The media are powerful because readers and listeners consume their products. They therefore derive their power from the audience. The significance of this is that the media should actually be made accountable to the people, not themselves, not the government… I propose a framework for a Participatory Media Accountability System, which potentially provides the pathway for a more robust media accountability without undue government interference.
Something happened in Nigeria in 1999 that, perhaps, not many people would remember. In October of that year, the then Governor of Zamfara, Alhaji Ahmed Sani announced the adoption of Shari’a, the Muslim penal system, in his State, with effect from January 2000. Soon after, eleven other States in northern Nigeria followed suit.
However, an attempt by the Kaduna State House of Assembly to pass a bill for the adoption of Shari’a in the state drew serious protest from the Christian community, who thought the move amounted to the Islamisation of an otherwise religiously diverse State. What started as a peaceful protest on February 21 soon degenerated into one of the most catastrophic religious conflicts that the nation had ever witnessed. Within three days, more than 5,000 people were left dead and an estimated 53,000 people displaced. When President Olusegun Obasanjo visited the scene of the crisis, he described it as the most devastating carnage the country has witnessed since the civil war. The killings and the destructions did not however end in Kaduna. Instant reprisal killings of Muslims and northerners followed in Eastern Nigeria. It took days before peace was restored.
Following the adoption of the Shari’a penal system in Zamfara, through to the bloody mayhem in Kaduna and its aftermath, Shari’a literally seized the national media space. Apart from providing the platform for elite actors on both sides of the Shari’a religious divide to engage in an ideological “fight-to-finish”, journalists themselves actively took part in shaping, interpreting, articulating, amplifying and projecting views, ideas and discourses on the Shari’a controversy.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the media have been widely blamed for laying the foundation for the disastrous riots that rocked Kaduna in February 2000. The late Bilikisu Yusuf, a former newspaper editor herself, observed then that the blame for the violence “should be placed on the shoulder of the professionally untrained and irresponsible media that either fraudulently manipulated or ignored facts or manufactured stories and perfected inciting reporting to a tradition.”
Let’s take a moment to review some of the reports that she, as well as other commentators, including some civil society groups who have studied the crisis, might be referring to.
In his February 25, 2000 column on the Shari’a issue, a leading columnist of The Guardian wrote in an article with the title, “The Second Jihad”:
“When Sani Ibrahim [sic] the Governor of Zamfara State, says he would support any state in the South which wants to adopt the Sharia, he is merely invoking the spirit of Alimi, the nemesis of Afonja and Solagberu of Ilorin, and the quip by the Sardauna in the 60s, that they would dip the Koran into the sea. When the Jihadists boast of Arab support for their cause, they only remind us of the terrible role played by the British in strengthening the Hausa-Fulani hegemony.”
History is an important element of discourse coding. Here, the writer is actively signaling the Shari’a as part of a continuing history of Islamic conquest and domination, and not just a matter of law or social arrangement. He then proceeds to construct an overlapping identity framework of regional and ideological conflicts by framing the Shari’a as a procedure for an existing contest between the Muslim North and the Christian South:
“The rivalry between the North and the South is vicious also because it is in many ways, a Moslem-Christian rivalry (…). One other problem is Obasanjo. He is the finest prong that the South has produced in contemporary Nigerian politics. He just turns out to be a Christian. For a Moslem Northerner, that is like Christianizing the state. It is even worse, the man is a born-again Christian, and he continuously makes a public show if that. Now, they can no longer tell their Arab friends that this is a Moslem country. The struggle to ensure that all non-Moslem symbols are removed from the public spaces is a vicious one. That is why they would burn churches in Ilorin and kill Christians in Kaduna.”
Needless to say that the Muslim North vs Christian South categorisation is very simplistic and cannot be supported by any objective analysis, but it was convenient for the ‘we’ against ‘them’ discourse that the writer finds necessary to set the stage for the religious war that he feels was the only solution to the Shari’a controversy:
“The challenge, then, is to stop the Second Jihad. The Ibadan army saved the Yorubas by using force. The British humiliated the Fulani Caliphate through a combination of force and open conspiracy. We must throw everything at the Jihadists. We must force the Northern Moslems to live in a secular state. If that requires having a civil war, well, let’s get ready.”
As mentioned earlier, one of the consequences of the Kaduna riot was the spate of retaliatory violence in the South-East, where people suspected to be Muslims and Northerners were hunted and killed, while mosques were burnt. This obviously complicated the security situation in the country. However, this writer saw it differently:
“In the East, Igbos in Aba and Umuahia have already shown that they are prepared to avenge the death of any Igboman or woman who is sacrificed at the altar of Sharia. Igbos are fighting back so ferociously because their history has shown that almost on a seasonal basis since 1936, the Hausa Fulani love to slaughter the Igbos. That has been so easy however because the Igbos do not always know what is good for them. Look, in 1966, they had all the keys to the nation’s armoury in their hands. They had to wait until the Hausa-Fulani seized the keys before they started fighting. I am not sure Igbos would like to make such a mistake in the 21stcentury. Even Akwa-Ibomite, who are ordinarily gentle, are fighting back. In the Niger-Delta; the Egbesu Boys, and all other groups are already conducting dress rehearsals. In the South-West, the Oodua Peoples’ Congress (OPC) has a standing army of two million, and Ganiyu Adams is still alive.”
…there is a growing realisation, over time, that the men and women that operate the media do not always serve the public interest. And as we have seen in the particular case of Nigeria, that the press is actually an important ideological weapon in our identity politics, and the emerging separatist contestation over the control of power, resources and socio-cultural identity interests.
