Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Nigerian media and 2015 elections

It is no doubt an election season and all actors and stakeholders are gearing up for the battle ahead given that election is war in Nigeria. Sometimes, it is civil combat; other times, it is uncivil war. As part of preparations for the 2015 elections, the intellectual arm or the “ivory tower” of the Independent National Electoral Commission known as The Electoral Institute on Monday, October 20, organised a one-day roundtable at its Abuja headquarters to discuss some salient issues that can define the oncoming polls. The forum deliberated on issues of voter education, election violence and the role of the media in the 2015 elections. It was the maiden edition and yours truly was privileged to be among the eminent resource persons carefully selected to do justice to the topics under discussion.
Prof. Chike Okolocha, a sociologist from the University of Benin, made a presentation on “Strategies and Methods towards Improving Voter Education in 2015 General Elections,” while Dr. Adelaja Odukoya, a political scientist from my alma mater, University of Lagos, presented a paper on “Elections and Violence in Nigeria: Key Issues and Challenges towards 2015 General Elections.” It was my lot to present on the “Media and the Electoral Process: Developing Strategic Partnership with Stakeholders.” There were three discussants as well: Comrade John Odah, a former Secretary General of the Nigerian Labour Congress, discussed Okolocha’s paper, while Dr. John Abhuere, a former director in the National Youth Service Corps discussed Odukoya’s. Hajia Saudatu Mahdi, MFR, a women’s rights activist, whom I fondly call “my mother in the development work”, discussed mine. Prof. Okelo Occuli chaired the roundtable while there were remarks from Prof. Abubakar Momoh, the Director General of TEI and Mrs. Seija Sturies, Fredrich Ebert Stiftung Resident Representative.
In my presentation, I traced the origin of the Nigerian media to 155 years ago when Rev. Henry Townsend established, in Abeokuta, Iwe Iroyin fun awonara Egbaati Yoruba, a Yoruba vernacular newspaper. It debuted in 1859. I observed that the Nigerian media is one of the freest in Africa, in spite of its numerous challenges. The Nigerian media, I opined, is very vibrant and acknowledged as one of those who successfully fought for the return of democracy in the country in 1999. Equally, I articulated all the legal provisions backing and regulating media practice in Nigeria such as sections 22 and 39 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, as amended in 2010, the Freedom of Information Act 2011, the Nigerian Broadcasting Act, the Nigerian Press Council Act, the Code of Ethics for Nigerian Journalists, etc.
While drawing a lot of inspiration from the Election Reporting Handbook developed and published by IMAPCS Associate, Ross Howard, I noted there was no gainsaying that the media, generally referred to as the Fourth Estate of the Realm is one of the most powerful influences on how an election runs inside the country, and how it is perceived from outside. Undoubtedly, there must be free speech so all citizens and all political candidates can speak without fear. The media, I further observed, must be free to tell everyone what was said without pressure to twist the truth. As recommended in the aforementioned Handbook, media focus during this season should primarily be on three things: Political parties and contestants, the issues and the voting process. Good journalistic practice in election reporting must take cognisance of: Accuracy; Impartiality; and Responsibility. I did enjoin my media colleagues that their reports on elections should not be malicious, libelous, seditious, defamatory, sensational; and corruptive.
In an answer to my poser about who needs the media in the electoral process, I listed all the stakeholders including the election management bodies i.e. INEC and State Independent Electoral Commissions, political parties and contestants, the non-governmental organisations working in the field of election, the security agents, the judiciary and the electorates. For example, the EMBs need the media in order to propagate their actions and decisions to the public as it is part of electoral accountability and transparency principles. Also, any political party or aspirant to political office who wishes to be taken seriously has to embark on self-marketing via the media. Thus, newspaper advertorials, jingles, billboards, flyers, websites, commissioned interviews in print and electronic media, press releases and press conferences are all part of the political game. Little wonder, media houses upwardly review their political advert rates during elections.
In analysing the role of the media itself in election, I did mention that the Nigerian media as part of its corporate social responsibilities during electioneering embark on the following activities: organising political debates among candidates; conducting of opinion polling; endorsement of candidates; agenda setting through editorials as well as staff training on political and election reporting.
I submitted that as a way of building strategic partnership among the stakeholders, all the election stakeholders must recognise the primacy importance of the media in the electoral process. Therefore, deliberate attempts must be made to build the capacity of the media practitioners by INEC on how to report responsibly on the electoral process. This could be done by training political correspondents of media houses, seminar and conferences for media gatekeepers such as editors, managing directors and publishers/ proprietors. There is also the avenue of sponsorship of programmes on different media platforms.
I did enjoin political parties and their contestants to deliberately cultivate the media in a responsible way by ensuring that factual and unbiased information are passed on to the media for dissemination to the public. Not only that, they should refrain from unduly inducing the media from performing their duties in a professional manner. Hate speeches, inflammatory statements, inciting comments and things that can heat up the polity should be avoided during campaigns. Political campaigns should be issue based!
I did not fail to share some words of advice to media practitioners in Nigeria. Without mincing words, media reportage of electoral events must uphold the code of ethics for journalists. Media practitioners should understand that their reports attracts global consumption, hence, national interest must guide their actions and decisions. Yellow journalism should not have a place in the reportage of electoral process in Nigeria while journalists should ensure fair, balance, accurate and responsible reportage of electoral events.This is a tall order considering the numerous challenges faced by the Nigerian media which range from the ownership structure (most media outfits are owned by government or private individuals who are politically exposed persons and tend to undermine the independence of their media organisations); inclement business environment leading to high cost of production and low sales; under resourced media organisations (many media outfits owe their staff salaries and allowances, equipment are old and not regularly maintained, little or no budget for investigations) as well as government and terrorist harassments. There are also the problems of untrained citizens’ journalists operating via social media (e.g. bloggers); weak regulatory agencies and high mortality of media houses.
INEC, I opined, has a pivotal role to play in coordinating this strategic partnership with the Nigerian media. The commission must not only sustain its current robust engagements with the media but must also improve on it as part of its voter education strategy towards the 2015 polls.   The election stakeholders must work together as a team to ensure the delivery of free, fair, credible and violence free 2015 elections.
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