The journalist and the nation

This is not a case of dog eating dog- one journalist taking his pen to tear down his profession. No. As you go through this article, I want you to avoid the temptation of making the wrong assumption that journalists are the cause of Nigeria’s problems or that they constitute the worst breed in the country today. That is not the import.

What I intend to drive home here is the unique and influential position of the journalist in society. Thus the force behind today’s discourse is two pronged. First, the journalist, whether he is a print or electronic media practitioner, wields enormous influence which can be exploited either positively or negatively. Second, it does not necessarily follow that a citizen, more especially, a journalist must of necessity be a victim or part of a problem before he can rise to be part of its solution.

The problems of Nigeria are varied and complex- corruption, insecurity, bad image, frauds, poor leadership, followership, greed, impatience, tribalism, intolerance and so on and so forth. I believe the journalist is occupying a vantage position to be in the forefront of finding the way out of these problems. Here, I will want to share just two personal experiences which will help us in grasping the kernel of the argument.

Sometime, in November, 1993 at the lobby of NICON Hilton Hotel, now Transcorp Hilton, Abuja , we (about four political correspondents from four national media organs) had a heated argument with a politician who was a top member of the defunct National Republican Convention, NRC. The argument centred on what was happening in the country then when General Sani Abacha had just usurped power from the Interim National Government (ING) led by Chief Ernest Shonekan.

Our anger was not because Shonekan, whom we perceived as an opportunist had been toppled by Abacha in a palace coup. We were incensed that the coupists did not restore the stolen mandate of the SDP presidential candidate, Chief MKO Abiola. As we made our points forcefully, all of us pitted against the politician, one of the correspondents fumed that “Nigeria will be reduced to rubbles” unless Abiola who won the freest and fairest was sworn in. The NRC party member interjected swiftly by asking him to retract the dangerous remark but all of us chorused, no.

Probably out of anger and concern, he stormed out without granting us the impromptu interview we had requested from him. But as he made away from our company, he had his parting shot: “Take note that with your powerful pen, you really have the capacity to set this country ablaze. With the same pen, you have the power to reconcile it and lift beyond the present setback.” The capsule of that statement in relation to my duty and civic responsibility as a journalist did not fully dawn on me until about five years after.

At the end of that traumatic era, the media did a lot in making the political stage hot for Abacha and his co adventurists. But the only snag was that in doing so, inadequate care was taken not to throw away the baby with the bath water.  In other words in the process of attacking the disease, little caution was applied not to imperil the life of the patient ( Nigeria ) suffering from it.

I saw a more practical manifestation of this aspect of social responsibility by some Ghanaian journalists last month. I was in Ghana along with no fewer than 20 other Nigerian journalists for the coverage of the recent transitory election in that country. One trait that is worth highlighting is the role of that country’s media in seeing it through one of the most grueling periods of its 17-year old democracy. The average Ghanaian journalist was always protective of his country. While condemning the attitude of some politicians who were allegedly inflaming the polity as the contest for the presidency between the two leading political parties- New Patriotic Party and the National Democratic Congress- dragged on, they were careful to insulate their country from harm.

That way her image and name remained unsoiled.

On the Nigerian side, the opposite was the case. Some of our Nigerian colleagues during the coverage, made it a pastime to be pouring venom on their country at every gathering in Accra- hotel lobby, restaurant, press centre, press conference venue. “Look at how nice and peaceful, the Ghanaian election is. This will never happen in Nigeria. I’m ashamed to be from that country. There is no hope for us etc.” The Ghanaians were all too pleased to hear such praises on their country and tales of woe about Nigeria. But they (Ghanaians) spoke less about their own weaknesses in the presence of Nigerian strangers. Even when the bitterness between the NDC and the NPP escalated through media war, the Ghana Journalists Association moved to curtail it by banning the use of the association’s facilities for press conferences pending the announcement of the election result. The officials did not mind the huge revenue the association would be losing through rentals. The country comes first.

One is not surprised that the Ghanaian media exhibit ample, morality, sobriety and patriotism. Although, the media in Ghana and Nigeria have similar history, the former dates deeper in time. The Nigerian media may be more vibrant, modernized, colourful and richer than their Ghanaian counterparts, but the latter appear to have an edge in the area of social and civic duties.

It is a fact that the media, civil society groups and labour in that order have been the worst victims of dictatorship in this country. They have suffered the worst clampdowns and incarcerations and even deaths in the course of the struggle for the enthronement of democracy and rule of law in the country. The harsh trend had a motive behind it. For the dictator to have his way the independent media, labour and civil groups have to be whipped into line. The jackboot treatment of these related segments is underlined by the dictators’ realization of the fact that they alone have been bold enough to dare them by resisting their draconian measures.

But in fighting back, the media has not been circumspect enough by sparing the country while attacking the malaise. It is like the case of a mosquito sucking the scrotum which must be attacked and possibly killed with tact to avoid smashing the vital reproductive organ together with it.

Oftentimes national unity, peace, harmony and stability are not given deserved consideration in the way our journalists run their stories. The determining indices of what gets published in most cases are sensationalism and profit ie what would sell the newspaper or popularize the broadcast medium irrespective of its effects on the image of the country. Some journalists just like the police and lawyers have been pandering to the whims and caprices of the rich and powerful members of the society.

Not a few Nigerian media men have exhibited consequential irresponsibility and recklessness. The trend began to assume a worrisome level from the military era particularly in the 1980s and 1990s when the regulatory bodies started slacking in their duties for selfish pursuits. Media hackers masquerading as scoopers took the centre stage dishing out fallacies and half-truths to the public and the international communities as gospel truth in the country. Negative reports such as those of disasters, crime, frauds, scandals, riots, strikes, civil disturbances, political crisis, electoral malpractice, kidnappings and even civil demonstrations are often blown out of proportion. Such events are frequently reported in manners that look as if the organs are in competition to outdo one another in sensationalism.

And the average listener, viewer or reader does not help the situation in any way. He goes for the newspaper, radio or television station that has the most sensationalized, negative and dramatized stories. It’s like a gale of nihilism and fatalism is sweeping across the land. Only few bother to cross check what they have read, viewed or heard to ascertain if it is actually the correct reflection of what had transpired.  One of the adverse consequences of this trend is that the country gets the most negative report in both the indigenous and foreign media. Ironically, the major source of the damaging reports is the assemblage of local media organs owned and run by Nigerians themselves. This is a contrast with what obtains in other countries where media practitioners are more discreet and circumspective when it comes to reporting what is not quite complimentary of their nation and her interests.

A major route out of this social problem is to strengthen the media regulatory bodies to stem the excesses of the practitioners. The function of civic enlightenment cannot be underestimated here. The passage of the Freedom of Information Bill can also make it easier to have access to news sources and cross-check facts thereby reducing news falsification and exaggeration.

The Nigerian media as a product of the society in which it operates has not and cannot be totally insulated from the ills and foibles of that society. This implies that all hands must be on deck to sanitize the country by meaningfully combating corruption and indiscipline.

Credit: Nosike

Source: This Day

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