That the Nigerian media is sick is beyond question. Maybe the only question that’s difficult to answer is, ‘how sick is it.’ The idea here is to open a debate on much-needed reform that’s needed if the media is to continue to be relevant.
Three things I hope to do here. First, I intend to show that the Nigerian media remains crucial to the democratic process in Nigeria, explain why the issue of how well or not they perform is so vital to the country. Then, I hope to dwell a bit on the problems with the Nigerian media and why civil society must be involved in the effort to fix those problems. Second, I will suggest what precisely civil society can do regarding the failures of the media, including leading the campaign for reforms that’ll guarantee a more effective media. to make the media function more effectively. Then, third, I hope that provides a basic agenda for the media reform project.
Democracy and the Media: The media is crucial to democratic societies because they provide the ‘public sphere,’ where all members of the community meet to dialogue. The media is like the ‘connecting tissues’ of democracy because it’s the principal means by which the electorate and their elected representatives communicate. This is why all societies that cherish freedom of speech and the dignity of their people provide constitutional guarantees for a free media. Democracies require free media to guarantee the autonomy of civil societies and to enable free debate. In providing timely, accurate and fair reports of events, and by providing the platform for rigorous debate of issues, the media helps to sustain democracies. Without such reports and debate of issues, citizens often find it near impossible to make the correct political decisions.
The media is unique because newspapers, television programming, magazines, books, CDs, and feature films are all cultural products, which have a considerable influence on our lives. These cultural products to which we devote consumption everyday shape our opinion, beliefs, and values and, therefore, ought to be treated specially.
Just think about it, why would you spend your hard-earned money to buy a newspaper or spend precious time to monitor the radio or television? That is because you want to stay informed, right? Information, the accurate and timely one that’s provided by an effective media system is what helps you to negotiate life. Mediated communication is essential for the sustenance of democratic societies. It is also why those who care about what society they live in also care about the media system in place.
The problem with the Nigerian Media: The Nigerian newspaper industry has over 140 years of tradition behind it and is regarded as one of the most vibrant in Africa. The electronic media, with all its potential, is still undergoing massive changes because of the liberalization of the airwaves in June 1993 and the government regulations that limit what the commercial broadcasters can do. Yet, by all measurements, the Nigerian media is categorized as only partly free.
Among other things, the crippling legal and economic environments in Nigeria have impacted negatively on the media and are threatening its ability to perform the crucial role of providing the public sphere. In the meantime, thanks to the convergence of technologies, new media, and citizen journalism are becoming more influential in the political process. This digital disruption will test the creativity and resilience of the entire media industry because of its unique ecosystem that opens it up to abuse. One obvious result of the growing problems facing the media is the increasing gap between Nigerians and those who rule them. While the media openly commits itself to serve the public, the public sphere in the traditional media is shrinking by the day, limiting the space available for rigorous debates of issues that are so crucial to democratic societies.
In looking at the problems facing the Nigerian media, we need to take them under two broad descriptions: the media system and the economic environment. The six problems described here are not exhaustive, but they go to the root of what is wrong with journalism in Nigeria.
Government Policies: Media systems are shaped by government legislation, which sometimes is shaped by special interests, and Nigeria is no different. Because they recognize the importance of the media in nation building, successive Nigerian governments have pursued media policies that ensure firm control of information management. Such policies include not only decisions about establishing newspapers and broadcasting stations but also the enactment of laws that impair the practice of journalism.
Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution saddles the mass media with the responsibility of upholding the ‘responsibility and accountability’ of the government to the people while Section 39(1) provides for individual freedom of expression, but these remain unenforceable under the existing legal environment. While Nigeria now has a Freedom of Information law, most of the anti-media laws, which date back to the years of military dictatorships, are still in place.
The Nigerian Press Council (Amendment) Decree 60 of 1999, for instance, requires the registration of journalists and the newspapers or news magazines they work, renewable every year. The implication, of course, is that this can be used at any time to bar critical journalists and their organizations from working in the country. Other laws like the Newspapers (Prohibition of Circulation) Act No 17 of 1967, the Official Secret Act of 1962, the Defamatory and Offences Publication Act No 44 of 1966, Offensive Publications (Proscriptions) Decree No 35 of 1993 while they are not being enforced by the present administration, remain laws that can be used against to charge media houses for various offences and are capable of forcing media owners to self-censor themselves.
