Towards a free and fair press in Nigeria

Sep 05, 2018|Tomisin Ogunsanya

The media plays an important role in any political system. In democratic states, the media can be used to disseminate information, hold people of authority accountable and mobilize voters. In more authoritarian regimes, the media can be used to present a partial (and often state-sanctioned) perspective, providing little room for dissenting voices. 

In 2016, the role of the media as an educative institution came under attack. The rise of fake news marked the US presidential election. As implied by its name, fake news is misinformation that is presented as fact. It is often issued with a political angle; indeed, certain pundits attribute President Trump’s victory, in part, to the myriad of fake news articles concerning Hillary Clinton. 

In Nigeria, does the media educate the population or instil accountability, and if not, is this an option or a responsibility?


Regulation or Restriction?

According to Freedom House, an American NGO focused on political freedom and human rights, Nigeria’s press can only be regarded as partly free. In recent years, legal efforts to stifle the autonomy of Nigeria’s media have stalled. The Frivolous Petitions Bill, an act that was disparagingly tagged the "anti-social media bill" by many citizens, was withdrawn by the Senate in 2016, and although many journalists and reporters have been charged with criminal defamation in recent years, most of the charges were eventually withdrawn. 

Still, the political climate is not so friendly. In 2014, the National Broadcasting Commission issued a directive requiring all broadcasters to submit written notice 48 hours before live transmissions of any political program, stating that the directive was intended to ward off factionalism and sectarian violence ahead of the 2015 elections. In addition, members of the press corps have either been physically attacked for their editorial stance or made redundant. For example, in 2016, the editor of the Weekly Tentacle was continuously harassed in connection with a story headlined “20 Threats Against Jonathan’s Re-Election Survey''.


Not just free, but fair media 

The media's most potent tool is how it informs the public, and this tool is especially influential during election season. Considering the importance of presidential elections, legislators have been keen to ensure that the media’s treatment of political candidates remains fair and balanced. In the United States, this manifests in the equal time rule, which stipulates that American radio and television broadcast stations treat legally qualified political candidates equally when it comes to selling air time.

A similar policy prevails in Nigeria. The 2010 Electoral Act urges neutrality from publicly-owned media, mandating that “the state apparatus shall not be employed to the advantage or disadvantage of any political party or candidate at any election.” However, despite its legal mandate, the Act was blatantly ignored by most public broadcast media in the recent presidential election. The National Television Authority (NTA), the government-owned broadcaster, was heavily partisan in its programming in the run-up to the 2015 election.

Private newspapers also displayed clear partisan leanings during the 2015 election. As private entities, these newspapers are not subject to the 2010 Electoral Act and were not required to conceal their biases. However, when private newspapers are owned – either partly or entirely – by political figures, an ethical question emerges, whereby these figures have the incentive to use their media holdings to further their electoral or ideological agenda. After all, the European Union 2015 Elections report revealed that AIT, owned by Raymond Dokpesi, was partisan towards the PDP in the recent election. Likewise, prominent APC chieftain, Bola Tinubu, is rumoured to own TV Continental and The Nation newspaper, through his ownership of Vintage Press. Both media houses are growing and will undoubtedly play a key role in informing the demos ahead of the 2019 election

Another point of concern is the current administration's reticent relationship with the media. Buhari has repeatedly been accused of not being forthcoming enough with the local media, which has the effect of keeping the populace uninformed about the thought process behind his policies. He's also been charged with occasionally deferring this responsibility to a media team that is not as accountable to Nigerians as he is. Acts like these do little to support our media's watchdog role.


An Accountable Media

Accountability is a multifaceted endeavour, involving multiple actors. Its viability, consequently, depends on the cooperation of such actors and the convergence of their interests. The 1999 Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression and the press, but such a right is effectively neutered if politicians continue to interfere – either through intimidation or privately sanctioned reprisals – in the press’s reporting process. The press can duly report and expose cases of alleged wrongdoing – an example being Kemi Adeosun’s alleged forged NYSC exemption certificate – but their exposition is for nought in an environment of antipathy and government disinterest. Media bodies can employ the most adept, objective and professional staff, but their quest for impartiality can be subverted if their owners are intent on pushing through a biased agenda. 

Nigeria has a rich and engaging media landscape, consisting of both formal and informal mediums, but the media’s role as agents of accountability depends, ultimately, on the willingness of other institutions.  


Subscribe to read more articles here