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Media As Open Forum For Debate By Prof Aborisade

It was in April that the professor spank debate with his presentation at a training programme organised by the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) in Akure, Ondo state capital.

The Professor,  Bayo Aborisade (PhD) Professor of English & Communication at The Federal University of Technology Akure reopened a lot of wound as regards press freedom and in dependency  in the country.

Below are the excerpts from the memorable presentation.

Media as Open Forum for Debate and Discussion/Public Voice

Nigerian Press Council Seminar on Responsible Media Coverage of Elections

19/20 April 2018 at Crystal Suites, Ijapo, Akure

 

Bayo Aborisade (PhD)

Professor of English & Communication

The Federal University of Technology Akure

Introduction

The big question is: Can we have a press (mass media) that is open for debate and discussion that represents the voice of the public? Answer is: YES, but it will take some doing! That task is beyond the government and private-commercial press. The media ownership patterns across the developed world are an enabler of the present scenario and unless journalists make a concerted effort it remains a Herculean task. For the purposes of an election however there are pathways to making the media open forum platforms for public voice.

Aborisade

Role(s) of Media in Democracy

Let’s be clear from the word go. I use Democracy only in the popular parlance. I refer to our Nigerian democracy in terms of ‘Civil Rule’ and western type Democracy as Liberal Democracy, because that indeed is what democracy, as generally referred to, is – framed and defined by a liberal ideological philosophy. There have always been long conversations about the role of the media in building and strengthening democracy and democratic institutions, particularly during elections – capstone event of liberal and neo-liberal democracy. There have been campaigns for the freedom and autonomy of the press. All these efforts are an acknowledgement of the place, importance and impact of the media in shaping and moulding lives, institutions, relationships, community and nation building. They are also an acknowledgement of human propensity to dominate.

To build and strengthen democracy is to give life and meaning to the fundamental right of humans to freedom to hold views and opinions and to express them. In a plural social configuration this is an imperative, and it is in this regard that Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rightsstates: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedomto hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideasthrough any media and regardless of frontiers”. All this has been adopted by the Nigerian constitution. Further, the International Covenant on Civiland Political Rights enshrines the right of all to have the right to express opposing ideas and opinions. Growth and strength of free press and democratizing process relate in a dialectical manner, and until we achieve this establishing strong and virile democratic institutions and practices may be a mirage.

To be correctly informed and be able to express opinions and participate in the governance process sums up the role of the media towards the ordinary people. Healthy debates of government policies and peoples’ proposals from conception should be able to take place through the media. This is one of the ways the media can fulfill their responsibility to the people and to the nation. This is media as Watchdog and Open Forum.

Media as Fourth Estate of the Realm

It is in consideration of these roles that the notion of ‘Media as the Fourth Estate of the Realm’ emerged. Whether considered as originating from Edmund Burke who is recorded to have first used the term or the 19th century historian Carlyle who expatiated on it, the notion represents a significant development in the recognition of the place of media in national development. Depending on what era is being considered the three preceding estates are – The King, the Clergy and the Commons, or later Clergy, Aristocracy and the Commons, and lately, Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. Today therefore the fourth power estate-block is represented by the media.

The notion of the fourth estate was elaborated by Carlyle (1905). Coming after the invention of the printing press and the widespread cultivation of reading and writing, the newspapers and journalists represented a new power block. However, this estate was always expected to function as intermediary between the government block (first two estates) and the commons (the people). In modern states with the growth of market economy and capitalism suspicion has grown of the role being played by the media on account of the hold on it by ownership patterns and the enormous power being wielded by interests served by owners.

Critical media theorists on the left have characterized Habermas’s (1989) notion of the ‘public sphere’ where the media occupy and operate which ‘mediates between society and state’ as reproducing the dominant culture of the bourgeois class which includes representing the interests of the owners of the media. Noam Chomsky’s ‘propaganda model’ perhaps gives the most detailed analysis of the media critical theory:

A propaganda model focuses on … inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects on mass-media interests and choices. It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public. The essential ingredients of our propaganda model, or set of news “filters,” fall under the following headings: (I) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) “anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism. These elements interact with and reinforce one another. (Chomsky, 1988: 1)

The question then can be asked and appropriately too, whose fourth estate is this and in whose interest does it operate? More and more this question is being raised in different forms all over the world. The answer that keeps popping up is more or less the same: ‘he who pays the piper dictates the tune’, governments and the rich who seek opportunities to influence policies and control the polity. This leaves the commoners in the lurch. From the US to the UK and beyond differences are merely in dimensions and nuances.

