Press, greatest threat to democracy

I sympathise with embattled President Buhari who in spite of a life of selfless service to the nation as a civil war hero, governor, minister and former military head of state and his current heroic efforts at preserving the nation’s unity, is on account of the forces and tendencies many believed have caged him now, seen not just as a threat to the survival of the nation but that of its nascent democracy.

Absence of governance, which is a threat to democracy is evident everywhere. First, the war against corruption, the main thrust of APC manifesto is dead as a result of Malami, the attorney general’s wars against EFCC leadership over how seized properties are shared and EFCC’s leakage of Malami’s attempt to smuggle fugitive Maina now in court over alleged N2bilion pension fraud into the bureaucracy through the back door. The president kept his peace pretending not to know he was shooting himself in the leg.

Nigeria with 370,000 police officers and a police-to-citizen ratio of 1 to 400 had the president’s nod to recruit 10,000 fresh officers into the police force. The exercise has remained stalled for about two years because of ego contest between political appointees, the Inspector General of Police, IGP and chairman of Police Service Commission who have now dragged themselves to the Supreme Court. While the macabre dance was going on with neither the president nor the party able to call the jesters to order, a lonely police officer guarding a secondary school boys’ hostel with about 900 students in Katsina was shot by bandits who ferried away about 333 students according to the state governor.

A few months back, the president in response to massive unemployment of youths approved recruitment of 774,000 young Nigerians. That again remains stalled because of the on-going war between APC-dominated senate and the APC minister of labour.

And if further evidence of absence of governance, which poses a great threat to democracy is needed, the fact that the ministers of education and labour that have been unable to prevent ASUU even if it involves using the big stick, from keeping our youths out of their universities for eight months, are still on their seats, is all that is needed.

Like the executive, the judiciary, the legislature and the civil society groups that have become tools in the hands of politicians pose no less threat to our democracy. But none of the above institutions of democracy poses as much danger to the health of our budding democracy as the press. Democracy can hardly survive without a vigilant press. It is however a paradox that Nigerian press which was the weapon freely deployed by our founding fathers and nationalists against the imperial powers in the struggle for independence and in recent years by NADECO, Nigerian civil society groups to end military dictatorship and herald in the current democratic dispensation in 1999 has today become the greatest threat to democracy.

The travails of the press started at the birth of the fourth republic when a section of it was hijacked by non-journalists who saw it as an instrument for amassing wealth and influence among the new emergent inheritors of power who in 1999 spoke of recouping their expenses having sold personal properties to fight the election.

They started with promotion of governors that the press as the fourth estate of the realm was expected to keep on their toes. They creatively came up with what was known as ‘Governor of the year’ award, moving from states to states, hawking awards. It did not matter that by 2007, about 17 of the ruling party’s governors many of them recipient s of the dubious media awards were in court facing EFCC charges for stealing their states blind.

They then moved to the banking sector where some favoured banks, probably the highest bidders were getting the ‘Banker of the year’ award year after year. Again as it turned out during the era of Sanusi Lamido Sanusis as CBN governor, some of winners of the ‘awards were fraudsters who engaged in insider-trading in addition to diverting depositors monies to buy choice properties in Dubai and elsewhere in the world and private jets in the names of their children.

With another source of cheap money closed, the new media moguls embarked on what was a desecration of sacred newspapers’ news pages. First it was pages two and three which traditionally attract only a strip advertisement of about 12 inches. The targets once again are the politicians who have free monies to spend. One is slammed on the face in the morning with full page adverts on the otherwise news pages 2, 3 4 and five of newspapers. Other media houses soon joined.

Then the battle shifted to the front and back pages with what is often described as wrap-around which initially attracted about N5m. With other newspaper joining the rush for a bit of the action, it todays attracts between N10m and N22m. Mast heads are freely traded for cash. Again the targets are the politicians especially governors who intend to make dubious claims of achievement or respond to attacks by political opponents.

The TV stations have joined the bandwagon with their 30 or 45 minutes slots at princely cost of about N10m per segment. While the airing is in progress, news stories or breaking news are set aside. Again the targets are the politicians especially governors who often take slots for a quarter, six months or a year. Those who have had the patience to watch various advertorials from states like Ekiti under Fayose, Imo under Okorocha and Delta under Ifeanyi Okowa must have come to the conclusion that there would be nothing left for future governors of those states to do in areas of roads infrastructure.

Finally most of the new TV stations anchored not by trained journalists but by neophytes or those who just want to advertise their superior intellect do not see their platforms as institutions of democracy. During the EndSARS crisis, I stumbled on a programme anchored by two women shouting hysterically about “Massacre at Lekki Toll Gate” and using incendiary language bordering on incitement. There was another platform where the anchors of a programme had invited the political opponent of the Oba of Lagos whose palace was looted and burnt by hoodlums. From the manner of leading questions the guest was asked, it was obvious the programme was sponsored by the Oba’s opponents who wanted to drive it home the Oba deserved what he got.

Of course we also know as Professor John Swinton of both The Sun and later the prestigious New York Times once said “there no such thing, at this date of the world history, in America as an independent press. That the media is an instrument for waging battle of consciousness is evidenced by the on-going ideological war between CNN and Fox news.

Similarly, the state is not a ‘night watchman state’, an impartial arbiter” that acts or should act on behalf of all. Quite often the state is acting on behalf of some interests or tendencies and depend on the media to implement its agenda.

But whether the media is serving owners of society or temporary power-holders, there are rules and ethics to follow as an institution of democracy. Unfortunately, Nigeria press today seems to operate in a jungle.

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