Friday, 02 June, 2023


The War against Nigerian Media


My roommate in my final year at the University of Lagos was a man of humour. Much older than I was, he was someone you would call a “mature” student. He even bought a TV for our two-man room at the Henry Carr Hall of Residence. He had practised as a journalist for years before coming to Unilag to study political science. One of his witty moments usually came anytime it was getting to 9pm. Whatever we were doing, he would suddenly announce, “Simon, it’s time to listen to the government news bulletin.” That automatically meant we should tune in to the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) to watch the Network News. He always said it so seriously you could miss the joke!

In those days, NTA was the station we all had to rely on for national news. Or, more appropriately, for what the military government wanted us to hear. The rumour in town then was that some of the news items were written at the State House (which we call “Presidency” in today’s headlines). You would never hear anything critical or negative about the government on TV. Every news item was tailored to please the administration and treat Nigerians like zombies. In any case, it was not as if we had alternatives: broadcasting was heavily regulated, with government allowing only itself to own and operate radio and TV stations. We were stuck with state propaganda every day of our lives.

Something changed in 1992: Gen Ibrahim Babangida, as part of his liberalisation policy, decided to license “independent” TV and radio stations. That was what gave birth to the likes of African Independent Television (AIT), Raypower FM and Channels TV. Although they did not start broadcasting immediately, some of us were happy that government stranglehold on broadcasting was going to be broken at last. We would start getting dissenting views and less censored news on radio and TV. We would get to know “the other side” that NTA dare not report because of its regimented operations. NTA was notorious for showing cultural displays while Nigeria was on fire.

But government was very clever — it set up the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to regulate the broadcast media. The powers given to the NBC were so wide it amounted to gifting you a goat and holding on to the rope. The broadcast industry was born with a disadvantage: it requires spectrum for its operations, and, globally, government has exclusive powers over that. The Nigerian government can easily deal with any station that does not dance to its tune — by simply yanking it off air. After all, government owns the spectrum. This alone has been keeping “independent” stations in check for ever and ever. The NBC shuts down and fines stations anyhow. Only NTA is safe.

If not for the private print media — that is, newspapers and magazines — Nigerians would all have become zombies. The papers need only CAC registration to operate. They never have to kowtow to government because of any spectrum. They can afford to be a thorn in the flesh. Administrations always try to control or intimidate the press — through arrests, imprisonments, accusations of sedition, proscriptions and assassinations via parcel bomb, organised accidents or gun attacks. I still joke with my wife that if we had met during military rule, she would not have agreed to marry me. Critical journalism was treated as terrorism and was perpetually at war with the dictators.

In the current dispensation, it appears the political class is finally united and determined to tame the media by any means possible. There has been a rash of bills before the national assembly all geared towards achieving this goal. The motives are disguised as a benign attempt to “sanitise” the media. The draconian bills are designed to amend the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) Act and the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) Act in a way that all newspapers, magazines, news websites and broadcast stations will become another NTA. The punishment for publishing an inaccurate report, even if duly retracted with apology, is a N10 million fine or a one-year closure of the outlet.

There is already a social media regulation bill which can be used to target journalists. Agreed, the misuse of social media has become a big problem to the society with the tonnes and tonnes of fake news and hate speech being churned out per second. But there is the social media — which is definitely in need of reform because it is very prone to negative use — and there is the mass media, where professionals operate and where there is some degree of law and order, even if flawed. Apps such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have provided a convergence for the social media and the mass media. The government is now targeting the latter while claiming to be regulating the former.

Actually, there is hardly any media organisation that does not have social media handles, so there is an element of backdoor censorship in the regulation bill — in addition to the frontal attack through the proposed amendments to the NBC and NPC laws. It is clear that the government will always try to cage the media, no matter the grand pretence to be democratic or liberal. We all know the media is a powerful tool. That is why politicians, activists and corporate tycoons love to have the media on their side, even if they do not own them. It should not be seen as a co-incidence that our foremost nationalists and politicians were either journalists or newspaper owners during the colonial era.

I agree that in a country as diverse and complicated as Nigeria, the government has every right and duty to be worried about the misuse of the media as it can lead to chaos and disorder. Fake news, for instance, has caused destruction and death in many countries. Governments across the world are making efforts to check what is being pushed out through media outlets and handles. The advent of social media has complicated matters, with all manner of information being manufactured there. Someone would just pick a phone, fabricate a silly quote, put the name of anyone there and press “send” — and, pronto, it goes viral and creates confusion all over. This is very disturbing.

I concede that there is a lot of media anarchy out there — both in the social and mass genres. I, therefore, agree that some certification is important for those who want to be called journalists. As someone who spent years in the university studying journalism — yes, I read books upon books and articles upon articles on the theories of communication, elements of news writing and reporting, media management, editing, media history, media laws and ethics, etc — I can never be a party to fake and incendiary journalism. If I get my facts wrong, I am trained to correct or clarify and apologise ASAP. That is what I was taught in journalism school and that is what I do till this day.

