphere,” by Jurgen Habermas, the German philosopher.
The emphasis in this definition is on content, not technology or delivery system, because the press – even within our environment– can be found these days on the Internet, the fax lines, or the airwaves. But the pertinent question remains: how does that connect with democracy? Very simple. A self-governing society, by definition, needs to make its own decisions. It cannot do that without hard information, leavened with an open exchange of views.
One time US president, Abraham Lincoln articulated this concept most succinctly when he said: “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.” As early as the 17th century, Enlightenment theorists had argued that publicity and openness provide the best protection against tyranny, corruption and the excesses of arbitrary rule. In the early 1700s, the French political philosopher Montesquieu, raging against the secret accusations delivered by Palace courtiers to the French King, prescribed publicity as the cure for the abuse of power.
English and American thinkers later in that century would agree with Montesquieu, recognizing the importance of the press in making officials aware of the public’s discontents and allowing governments to rectify their errors. Since then, the press has been widely proclaimed as the “Fourth Estate,” a co-equal branch of government that provides the check and balance without which governments cannot be effective.
Thomas Jefferson indeed celebrated the press with his famous declaration: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”
Contemporary democratic theory appreciates the role of the media in ensuring that governments are held accountable. In both new and old democracies, the notion of the media as watchdog and not merely a passive recorder of events is widely accepted. Governments, it is argued, cannot be held accountable if citizens are ill-informed about the actions of officials and institutions. The watchdog press therefore serves as the guardian of public interest, warning the citizens against those who are doing them harm and that I can say is the role the Nigerian press has been playing effectively.
It can, however do more. And it should indeed do more. In a fledgling democracy like ours, a fearless and effective watchdog is critical since institutions are weak. For the current efforts at enforcing the Rule of Law to succeed, for instance, the media would have to play the critical role of keeping a check on the judiciary, discouraging any tendency towards a cult of personality while encouraging diverse and plural voices that serve the public interest.
This is essential because the media is increasingly intertwined with the practice of democracy in various countries and Nigeria cannot be left out. In order to be well-informed citizens and active participants in our democracy, people must understand both our governing process and the role of the media in them. There is that yawning gap today. While most ordinary Nigerians have a great deal of exposure to the media in the realms of entertainment and culture, most do not understand how the media, politics, and public policy interact with each other and thereby affect their lives.
Yet, since the 17th century, the role of the media as Fourth Estate and as a forum for public discussion and debate has been recognized. Today, despite the propensity for sleaze, sensationalism and superficiality, the notion of the media as watchdog, as guardian of the public interest, and as a conduit between the government and the governed remains deeply ingrained.
In our country today, the media have been able to assert their role in buttressing and deepening democracy. Investigative reporting, in some cases, have led to the ouster of important public officials and posed a potent challenge to corrupt governments. That has helped to make the media an effective and credible watchdog and in turn boost its credibility among the public. Investigative reporting has also helped accustom officials to an inquisitive press and helped build a culture of openness and disclosure that has made government officials more responsible in the management of public trust.
Challenges and Concerns
Yet for all its contributions, we must be bold to admit that the media does not always live up to the ideal it preaches. Sheila S. Coronel, Executive Director and one of the founders of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, adduces some reasons why this is so and while she may have been speaking about her country, we can also draw some parallels for our situation in Nigeria. She states: “serious reporting is often difficult to sustain in competitive media markets that put a premium on the shallow and sensational. Moreover, the media are sometimes used as proxies in the battle between rival political groups, in the process sowing divisiveness rather than consensus, hate speech instead of sober debate, and suspicion rather than social trust. In these cases, the media contribute to public cynicism and democratic decay.”
Leo Bogart, an American media authority, poses the question: “do media inherently serve democracy?” He posits that: “media are instruments. They can serve different ends… They are indispensable to a democratic society because they make information available at all social levels and in all geographic corners. However, the existence of an advanced and diverse media system does not guarantee that it will serve democracy.”
What we can draw from this is that the media is a double-edge sword that can cut both ways, that the media can both promote and undermine democracy, and that the linkage between free press and strong democracy is not automatic. The challenge therefore is how to strengthen the agency of the free press and make it an enabler of democratic consolidation and not a midwife of democratic reversal.
In pursuance of this, the media should keep citizens engaged in the business of governance by informing, educating and mobilizing the public. It is also the responsibility of the media to help build peace and social consensus without which democracy is threatened. The media can provide warring groups mechanisms for mediation, representation and voice so they can settle their differences peacefully. Recent media coverage of the Niger Delta problems points to the fact that there are still challenges on this score.
As veritable agents of nation building, the media should not be seen to be fanning the flames of discord by reinforcing prejudices, muddling the facts and tending to romanticize criminality that sometimes masquerade as agitation. Given what obtains today in the region where violence has become a daily staple in some areas, which makes genuine government efforts at development rather difficult, I believe the media has a responsibility to promote reconciliation through careful reportage that gives voice to all sides of the conflict and frowns at justification of violence and criminality.
In the 1990s, several countries in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, went through transition programmes to return their societies to democracy. Nigeria was one of them as we made bold steps to free our country from several decades of authoritarian military rule. The media not only contributed significantly to the transition to democracy but is also contributing immensely to deepening democracy. But as we all know, democracy is a journey not an event. Continuous and vigilant media engagement is critical to our ability to consolidate our democracy. While keeping up with its constitutional and historical roles, the media also needs to focus on issues of access and diversity, the challenges of nation building and social responsibility, and the imperative of media democracy.
In conclusion, let me say that while one recognizes the need for adversarial relationship between the press and the government, there is also the need for stronger partnership between the two parties not only in deepening the capacity of the media to promote democracy but also in the interest of the people on behalf on whom the government governs and whose voice the press amplifies. Today, while we accept the disappointment of majority of our people whose lots have not improved, we should also accept that some progress has also been made.
The years ahead, however, hold a promise. But this promise can be realized only when we media professionals appreciate that positive social change in our society can only be achieved with some sort of collaboration on key national issues between people in public office and those in the newsroom. We must realize that if an issue is distorted or muted in the press due to corporate pressure or propaganda, it will be difficult for the citizenry (whose interest we all serve) to make accurate social valuations and it will be practically impossible for democratic process to accurately assess society’s problems or prescribe genuine solutions.
I thank you all for listening attentively and God bless.
*Adeniyi, Special Adviser to the President on Communications presented this paper at the Public Presentation of the Repackaged Pointer Newspaper in Lagos on Tuesday, January 21, 2008.