By Yushau A. Shuaib
Democracy is appreciated by the roles of political office holders whose activities are beamed efficiently to the public through the media. In our political system, the executive, legislature and judiciary, have been amplified as sensitive arms of government, while the media is recognized, even if not constitutionally, as the fourth estate of the realm, by serving as watch dogs over other branches of the bureaucracy.
When President Obasanjo recently asked his vice, Atiku Abubakar to take over negotiation over the increase on fuel pump price, after the attendant workers’ strike which engulfed the nation, many were dumbfounded by the seeming generosity of the president to his partner in the face of strong insinuations on their no-love-lost-relationship. Though, the media widely reported the request cum directive for Atiku to lead the technical committee set up to resolve the fuel crisis, but not without varied headlines that suggested many interpretations on strained relationship between the landlords in Aso Rock. The misconception over the relationship was borne by the way the media portrayed the two leaders.
Public analysts and commentators have severally dealt with the roles of the Media since the inception of democracy in the country after decades of military intervention in our nationhood. But nothing has been highlighted other than the purported disagreements and rancour between the political leadership. It could be recalled that in the struggle for the enshrinement of democracy, especially during the regime of General Abdulsalami, the press played laudable roles in the emergence of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, also a General, as the candidate of the People Democratic Party and by extension, made case for a moderate and liberal personality as his running mate. Atiku Abubakar who had already won a gubernatorial seat in Adamawa State, was invited to be the vice by the then President-in-waiting as the best alternative. Almost towards the end of the first tenure of the administration the president had a healthy and cordial relationship with his vice, this cannot be said in the case of most Governors whose first tenure did not end without unfortunate scenarios, in which some deputies attempted to dethrone their bosses from office.
Though the press may not participate in the vigorous campaign for public office or seek for political appointment, it is a vibrant and outspoken arm for change and radical transformation. It is truly a representative institution, endorsed by large patronage from viewers and readership who express themselves through the platforms and contribute to the media sustenance in the marketplace. But unfortunately, the media, which is used by the office seekers to metamorphose into elected representatives of the people, are reused to fractionalize the polity, thereby overheating the system.
Just before the last party primaries, the President and his vice were aloof over alleged frosty alliance. The media were awash with behind the scene rivalry between the two powerful men that at a stage they created an impression that the boss had to passionately plead with his junior partner to save him from the emerging likely humiliation from powerful opponents. The messages to the electorates during the period were centred on the growing antagonisms amongst the political class, while issues bordering on mission statements and manifestoes of the political parties which are vital instruments to equip voters rationally in exercising their franchise were highly neglected at the expenses of the system.
One might have expected that at least after the election, when the supposedly warring parties must have established a clear unity of purpose, the media would concentrate on advocating for social changes and developmental efforts, but the media instead, concentrate and act as an instigating referee, who incites bloody fights. To buttress this further, a magazine recently published a damning report, which may likely estrange the public officers. The journal probably in its quest to win laurels or crave for breaking news, indicted the presidency, as it consistently did over the years with each administration. The publication, which carried two strange paid adverts of a former military leader it had attacked in the past, seems to recreate the infighting between the present occupants of the Presidential Villa. In the same edition, a governor who was recently sworn in after being cleared before the election was accused of forging educational qualifications, which couldn’t add anything constitutionally to his aspiration to govern a state. The scandalous media scrutiny has necessitated some office seekers to attach video and pictures of their academic background to academic credentials.
The moral question one asks in this situation is, if the electorates voted by the influence of the media campaign, as represented in editorial commentaries and sponsored spotlight, would it be fair to condemn the elected officers immediately before undertaking any activity in their new tenure? Were the allegations, though trivial, not belated when they could have been used effectively to forewarn the electorates? There may not be any thing wrong in condemning bad policies and programmes of government, but a lot is wrong if the public is fed with personality clashes and scandalous insinuations which neither are significant to the administration of a state nor have direct connections to performance in office.
Even if Obasanjo and Atiku’s camaraderie of regular convivial exchange of banters is a pretext before the cameras, they have never betrayed any emotion of hostility. This is a clear distinction from the animosity that existed between some governors and their deputies over flimsies. It is regrettable that when the masses are distraught with hardship in the early stage of the tenure, the disputations are speculated as part of the struggle for plum offices in 2007, as if they know who may survive and be relevant tomorrow.
It is a well-known fact that politicians with egocentric ambitions encourage and finance anonymous and destructive stories against political opponents, even within the same party. The activities of such faceless politicians in collusion with some sections of the media are total disservice to the poor and innocent electorates who suffered the negative distraction over alleged power tussles of the titans.
The excessive coverage and reporting on political office holders in media against special focus on the populace have deprived competent and well-intentioned Nigerians to vie for public office. For instance, out of the thirty registered political parties in the country, the few reported are those involved in clownish presentations and combatant remarks. The reasons are not far-fetched as the press, especially the electronic media, commercialize most of their services which are hardly affordable to the ordinary citizens but exclusively utilized by those in power and the moneybags. This unfortunate stand seems to justify, to some extent, the craving for campaign donations by some candidates. But unfortunately, it is the elites and those in power who benefitted from organised jamborees, which are largely viewed as morally incomprehensible and politically objectionable.
In addition, due to high level of sensationalism, where conflicts, sex and diseases constitute the element of newsworthiness, the public is wary and extremely selective on media products. No one in his right senses would call for the regulation of the press despite the activities of few practitioners who are beclouded by sectional allegiance and promoted discord in the society. Regulation would no doubt encourage editorial interference and political pressure, rendering the press with no teeth to bite and remains a mere rubber stamp in endorsing the interest of those in power, even where its decision is against the public interest.
While at the national level, the battle is fought in the private and public media, the states wholly control the press at that level which are mostly owned by the government. Most electronic and print media at the second tier, as used by respective public figures, are not in any way instruments of empowerment and rationality, but means of sidelining the public whom they intended to protect. That was why some corrupt officers were returned because the public media is used to manipulate mass-opinion, undermines public right to self-expression, perpetuates the rotation of illegitimate and unconstitutional acts and promotes selfish interest of the few. This attitude is defeatist and that is why the selling and competitive state owned media that were not challenged could not measure up to the circulating strength of private media.
As the media become a football to be dribbled forth and back by the politicians who accused it of partisanship, while the public becoming disenchanted over non-representation, the role of media in democracy has therefore, called for a reassessment. The media in a democratic system must represent the voice of the voiceless, the artisans, market women, students, labour, activists, traditional institutions, religious bodies, organized sectors, and every segment of the society, by bringing to the fore their positions and plights. As the public watch dogs they must oversee the activities of government as related to its impact on the society and facilitate general debate on issue of national importance by participating in the resolution of conflicts for the benefit of the society. It should check the excesses of government and protect the public interest through constructive criticisms and patriotic commentaries that encourage flow of investment thereby boost revenue even through tourism.
Since Aso Rock has magnanimously appointed two former Presidents of Nigerian Guild of Editors, Remi Oyo and Garba Shehu as spokespersons to Chief Obasanjo and Atiku Abubakar respectively, the Media representatives in government should guide their bosses on the manner and mannerism that may not be misinterpreted in the editorials and public views as distraction from social reforms towards better society. As Professor James Curran says “free market media inform citizens from a variety of view points; they keep open the channels of communication between government and governed, and between different groups in society; they provide neutral zones for the formation of public opinion. In short, the processes of the market are central to exercise of popular sovereignty.”
This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in Guardian July14, New Nigeria July15, Daily Trust July17, Nigerian Tribune July21, Daily Champion Aug5, Daily Times August 28, 2003