During the early months of 1998, US media organizations have repeatedly had to issue apologies for misreporting. The New Republic discovered that certain articles by one of its most favoured young reporters were fabrications; the Boston Globe’s Patricia Smith resigned after admitting to inventing characters in four 1998 columns; Time magazine at the time of writing (July 1998) is investigating what it suspects is untrue reporting in in its columns and on CNN regarding claims of US troops using nerve gas against other US troops in South-East Asia. A New York Times editor ascribed this current surge in misreporting to ‘a massively increased sensitivity to all things financial’. This is in part due to the operation of the global free market as we see it operating in other spheres too

Advocates of free and deregulated media often argue that media institutions must be independent of state interference otherwise they would suffer censorship. But it follows that media owned by corporations are usually beholden to those corporations and the interests they pursue. In the UK, as in US and Australia, the Rupert Murdock media empire is controlled by the Murdock family and governments they support. The revelations of this reality in the UK led to the shutdown of The Sun tabloid and prosecution of its editors for unethical practices.

The corollary to the question of independence of the media therefore is: to what extent is the free press free? The situation in Nigeria is no different in real terms except for the dimensions and nuances, albeit bearing a distinctly Nigerian flavour. But the picture being painted is indeed dire.

Writing under the title: “Nigeria Mass Media – The Fourth Estate of Graft”Azubuike Ishiekwene painted a gory pictureof corruption:

The Nigerian Fourth Estate of the Realm is one hotbed of corrupt and sharp practices. The case of Azubuike is only a tip of the iceberg. To buttress this fact, Mojid Musikilu also narrated his ordeal at the hands of super-powerful newspaper barons who had sold their consciences to greed. In the mould of these infamous pen pushers is another one called Babajide Kolade-Otitoju of The News magazine. Here is an expert “yellow” journalist adept at portraying falsehood and litigation evidence as “investigative” journalism. In an era when Nigerians are aghast at the unreserved penchants of some evangelists of Mormon at dispensing all sorts of abuses to the Nigerian child, this one-penny journalist deceptively used all the falsehood and inaccuracies submitted by Helen Ukpabio in the pursuit of her “detractors” at the law court, as the basis of an article titled: Child Witchcraft; One Big Scam (The News of March 01, 2010). It was obvious that “brown envelopes” must have exchanged hands before such absurdity was written and published. The likes of Azubuike and Kolade-Otitoju litter the Nigerian mass media.

He went further:

The Nigerian press have always been a corrupt body, the level of corruption being almost legendary. The only difference with current revelations is that stories are filtering out from within its camp. Nigerian journalists (most of them) are merely a reflection of the Nigerian sickness. However, the level of uncontrolled greed, avarice and lack of self respect amongst them is alarming, almost out of proportion to the malaise afflicting the Nigerian nation. They are greedy, shameless and simply operate on no moral code of conduct. They will write anything as long as money can exchange hands. It is nothing new to learn that stories are buried in Nigeria. It is also a well known fact that Nigerian journalists would publish any useless story as long as such have been paid for. The public have been fed with half-truths and distorted concoctions borne out of kleptomaniac dispositions. The myth about the liberal nature of Nigerian journalism remain[s] just that – a myth.

The above has not in a short write up addressed the root cause of this corruption. It needs to be thoroughly investigated in an academic research manner. Perhaps the ownership structure and the weak economic base of the media would bear part of the blame. A situation where journalists go unpaid for many months or are sent to gather news without being enabled as we often encounter, or both leaves the door open to thieves to come in. But the journalist angle is probably only a tip of the iceberg. The owners’ financial base and overarching political interests may have greater bearing on the practices. A more charitable, in tone but no less damming, write up on the media is one by Ajibola Amzat in the Guardian of March 27 2015 which was titled: “Nigerian Press: Fourth Estate of the Realm or Fourth Estate of the Wreck?” Here the writer focused on the role of the Media leading up to the elections of 2015 and excoriated the media for shirking its responsibilities to the people and the nation during a critical democratic process:

… the role of the media in this charged political atmosphere is also open to question. Though the Nigerian media has contributed significantly to the struggle toward the attainment of political independence in 1960, and the fight against military dictatorship that dominated the post independence era, its role during the democratic dispensation has been less than remarkable. The 2015 general elections have further revealed the fault zone of the press. In democracy, the media is expected to stimulate citizen deliberation and build public understanding of issues, and report on major public problems in a way that advances public knowledge of possible solutions and the values served by alternative courses of action. The media in Nigeria has not performed optimally on this score …

The media’ s obligation as articulated in the Nigerian constitution to hold government to account by cultivating active citizenship has not been creditably discharged.