Also, the government regulation of broadcasting in Nigeria through agencies like the National Broadcasting Commission, while it is an improvement on the situation before June 1992, still favors broadcasting stations owned by the Federal Government. The NBC, which is the regulatory agency for the broadcasting industry is a government agency without any real independence to issue new licenses. The Chairman and the members of the Commission are appointed on the recommendation of the Minister of Information and so are wont to be beholden to the President.
Ownership Structure: The electronics segment of the Nigerian media market was deregulated in 1992 to allow, for the first time, private ownership of radio and television stations but as noted earlier, the odds are stacked against private broadcasters. The Federal Government controls a vast television network of 39 free-to-air stations under the Nigerian Television Authority, with operations in every state of the federation and a radio network of 12 regional stations under the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria umbrella. It also owns the Voice of Nigeria, established in 1991 with the sole aim of broadcasting outside the country. Appointments of the Directors-General and boards of these broadcasting houses must be approved by The Presidency, which also provides the funding. The result, of course, is that NTA and FRCN stations and their journalists are usually at the mercy of the government in power, a situation which severely undermines their ability to do any critical reporting.
Every state of the federation owns at least one television station or radio station. The thirty-six states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja control in between them, 156 radio and television stations of the 211 licensed. The private-owned stations, which are licensed to broadcast only within specified state boundaries.
It means in practical terms that a private broadcaster who wants to build a network to rival the NTA will have to obtain 37 separate licenses for all the states and Abuja. The innovation by a few private broadcasters to take their television and radio programming by satellite from their main stations to other major towns for rebroadcast has pitted them against the NBC, with the corporation insisting that licenses are issued for particular localities and that any arrangement to rebroadcast breaks the rule.
The newspaper industry is relatively more vibrant and competitive. There are at least 10 private-owned national daily newspapers (plus their weekend editions). Most of these publications are either owned by wealthy businessmen or prominent politicians who will sacrifice the public interest once it clashes with their personal political or business interests. As a result, a lot of stories are spiked, and a lot of misdeeds in politics and business go unreported. Because it is near impossible to raise capital for any business venture, where journalists have come together to start a publication, they have had to raise funds from the same wealth businessmen or politicians often at the expense of their editorial independence. The convergence of technologies has allowed online publications to come in and disrupt the industry – many of them doing so with donour funding – but it remains to be seen whether they can maintain their independence as they grow their businesses.
Lack of Independent Media Monitors: There is no perfect media system anywhere, and it is unlikely that there ever will be and so the debate as to what is the relationship between the media and democracy, and how to get the best out of existing media systems will never end. Viewed closely, at the heart of this debate is the immense power of the media to impact the political process, and the need to ensure that journalists and their organizations are held accountable for all the powers at their disposal. The idea is that the media should subject their practice and the power that goes with it to the same standards with which they measure political and business leaders. Where the media is not accountable, media users are often isolated, and credibility suffers. The tricky thing, of course, is to ensure that any accountability system for the media does not impair their independence. But the experience is that the government and the media cannot be trusted to manage any such system. The National Press Council (NPC), one attempt to impose an accountability system, is fraught with problems like the appointment of members and questions over its legality. As such, it is rightly viewed with suspicion by journalists and the civil society alike. The fact that there only one major newspaper claims to have an ombudsman or public editor is also evidence that the task of developing an accountability system cannot be entrusted to journalists and their organizations either.
In the more developed media markets like the US, less than 30 of 1,500 newspapers have ombudsmen or public editors, but there are individuals and groups outside the mainstream media who are involved in the business of monitoring journalists and their work. Some of the media scandals in the US are traceable to the actions of independent media monitors, and it is near impossible for American journalists and their organizations to get away with inaccurate reporting and unethical behavior. Sadly, until recently when the convergent media handed more power to the people, Nigerian journalists and their media organizations have been getting away with a lot because there are no independent media monitors. So, if news reports are flawed, Nigerians have few choices: to send complaints in writing or to ignore such reports. Most people chose the latter course of action but journalism, rather than those unhappy subjects of the unfair and inaccurate report, is the worse for it. Notwithstanding the scrutiny made possible by new media, the unwritten code of not reporting each other, means a lot of issues involving journalists and their organisations still go unreported.
Poor, delayed salary: The poor state of the Nigerian economy and all the problems which go with this is affecting the standard of media practice. Pay in the media industry is one of the poorest in the country and this is in spite of recent improvements. Over the last decade as the economy was destroyed by unending adjustments, salaries in journalism have fallen behind those in advertising and public relations, the result being that those who stay long enough to develop ay meaningful level of competence on any beat are soon lured away from the newsroom by the more attractive pay in public relations and advertising.
