What would you think if you had been invited to speak on a radio program about an issue of national interest and 30 minutes before it was to start you get a message cancelling because ‘the boss is jittery’? Would it matter to your conclusion if international media were tweeting about it because they had already picked up the issue? How about if you knew first hand that during the fuel subsidy protests of January 2012 many radio stations would not air the views of those demanding more government accountability prior to any alleged removal of the subsidy – even when the airwaves were jammed with people falling over themselves to support the government position?
The media in Nigeria, like most things here is schizophrenic. It speaks well but acts bad. As the fourth estate of the realm, its importance cannot be over emphasized. It is the medium through which Nigerians talk to each other and hear what is going on around them; it should be easily accessible, impartial, fearless, incorruptible and principled. However, it is not. The same corrupting influence that has infected every sphere of life from the judiciary to activism has infiltrated the media and made it a willing and powerful tool in the hands of government and those with deep pockets.
Many like to think Nigeria’s media is one of the freest in Africa. They point to the daily cartoons in newspapers skewering those in government or to the voices of the 0.001% on Twitter and Facebook airing their views loudly and passionately if sometimes brashly. But they forget that the daily circulation of our papers means the reach of these cartoons is extremely limited. They forget that the majority of adults cannot read – there is a politician in the north that allegedly declared that he cared not a whit what was said about him in the papers because the people in his state cannot read. So the point is this: those in government, the subjects of cartoon ridicule can afford to be magnanimous and allow us the illusion of freedom when they know how well the insidiousness of the brown envelope culture works to their advantage.
The real situation with the media is a mix of what is admirable and what is troubling. In the World Press Freedom Index where transparency, legislation (defamation laws etc.) and attacks on the press are measured, Nigeria does not do well. At 115 out of 179 we are not the worst but we are nowhere near the best, but not without good reason.
We know the challenges that media businesses and journalist operate under: the pay is appalling, the conditions of operation are dangerous and the cost of doing business is extremely high with lack of power, security and basic services. Journalists are detained and imprisoned without trial, their killers never found and punished; yet many continue do their best. One would like to commend the media and unreservedly acknowledge their efforts to pursue the truth and be the impartial conduit for the voice of the people. But there are two main reasons why it is hard to do this. The first is the money for story culture and the second is self-censorship.
While acknowledging that journalists are paid badly, there is something unethical about only covering a story when you have been paid or only attending a press briefing when your transport has been paid. It means only those with money have a voice. It also means that in a country where government is the biggest business, the most dominant voice is that of government. So when Nigerians (and ironically governments) get information or news which may or may not challenge their beliefs, they have a reasonable basis to dismiss the news as ‘paid for’, not trustworthy and ergo not qualified to change their minds or pierce their realities.
Self-censorship is particularly dangerous because it means that the brain washing of media into seeing news as ‘likely-to-upset-so-not-fit-to-publish’ is so complete that whether or not people with power try to dictate the news or modulate the voice of the people, the media will do it for them. For instance, the President’s media chat on Sunday September 29 seemed completely scripted. Most of us do not know if the rules of journalism allow for a person being interviewed to receive the questions before hand but it is definitely the norm with government officials in Nigeria. Wanting prior knowledge of the themes for discussion is one thing and questions, another. One can only wonder if this is how the Amanpours and Sakurs of international media operate. Even if the questions had been submitted to the President and his media team ahead of time, there were at least two loopholes for the four media representatives to exploit. The first is that they
could have modified the general bland open-ended questions they presumably sent by being specific with data, names, dates etc. And since the program was live they could have asked him questions that were not submitted. It is hard to imagine that they would have all lost their jobs or been dragged off directly into detention…or is that a plausible scenario? If yes, then this buttresses the conclusion that our media is not so free after all.
How do we strengthen our media for our collective benefit? For one, like most hard working Nigerians they could be better paid and maybe a review of labour laws will result in fewer journalists who use cash as a determinant of worthy news. It would also help if our industrial courts could enforce employment contracts as fiercely as civil servants battle for their DSAs. Recognition for those who seem fearless without the backing of shadowy godfathers and mothers would also help encourage bravery and principled reporting. And finally maybe if we had more well meaning Nigerians entering into the business and service of media, we would have more newspapers, radios and TV stations that cannot be censored by poverty or the menace of guns and withheld patronage. Until we see the needed improvement in the media, our collective voices will continue to be drowned out – pushing people away from dialogue and into the extremism and violence which surrounds us.
The challenges are fairly well known – journalists are not well paid, there is no sanctity of contract in Nigeria – so their employment contracts are merely pieces of paper which can be used to wrap roasted corn and the labour laws are archaic and unhelpful. It is also not clear if through the Nigerian union of journalists, members of the media are unionized and able to negoatiate as a body or collective – this could be one of the solutions to their weak bargaining positions vis a viz their employers
At the end of the day – because of our rates of illiteracy and impoverishment – many who are concerned with connecting with the majority of Nigerians, understand that radio is the best medium. With a few batteries, millions scale the hurdle of lack of electricity as a barrier to news and turn on their radios in order to hear the news and to listen to the views of others all over the world.
Oct 1: Wishing you happiness…in whatever form it matters to you. May what brings you happiness, bring the majority happiness too.