By Chukwudi Nweje
Senior editors from the South West zone gathered last week in Lagos, at a Town Hall Meeting, with the theme, ‘Assessing Media Performance in Consolidating Nigeria’s Democracy: Citizens Verdict and Outlining an Agenda for the Future’.
The meeting, the first in the series organised by the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), with support from the United States (US) Government through its embassy in Nigeria, aims to promote and sustain free press environment for democratic consolidation and good governance in Nigeria.
It also aims at interrogating what role the media should play in setting the agenda that would lead to a sustainable democratic culture in Nigeria.
The press, which is generally referred to as the Fourth Estate of the Realm, is the only profession in Nigeria with a constitutionally assigned role.
Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria tasks the media with the responsibility of being a watchdog in the democratic process and to hold the government accountable to the people.
It says: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the media should at all times be free to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
The editors, therefore, gathered to rub minds on how they have steered the ship of their respective outfits to perform that role.
In his address to declare the morning session open, President of the NGE, Mustapha Isah, noted that as the 2023 transition election approaches, the media must move away from the debate on zoning or power rotation and interrogate the real issues of development, education, insecurity, youth unemployment and poverty ravaging the nation .
He said: “What is currently dominating headlines in the media on the 2023 general election is zoning or power rotation. This is the agenda of the politicians. As the politicians talk about zoning, we , I mean the media, should remind them that we are more interested in the issues of development, education, insecurity, youth unemployment and poverty ravaging the nation.”
He said that as the fourth estate of the realm, the media must monitor governance and hold public office holders accountable to the people who elected them.
“A free and critical press is essential for the growth and development of any democracy. The media as a watchdog of society owes it as a duty to monitor governance and hold public office holders accountable to the people who elected them. Good governance is simply an essential framework which serves as a means of achieving wider goals , including security of life and property, which is the primary goal of government , according to the 1999 constitution,” he said.
In his contribution, Mr Ray Ekpu, former Executive Editor and Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the defunct Newswatch Magazine, said the press must learn to stand its ground and defend the stories they publish.
He recalled that Newswatch was shut for six months because the management refused to retract a story they published.
He said: “I recall when Newswatch was shut. They told me that if I apologise for the publication, maybe, they will lift the ban but I told them that I will not apologise because we did nothing wrong.So, for six months, we remained shut. The system we operate in is perhaps the worst in the world. Decree No 4 of 1984 said that if you published anything, no matter how truthful that embarrasses the government you will go to jail. That means that truth was punished in this country. In this same country, the government will make a law and backdate it. As journalists, we have a huge responsibly to ourselves, this country and posterity and we must discharge that responsibility with courage.”
Guest Speaker at the event, Femi Falana, a senior advocate of Nigeria and human rights activist, charged the media to set agenda for political discussions rather that react to political discussions.
He charged the press to stop promoting ” those who have brought Nigeria to its knees” as the 2023 general election approaches and insisted that elections must be issues based.
“Make the election issue-based, don’t talk about the religion of any candidate, that is his private affair, don’t discuss ethnicity, it is an accident of history, nobody decided where to be born. Rather, find out the pedigree of the candidates. Find out the agenda those who want to come out in 2023 have for security and how they intend to fix the collapsed infrastructure.”
Falana said that for the Press to actively play it’s role, media houses must be ready to challenge unlawful acts taken by the government against them in court.
He said: “President Donald Trump once expelled a CNN reporter from the White House over a certain report. CNN went to court to challenge the expulsion, they won the case and had their reporter reinstated at the White House. Here, we beg and beg even when our rights are violated. The Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) imposes illegal fines on media houses and it has been difficult to convince media houses to challenge these fines in court, even after they have been told that the Board of the NBC never ratified the purported amendment of the code, so that remains an illegality but media houses are prepared to pay the fine. If you don’t challenge the violation of your rights, your oppressors will continue to oppress you.”
He said impunity will continue in government as long as the media does not rise to its responsibility.
He said part of the reasons the media has not lived up to its responsibility is because many of them are owned by the ruling class
He further said: “When many of the media houses are owned by members of the ruling class, what do you expect? He who pays the piper dictates the tune. So, the question of defending the interest of the people does not arise. It is hypocrisy to claim neutrality. Not to take sides is to take sides with the oppressor, you can’t be neutral. Nigerian editors must be critical in their approach.”
Earlier in her remarks, the United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, assured that her country will continue to exchange ideas with Nigeria on how to improve democracy.
She hinted that the US President, Joe Biden, will in December 2022 host a virtual Democracy Summit for world leaders to discuss and see how to improve democracy in their country.
She said that recent events have shown that the US democracy is not immune to flaws and that the democracy summit will be a platform to exchange ideas.
She said: “In December 2022, President Joe Biden will convene a virtual democracy summit with world leaders. The US does not want to analyse what is wrong with Nigeria’s democracy from the position of arrogance because we have gone through some difficult challenges ourselves. We want to convene the political summit from a position of humility where we want everyone to come together to make some commitment on what we want to work on ourselves.”
She expressed hopes that President Muhammadu Buhari will assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021 before the next general election.
She said: “There are many things required for productive electoral exercise in 2023, including the amendments in the electoral law. The US will not hold a hammer to say what the timeline for signing the amended Electoral Act Amendment Bill will be but we look forward to Nigerians working together to make sure that elections are credible.”