Most Mass Communications graduates are driven into journalism because it is the only option but spend their formative years on the job to network for relatively better-paying jobs. Entry level pay in most news organizations has even fallen behind pay in the Federal Civil Service. In addition to not being adequately paid, journalists in most news organizations have to endure long periods without salaries because their employers just cannot find the money to meet obligations. For instance, only four of the fourteen national newspapers pay their journalists regularly while the remaining ten owe their staff, at any point in time, anything between two and twenty-four months in salary arrears. Of the four which pay regularly, only two pay well above what the Federal Government pays is civil servants.
The net effect of these is that media houses are finding it increasingly difficult to hire and retain quality staff as most are driven away by the appalling level of remuneration and the inability of most media owners to pay regularly. A survey conducted in 2000 by the Media Rights Agenda (MRA) reported that poor payment was cited 4 times out of 10 at the primary reason for worsening corruption in the media. The survey also reported journalists interviewed as describing the ‘wages and salary levels of numerous media organizations as criminally low.’ The poor pay according to the journalists interviewed did not guarantee the material and moral security of their work and did not correspond to their social conditions as to ensure their ‘economic independence’.
Corruption: The poor pay and the inability of most media owners to meet their financial obligations to journalists provide a breeding ground for corruption. A 2001 survey by the International Public Relations Association covering 54 countries listed Nigeria as ten of the countries where those who use the media were most likely to pay for it. It listed ‘brown envelope’ or the practice of giving journalists envelopes stuffed with cash as the most common type of corruption in the Nigerian media but most journalists also double as public relations consultants for business organizations or political groups and for a fee, do anything from helping to draft press releases to handling advertising placements.
There is also the issue of moral corruption on the part of media owners who are only concerned with the bottom line. The unfavorable economic environment and the sheer number of new organizations in the market have produced such intense competition that is giving advertisers undue influence on editorial matters. Shrinking newspaper circulation and rising operating production costs for both the print and electronic media mean that media organizations depend more on advertising revenue and in this kind of environment big ad spenders are considered ‘friends of the house,’ and often would get away with anything.
Then there are media owners who are in the business only because of the influence that comes with owning a news outlet. For these businessmen, the media business is just a means to an end, and the patronage that comes with the media business is all that matters.
Inadequate Training: The general fall in the standard of education in the last 20 years has affected journalism like any other profession. The only problem is journalists are in the business of informing others and so it becomes glaring when they display ignorance of the very issues they are supposed to be reporting. Sometimes, the lack of in-depth, incisive reporting in the Nigerian media is not because the journalist has been compromised but just because he doesn’t know. So, press releases from businesses and political parties are at times used as sent because the journalist lacks the necessary training and depth of knowledge to subject such reports to all the rigorous tests that are required. This problem is compounded because media organizations just cannot afford the cost of training their staff while most journalists are too occupied with the task of tying down a job and making a living to bother about self-development. Whatever it is, in spite of improving technology for producing media products, there is a glaring fall in standards as a result of inadequate training. New media, though it requires lower start-up costs, are struggling with the same issues. First, the lower-entry requirements also break down the barriers that provide credibility and second, the more they grow, the more they begin to look like the traditional media, which exists solely for profit making.
Why You Should Care: Why should it be the public’s business whether the media performs or not? It’s because the media is far too important to ignore. Remember that the media has constitutional guarantees to hold Nigerian rulers to account? The media is the only avenue where the electorate and those who represent them meet, so this ‘public sphere’ should be seen as a collective prize that must be closely guarded. The performance of the media has a way of affecting the quality of democracy. Think about it for a minute, all the African countries where the media are truly free have established or are in the process of establishing track records for economic and democratic reforms. The likes of South Africa, Botswana, and Ghana are able to conduct strife-free elections that Nigerians only pray about. But guess what? They all have relatively better media environments. The renewed attention on the American media arose because people are worried about the consolidation in the media market, the digital disruptions and the problem it’s brought as well as the effect that these will have on the quality of their democracy.
The European Union Election Observation Mission (EOM) to the 2003 general elections rightly observed that the media coverage of the elections was flawed. Media coverage, the EOM wrote in its report, ‘failed to provide unbiased, fair and informative coverage of the political parties and candidates contesting the elections.’ Some of the factors responsible, the EOM said, include ‘the financial instability of the Nigerian media, the low purchasing power of the population, illiteracy, electricity shortages, media reliance on sponsorship for survival, a media culture of deference to the party of power, problems of professional development and the weakness of both government- and self-regulation’.
