IN some of its finer and heroic moments since the return of civil rule in 1999, the Nigerian media have been playing an advocacy role to promote good governance, human rights and democratic values. For instance, one of the important battles fought by the media during the period was its vehement opposition to the attempt by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to secure a third term mandate, contrary to the provisions of the 1999 Constitution.
That was how a professor of Political Communication, Ayodele Olukotun, described the contribution of the Nigerian media towards the advancement of democracy since 1999. Olukotun gave this assessment while delivering the inaugural lecture of the Oba Sikiru Adetona Professorial Chair in Governance of the Department of Political Science, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State last Wednesday. The professor said at the lecture which was organized to coincide with the monarch’s 83rd birthday that the advocacy role of the media is even suggested in the titles of Nigerian newspapers, such as Vanguard, Guardian, Punch and Tribune.
The pioneer occupant of the Professorial Chair said that role has a formal constitutional recognition in Section 22 of the constitution. Another heroic moment, he added, was the media’s magnificent opposition to military dictatorship in the 1990s, which featured publications that went underground to survive and a pirate radio station. He said the advocacy role of the media also led to the resignation of Hon. Salisu Buhari as the Speaker of the House of Representatives in the early days of the current political dispensation in 1999 over allegations of age falsification; the easing out of office of Ms Stella Oduah in 2014 for corruption-related charges; as well as the current ordeal of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), David Babachir Lawal over allegations of grass-cutting contract scandal. The above feats, he said, were achieved through advocacy journalism, in the form of reports and editorials.
Olukotun said the advocacy and the reform-oriented role of the media came at a huge cost to practitioners and their organisations. Recalling that the State House correspondent of The Punch, Mr. Olalekan Adetayo, was recently expelled from the beat over a story on President Muhammadu Buhari’s health, he said journalists continue to suffer intimidation from state officials, even after the signing into law of the Freedom of Information Act on May 28, 2011.
He added: “There are the peremptory arrests, prosecution and persecution of critical journalists, as well as seizure of copies of independent newspapers, such as occurred in June 2014 when the Nigerian army carried out searches leading to confiscation of copies of Leadership, The Nation, Daily Trust and The Punch. Although justified on security grounds, a typical opinion is that of Reporters Without Borders, which argued that the action obstructs the Nigeria’s public right of information. Such breaches of press freedom were replicated throughout the period under study.”
However, Olukotun said a number of constraints or drawbacks inhibit the crusading role of journalists. For example, he said Nigerian journalists work under far from ideal conditions of employment. He said: “As Africa Media Barometer (2011:52) expressed it: Across the industry, working conditions for Nigerian journalists and other media professionals are poor. Salaries are low, irregular and in some cases, inexistent. This is not only true of private media organizations. Even journalists of state-owned media are underpaid and complain of lack of career prospects. Many workers in the state-media are also recruited as casual staff and work under even more pathetic conditions.”
As a corollary to the above, he said corruption or the ‘brown envelope syndrome’ is rampant in the industry. His words: “Hence, the economic frying pan under which the media operated may have accentuated the ‘brown envelope’ syndrome whereby journalists are bribed to publish, mainstream, relegate or kill stories…”
Somewhat related to the above, he said, is the use of beat associations to extort money from industry stakeholders. His words: “Other forms of questionable transactions prevalent in the media include the existence of beat associations, which are constituted by reporters covering specialized news desks. Arogundade (2015, p15), a senior journalist, provides insight into this practice: In 2012, the National Association of Energy Correspondents (NAEC) named Chevron Nigeria Limited as the best Community Development Company of the year. Same year, the League of Airport and Aviation Correspondents (LAAC) conferred an award of excellence on the then Aviation Minister, Princess Stella Adaeze Oduah (later sacked from the cabinet over irregular purchase of bullet-proof cars) and decorated Dana Air, later involved in a crash, the most customer-friendly Airline in Nigeria.”
Olukotun said the appointment of prominent journalists as Senior Special Advisers on Media and Communication by successive governments in both federal and state levels is one of the reasons why the media have lost their bite, by failing carry out investigative reporting.
Besides, he said government is in the habit of influencing the editorial content of independent newspapers through advertising. He said: “The point being made here is that advertisers exercise indirect veto on editorial content by sanctioning independent private media, which set out to be fearless and daring. Considering that the state is the biggest advertiser, it has often used this power to skew the media playing field in favour of state-owned electronic media, as well as compliant and complacent private media.”