Even though I studied journalism, I am not of the opinion that only journalism graduates should practise journalism — since the knowledge and skills can be acquired in the classroom and honed in the newsroom. I, however, support the idea that some certification and registration should be required of people who want to practise journalism. The ongoing anarchy has to be curtailed. I am genuinely ashamed of some of these clowns parading themselves as journalists. People need to know that there is a lot that goes into journalism beyond the ability to write “is” and “was”. There is a process of gathering facts and verifying them, and there is the principal thing called “gatekeeping”.

This administration has been complaining about the Nigerian media without being able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Somebody cannot just open a twitter handle or create a website and start writing crap and then gets classified as a “journalist”. Every one of us gets tarred with the same brush. The first thing is to understand that there is a difference. The media can never be above the law. Nobody and no institution should be above the law. But there are enough laws already to punish excesses. For the social media, there is the Telecoms Act and Cyber Terrorism Act. They both take care of the abuse and misuse of tech platforms. There are laws against blackmail as well.

I agree that even the traditional media has its own excesses. But, again, there are enough laws on libel and false information to deal with those infractions. The courts are there to adjudicate. We don’t need any new laws. I also agree that journalists must do their job with a sense of responsibility to the society in which they operate. But there is a thin line between “responsible” journalism and “pliable” journalism. What the politicians want are media organs that would see no evil and report no evil. It is not in the interest of anybody — not in a democratic setting. As for misconduct, that can be addressed through self-regulation by a professional body as it obtains in other democracies.

I would like to appeal to media organisations to take self-regulation seriously. We should not allow the enemies of free speech to latch on our excesses and imperfections to take us back to the Stone Age. We should not surrender the initiative to the government. They do not want us to open their skeleton-filled closets, in any case, and they will definitely hide under “sanitising” the media to clamp down on the right of the society to know. Every media house has to set and enforce journalism standards in line with best practice. The tech companies must also move quickly to devise ways of curtailing falsehood and hate speech, otherwise they will continue to face sanctions.

Finally, I have this simple message for those legislators and government officials working overtime to attack free speech: you can never, never defeat the Nigerian media. The colonial governments thrice jailed Peter Enahoro, as a young journalist, for “sedition”, including “for being present where a seditious statement was made” — but we saw the back of the colonial masters. Journalists were arrested, tortured and even murdered by brutal military regimes, but we saw the end of military dictators. If we defeated colonial matters as well as military and civilian dictators, we will definitely see the back of the politicians who want to use legislative tyranny to silence us. This I believe.

Chief Sunday Igboho, the spiritual head of the Yoruba “nay-son”, was on Tuesday arrested at the Cotonou Airport, Republic of Benin. The Nnamdi Kanu wannabe was reportedly on his way to Germany where his family is settled. I initially found it hard to believe the story of his arrest because we had been assured that he has spiritual powers that would make him disappear anywhere any day anytime. When his lawyer later said he was crying like a baby when they spoke on the phone, I was scandalised. I hope he did not travel on a forged passport. Forgery itself is a criminal offence. And if it is true that the DSS found unlicensed guns in his house, that would be double trouble. Cornered.

Someone sent this joke to me on Thursday: “The only reason why Buhari is going after Igboho is because there is ‘Igbo’ in his name.” Jokes apart, it would appear the Nigerian state is trying very hard to assert its sovereignty by going after separatist leaders, such as Sunday Igboho and Nnamdi Kanu, or those trying to undermine state powers, such as Sheikh Ibraheem El Zakzaky. (Abubakar Shekau, the Boko Haram leader that Nigeria couldn’t arrest, has been taken care of by his fellow terrorists.) The real test is what happens after President Buhari leaves power in 2023. Whoever succeeds him would need a great deal of political brinkmanship skills to win the peace. Dicey.

Did the federal legislators surprise you by failing to unequivocally incorporate electronic transmission of results into the Electoral Act? Not me. That most of the lawmakers on the platform of the so-called All Progressives Congress (APC) voted against a further modernisation of our electoral system is just a confirmation of what many of us already knew — that they are only progressives in name. I found it ridiculous, though, that the PDP has now become the chief advocate of credible polls (I’m laughing in Yagba). I would still like to point this basic fact out: e-transmission is not fool-proof. Even if we win this battle, there are still more hurdles ahead of us. Crooked.

President Buhari keeps saying he wants to pull 100 million Nigerians out of poverty, but the Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC) right under his watch is doing everything possible to kill small businesses, create unemployment and push more people into poverty. AMAC has just levied bakeries N100,000 for “gaseous emission” permit. Last year, it taxed businesses N120,000 for “compulsory fumigation” — before recoiling. There are a thousand and one other levies. Consultants cleaning out, obviously. It is either these guys don’t know the link between small businesses and job creation or they are about to teach the world a unique poverty “eradication” strategy. Dissonance.

Credit: This Day


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