Nigerians all want to live in a prosperous, democratic country, so they must work for it because the media system will never self-regulate itself. Media don’t report themselves. Even in the more developed media markets, the crucial issues relating to the media often go unreported, which is where independent media monitors come in. It is worse in Nigeria because the culture of news organizations reporting each other is absent. Only one of the national dailies has a media page, and it covers everything but the media’s own hubris. This is why Nigerians must become involved. Until there is pressure from outside the mainstream media, it will be business as usual.
How to fix the problems of the Nigerian media
Policy changes: Part of the problem with the Nigeria media is wrong government policies, and so any media reform agenda include policy changes. First, everyone who cares about the media must join the campaign for the proper implementation of the Freedom of Information law. The law aims to generally improve the working environment for journalists by granting access to critical information. However, the experience so far is that government officials still hide behind the official secret act to prevent access to critical information, a case in point being the failed attempt by the media to get access to President Muhammadu Buhari’s declaration of assets. It is equally important to campaign for the removal of all anti-media laws that are still in the books. Outdated laws like the Official Secrets Act and the Nigerian Press Council (Amendment) Decree must be repealed. Those who care about the media should put pressure on their elected representatives to abolish all these laws because they are not consistent with democratic rule. It is also important to ask for changes in the law setting up the NBC and to encourage the development of an independently-funded public broadcasting system. First, it is essential to make the NBC truly independent by removing the overbearing influence of the Minister of Information and the President on the agency. A truly independent agency, where appointments of the Director-General and commissioners are subject only to the approval of the National Assembly will serve Nigeria better. Then, of course, the NTA and FRCN must be removed from the control of the Federal Government. A funding arrangement such as the one for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is one effective way of turning these two massive networks into effective public broadcasters. The longer the Federal Government continues to provide funding and control the appointment of top management staff in the NTA and FRCN, the longer it would take for Nigerians to see any meaningful public broadcasting. In addition to these changes, it is also vital to improve the licensing process for television and radio to allow more independent, private broadcasters. Such changes in the licensing process must also allow private broadcasters to build networks to compete with the NTA and the FRCN. The present situation leaves both government broadcasting houses with the sole monopoly of running networks, and it does not serve Nigeria in any way.
Active support of civil society: The civil society has always been at the forefront of political and economic reforms, and in the decades of military rule, the media proved to be valuable partners in the battle to restore democracy. Now, it is crucial for civil society to take a more active interest in the Nigerian media. The best approach will be to see the media as another battlefront in the war to make Nigeria a better place to live in. Campaigns for political and economic reform must include the improvement of the performance of the media. Most of the effort at the moment is on the legal framework but developing a system of holding the media accountable is now also crucial. In addition to activism directed towards media policy reform, the civil society must now build the capacity to monitor the media to save them from being hijacked by business and political interests.
In doing this, it is vital to encourage capacity building for journalists. The training of journalists by those in the business of building democracy is essential to the overall struggle to make Nigeria better. Specialized training like reporting human rights, covering conflicts and civic journalism will improve the performance of the media.
What you can do
Become media literate: If you care about political and economic reform in Nigeria, then you must volunteer for the task of reforming the media. This means you must become media literate by paying more attention to the way the media system works. This will include understanding the government policies which shape the way the media works and keeping abreast of recent developments in the media. One way to achieve this is to attend seminars and workshops organized by NGOs working on media reform. You must, for instance, take a more than a passing interest in who owns which media, and who is investing where. In this regard, the following areas are essential:
- Know the editorial slant of each media organization. With some patience, you will soon discover that they all have stories that interest them and those they will never touch.
- Know the owners, their political and business associates
- Know the editors and their antecedents
Speak out: Knowing the issues affecting the media is only one step. You must use your understanding by speaking out for media reform; you must monitor the media in the same way that you monitor politicians. When necessary, you must be willing to contact editors and media owners to complain about what you think is wrong with certain reports. Learn to protest and demand answers. It is also essential when you have the chance to make issues of media reform, like the required policy changes, priority at political meetings. Be ready to attend public hearings on media-related issues and to make your voice heard.
Become a media monitor: Last but certainly not the least, it is vital to help to monitor the media, in your locality for instance, through organized groups. Where there are no media reformists, you may have to bring together like-minded people, who care about the media to keep an eye on media products. You can always get training and advice on what to do from groups which have the professional competence to perform media monitoring. New media allow individuals to perform acts of journalism, but it does not make them journalists.
Those who answer the name must be allowed to perform but closely monitored.