The Oba Adetona Professorial Chair also added the escalating cost of newspaper production inputs as another reason for the high mortality rate in the industry. With the aid of a table, indicating the rising cost of several input such as newsprint, plates and black ink over the years, he said the development put pressure on publishers many of whose enterprises were undercapitalized in the first place. He added: “Another dimension of the problem is the fact that the lack of adequate infrastructure, power and security, brought additional pressure on businesses, including newspapers and electronic media.”
Another table listed the titles that collapsed between 1999 and 2017. These are: Sketch (2000), Concord (2000), The Post Express (2003), Tempo (2003), National Interest (2006), The Comet (2007), New Age (2008), Spectator Weekly (2008), Westerner (2011), Newswatch (2011), Next (2011), New Nigeria (2012), Nigerian Compass (2012), PM News (2015) and Newswatch Daily (2016).
He said the Nigerian media mirrors the ideological barrenness of the political class and that this is reflected in the ideological narrowness of media content, with the absence of fundamental debate on social and economic direction. He said: “As Sam Oyovbaire expressed it: The radicalism of the media as an anti-colonial and pro-independence vehicle; as anti-military rule and pro-democracy institution is really no more than being radicalism of the right or centre ideology. For obvious reasons, the same goes for the broadcast media. In the real sense, Nigeria has only establishment or status quo media.”
Related to this lacuna, he added, is the urban centredness of the media and the failure to incorporate the majority of the populace who live in the rural areas. He said: “Overwhelmingly, we encounter the media – newspapers, television stations and blogs – as urban phenomenon, considering that most of them do not have reporters in the rural areas. One looks forward to the day when community newspapers, rural radios and blogs operating from the hinterland will widen the discursive umbrella beyond its currently narrow celebration of eminent persons, rich people, powerful people, all of whom are located in our cities.”
The other aspect of Olukotun’s lecture centres on the changing profile of the Nigerian media. To begin with, he said the period between 1999 and 2017 witnessed phenomenal expansion in the industry. This he attributed to the liberalized political space, the exigencies of political competition warranting the replication of media outlets, as well as an economic boom, owing to the unprecedented increase in the price of oil in the world market for many years. The oil boom, he said, produced a new class of billionaires and economic players, several of whom invested in the media. He said: “The period consequently reinforced Nigeria’s position as the country with the largest and the most vibrant media industry in Africa, followed by South Africa and Kenya.
Another positive development, he added, is the better engagement and participation of Nigerians in democratic discourse, through access to the internet. Quoting the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), he said the number of internet subscribers jumped from 2.3 million in 2002 to 86 million in 2016; with a large majority of them connecting to the internet with their mobile phones. This improved media access, because most newspapers have websites where they upload digital copies of their print edition.
Olukotun said the situation has further improved with upsurge of online news publications, particularly with the arrival of platforms like Premium Times (October 2011) and The Cable (April 2014), as well as the mushrooming of social media platforms. In spite of their penchant for recycling rumours and peddling fake news, the professor of political communication said social media platforms constitute exciting spaces for civic participation and democratic discourse.
Besides, he said considering that newspapers increasingly source their reports from online publications and social media platforms, a synergy has been created between both forms of media, “especially on anti-corruption and human rights issues”.
Olukotun also spoke of the rebirth of northern (Arewa) media, with Abuja-based publications like Leadership, Daily Trust, People’s Daily and Abuja Inquirer becoming part of Nigeria’s discourse map. He said: “In this list, easily the most successful are Leadership, founded in 2004 by Sam Nda Isaiah…; as well as the Trust group of publications, which includes Weekly Trust, Daily Trust, Sunday Trust and Hausa language newspaper Aminiyah. These independent newspapers appear to have broken the jinx of frequent collapse of newspapers in that part of the country.”
Also, the professor notes that the vacuum created by the eclipse of Champion newspapers has been filled to a large extent by the newspaper chain of former Governor of Abia State, Dr. Orji Uzo Kalu. He said: “The chain includes: The Sun, New Telegraph and The Spectator. Although these are based in Lagos, they draw a substantial part of their sales and advertising revenue from the Southeast and the Southsouth.”
Dignitaries at the event included the Oba of Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu; former Governor Gbenga Daniel; former Deputy Governor Adegbenga Kaka; Afenifere chieftain, Chief Ayo Adebanjo; the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman, Governing Council, Leads City University, Ibadan, Prof. Jide Owoeye; the General Overseer of the Trinity House Ministries International, Pastor Ituah Ighodalo, the Chairman, Troyka Holdings, Biodun Shobanjo, the acting Vice Chancellor, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, Prof. Ganiyu Olatunde; and the host, Oba Sikiru Adetona and his wife, Kemi. The Governor Rauf Aregbesola of Osun State was represented by his Director of Communications and Strategy, Mr. Semiu Okanlawon