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Your responsibility is to the public (not politicians), broadcasters told

NBC Director-General  Is’haq Modibbo Kawu

Broadcasters in Nigeria gathered in Lagos this week (4-5 Feb) for a two-day workshop on political broadcasting, especially with the 2019 elections barely two weeks away.

Hosted by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), the theme was ‘Media Coverage of 2015 Elections: Challenges, Regulatory Framework and the Way Forward for a more Democratic Society.’

“I am sure many of you will be wondering why we have decided to do a review of the 2015 elections. After all, that took place over three years ago. But the answer is simple and very instructive,” NBC Director-General  Is’haq Modibbo Kawu said in his opening remarks.

“As we introspect on the 2019 elections before us , we must retrospect to 2015. We are heading for 2019, but many of the frightening symptoms of 2015 are already looming large, ahead of the 2019 elections.

“The 2015 General Elections were arguably the most contentious in our national history. They pitted a ruling party that had been in the saddle since the 1999 transition from military dictatorship, against an opposition political camp, which had become formidable and better organized than previously.

“So, more than ever before, the ambiance of politicking in the lead to the 2015 elections, was very fractious; politically charged and it brought us, most frontally, with the reality of hate speech, fake news and utterly abusive language, and the most unscrupulous attitude in Political Broadcasting in Nigeria.”

The DG said it was important that the media played the role of unbiased umpire to the letter and avoid openly taking sides.  

“More than ever before, and as we approach the electioneering season that will usher in the 2019 General Elections, the Commission will ensure that broadcasters play strictly by the rules,” he warned.  “In the last two quarters of 2018, the Commission has sanctioned over 50 broadcast stations – on violations related to political broadcasting and hate speech. Many have been fined and those who remain recalcitrant shall face stiffer sanctions.”

And with the scene so perfectly set, speakers examined topics covering hate speeches, campaign rallies, the broadcasting code and the commercialisation of news.

Professor Lai Osho (Head, Dept. of Mass Communication, LASU) presented a paper on the 2015 elections, examining how politicians exploited impassioned rhetoric to divide the country along ethnic and religious lines, with the inadvertent/ deliberate cooperation of the media, public and private.

“We need the media to build our democracy,” Osho said to the roomful of broadcasters, advertising regulators and other stakeholders.

With (1) the citizens and (2) politicians/political parties, he emphasised, the media is part of the delicate tripod that democracy rests upon and it is important that practitioners bear this in mind and make decisions in the interest of the country.

The 2015 elections, according to Osho, has the most tension-soaked, hate-filled and media-heavy in Nigeria’s history. It is also the one most conducive to divisive politics.

To achieve this destructive feat, politicians simply resorted to rethorics during campaigns.

“Our campaigns over the years have been based on primordial ethnic, religious symbols,” he said. And politicians used “language designed to appeal to emotions, not reason or rational thinking”.   

“The media disregarded and ignored all forms of media code clearly spelled out by the regulators, and the regulators too were weak in carrying out their functions,” Osho said, regretting that the local media have also failed in their gatekeeping responsibilities.

“The media will continue to be central to election campaigns and media professionals have a duty to preserve the sacred aspects of the profession, which is service to the public,” Osho said. “Just as doctors adhere to the HIppocratic Oath, so should journalists keep to the code of conduct of the profession.”

Some of the advertising that made it to the pages of newspapers and that were aired on both radio and television, he said, should never have been cleared for publishing or broadcast.

Speakers acknowledged the fact that most media houses in Nigeria are owned by politicians, who are driven more by pecuniary forces and loyalty to their party affiliations. Everything else is secondary.

Though recognising that 2015 was the first time a political coalition would oust an incumbent president in the country’s history, he said that it came at a huge cost — in life and property.

As a consequence, the bad blood aroused in the build up to the elections planted fear in the electorate, many of whom preferred to stay at home on election days.

And even when some results were released, many people were cynical about their authenticity.  

In his presentation dissecting the dilemma of the broadcasters during campaign rallies, Prof Ojo Rasaki Bakare (Dean, School of Postgraduate Studies, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti) wondered why political rallies in Nigeria are full of negatives, uncouth language and outright abuse, most of which are broadcast live to millions of people.  

“Lies and half-truths are told to deceive the public,” he said, making references to recents inflammatory comments by leading lights of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the ongoing campaigns.

He therefore asked the media representatives present to guard against being used to create chaos.

“Politicians need us and much as the public needs us,” panelist Olufemi Ayeni said In his contribution. “We should decide whether we want to serve the politician or the public.The politician is selling his own product; but the public is waiting for us to give them informed analysis and viewpoints, which they can base their conclusions on.”

And if the media needed any proof of what a toxic media could do to destabilise a country, someone had the right example.

“What started the Rwandan genocide?” Bolatito Joseph of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) asked in one of her interventions. “It was hate speech. We should not on the basis of making money sacrifice lives and property.”

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