Media organisations like every other business exist to generate income. And in the service of this commercial interest, public interest is undermined. In Nigeria, most media organisations rely on government patronage (adverts) or from corporate bodies since proceeds from circulation is marginal. This paradigm of revenue generation shapes the news construction in a particular way.

Social Media: The Fifth Estate of the Realm?

Following the emergence of digital technology and the Webs 2.0 and 3.0 a new estate(?) isnow getting attention and making waves, enhanced in scope and power by web-based technologies . Wikipedia describes this Fifth Estate as socio-cultural reference to “groupings of outlier viewpoints in contemporary society” associated with bloggers, journalists publishing in non-mainstream media outlets, and social media. The use of this nomenclature dates back to the 1960s counterculture, and particularly and an underground newspaper by that name – The Fifth Estate – first published in Detroit in 1965. But many in this group also have financial and political interests, and when not often serve as hirelings, selling their expertise.

Social media have very unique affordances and these can, if well implemented, be used to mobilise the educated young population. Some of the features are the absence of editorial supervision, low barriers to entry, inability of censorship, ease of response to events in real time, interactivity. But social media also come with a big baggage of negatives: false and fake news, horrific images that normally would not be allowed in regulated media, ease of manipulation of events, images and videos, instantaneous effect and widespread circulation and appeal of obscenities. More importantly they may constitute a security threat.

Deepening Liberal Democracy

Open Forums

Notwithstanding all the negatives, if the unsavoury influence of corruption can be curtailed and the commercial interest of media ownership can be obviated (not hoping they can be removed), mainstream media implementing a social media adoption strategy with some of the responsible citizen journalists of the so-called ‘fifth estate’ can make a major impact in giving voice to the people during elections and enhance the nation’s democratic process.

The role of media as open forum for debate and discussion would be best served if editors and producers of programmes in the tabloids and electronic media open up the space for true discussions and participation of the citizenry. Leveraging the affordances of digital technology enables us to achieve some of the dreams of mass participation.

Some of the following areforms by which citizen participation can be engendered or mobilized. To make these effective resources have to be mobilized to reach to the deepest and remotest communities where the local and uneducated reside and eek a living:

Meetings and Interviews

  • Members of the public in village square meetings discussing and expressing their views on policies that impact theiraspirations; experts with different perspectives examining and proposing alternatives or justifications for policies or political ideas; party political candidates of all hews

being grilled about their positions  by the media on policies

 

Electronic Media Talks

  • Purposely designed Talkback radio and television programmes in which the public air their opinions. Some of this is already being done but mostly on trivia rather than on serious policy matters. A lot more of this is needed, especially when policy matters arise. Purposeful sampling has to be done prior to the events to ensure a representative sample participates, so that aggregate opinions become actionable

 

Face-offs – Electronic and Digital Technologies

  • Political contestants come face to face to argue about their policies and how these can be achieved and the potential impacts. Websites, Facebook pages, Twitter hashtags and so on can be used to get discussions going and aggregate opinions of major issues, where the public can interact with political actors directly both synchronously and asynchronously.

 

Unpaid News Reports

  • News reports on organized Civil Society and Community Based Organisations’ programmes, press conferences, protests and other events held by interest groups. Practice today is to charge for news, which encourages corruption and gives platforms for moneyed interests only.

 

Surveys of Public Opinions

  • Media organisations in conjunction with reputable research bodies and institutions, rather than dubious ad hoc bodies, need to be carrying out surveys of public opinion on critical issues and to give publicity to outcomes. Such survey outcomes help the public and political parties and actors. INEC and independent bodies can be collaborators for funding such events.

 

Social Media Platforms

  • No one is in doubt today about the power of the emerging ‘fifth estate’. Barack Obama’s success in his presidential bids leveraged this. Since then many more political actors have and currently still using social media. The power of digital technology is on us and presents a veritable way to reach and mobilise millions of our people. We cannot of course lose sight of the negative use and impact of the platforms and need to move to regulate their use.

 

Conclusion

Building our democracy starts and ends with the people. Any governance effort that discounts the people is fraught with unending crises. We are working to build, like the rest of the western world, a liberal market dominated democracy. One of the canons of that is periodic election where the populace elect their representatives and executives. After decades of military interventions and spasmodic civilian experiments we are moving gradually towards building a stable liberal democracy. The media as a power block in the arrangement have a role to play to harness and aggregate citizen views, educate the citizenry on policies and processes. The media have a responsibility to give voice to the people.

One comment

  1. You made several fine points there. I did a search on the issue and found the majority of people will consent with your blog.

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