It would be difficult not to compare this kind of writing with that which followed the massacre of 50,000 Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda in October 1993, precipitating one of the worst genocides ever recorded in human history. A Hutu Newspaper, Dawn of Democracy, tried to justify the massacre thus:
“Oppressed for a long time, the Hutu people, like a spring too tightly wound, have expressed their withheld anger against the oppressor, and if it has to be done again, it will be done.”
A Tusti newspaper, Crossroads began its own campaign of counter-incitement against the Hutus in January 1994, when it wrote:
“All Tutsis must be very clear-headed about confronting the Hutus, using their methods, because they are not the only ones who know how to use the machete…if not, they will roast us all on the pit.”
On the other side of the divide was the Weekly Trust newspaper, publishing from Kaduna at the time of the crisis. In its October 8 to 14, 1999 edition, the newspaper published an interview with the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakyzaky. Below are a few excerpts from the interview:
“Trust: How can the Sharia be successfully implemented in any state wishing to do so like Zamfara?
Zakyzaky: Sharia is an Islamic legal system. It is in itself not complete unless as a legal system of an Islamic system which is a complete whole. It is a sort of sub-system. The parent is Islam…A country that does not practice Islamic system cannot apply sharia as a legal system…”
This interview was published only 19 days after the Shari’a was launched in Zamfara. Other states in the North had not even declared their intentions to follow; and debates were still raging across the country over its implications for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. However, the interviewer appeared to have taken a lot for granted. He was not asking whether or even how Sharia should be implemented, but how it could be successfully implemented, and not only in Zamfara specifically, but by any state ‘wishing to do so.’ In fact, while his subject raises some fundamental questions of applicability, the interviewer seems to be more interested in enlisting his support for the Shari’a system.
“Trust: Are Muslims in Nigeria so powerless, so emasculated that we cannot live according to the Islamic system? Or, in other words, if we can, cannot people like you who lead an Islamic movement not rise up in such a time as this and guide these people, if you perceive that they are not doing things right, so that they do it successfully?
Zakyzaky: It has to take a natural process. The system which was established by the colonialists were meant to be against the Islamic principles…so, one naturally comes into conflict with the present system running the country, which is anything but Islamic…
Trust: All changes in the world are started by recognised leaders. Meaning once a leader rises up and shows the people the right way, they will give him allegiance. So, if in this regard people like you should rise up to give this issue their full support, majority of Muslims would reject the system for Islam.
Zakyzaky: This is what we have been doing. For the last two decades. But we are talking of natural process. You don’t accelerate it by force…
Trust: The Taliban accelerated the natural process in Afghanistan. And Iran too, as you said.”
The earlier question is whether Zamfara, introducing Shari’a could not be considered to have made a move towards becoming an Islamic State, and to which the interviewee disagrees, arguing that it is not possible for a state within a country to operate a system, ‘because the whole country maintains a single constitution.’ In fact, he raised another significant point, regarding the danger of the implementers of Shari’a in the State, “using the emotions of the people and the yearnings of the people to deceive the people.” But the interviewer was not interested in this. It must be noted that at no point in the interview did the subject suggest that Muslims were ‘powerless’ or ‘emasculated’. Those were the interviewer’s ideas, who soon waxed philosophical, appealing to his subject’s presumed sense of duty and actually telling him what to do: “…if people like you should rise up to give this issue their full support, majority of Muslims would reject the system for Islam.” It was not clear what the interviewer meant by “rise up”, but his subject seems to understand it as meaning “accelerate by force” and when he says this approach would not work, the interviewer had a ready precedence to appeal to: “If the Taliban could accelerate the process in Afghanistan, why can’t you do the same in Nigeria?” Anyone who is familiar with how the Taliban emerged in Afghanistan would grasp the full implications of what the interviewer is driving at.
…in the face of overwhelming evidence, I consider it quite presumptuous, if not downright hypocritical on the side of the media, to project any attempt at media regulation as an attack on democracy and Nigeria’s democratic survival, while ignoring the reality of the wanton abuse of media power, which equally constitutes real danger to a nation’s corporate existence.
The Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria assigns a role to the press by virtue of section 22 of the 1999 Constitution, which provides that:
“[T]he press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
The 1999 Constitution goes further in section 39 to uphold the rights of every citizen “to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
If we consider that majority of our constitutions have been crafted as part of the process of democratisation, it would be therefore be safe to conclude that the framers of our constitution recognised the freedom of expression and freedom of the press as sine qua non in every democracy. In fact, democracy thrives only when the people have free access to correct information about matters that affect them and are able to use this knowledge to make informed choices and take decisions about their lives.
However, there is a growing realisation, over time, that the men and women that operate the media do not always serve the public interest. And as we have seen in the particular case of Nigeria, that the press is actually an important ideological weapon in our identity politics, and the emerging separatist contestation over the control of power, resources and socio-cultural identity interests.
Therefore, even the most conservative libertarians have come to agree that the press can do with some restraining, even if it is difficult to agree on how to do this. However, government involvement in exercising some measure of control have always met with virulent resistance by the media, leading to charges that government attempts to muzzle the press. We all witnessed how the media reacted to a recent attempt to amend the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) and National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) Acts, designed ostensibly to enable government to assert greater control over the ownership and operations of media establishments.
On July 12, all the newspapers carried the same cover and headline: “Information Blackout” in screaming block letters, set against a pitch black background and a sad face of a newspaper collage. The rider reads: “This is what the National Assembly wants to achieve with the NPC and the NBC (Media) Act Amendment Bills. ‘It is not just against the media…it is about the society’s right to know, your right to be heard.”
In its editorial the following day, The Guardian wrote:
“The civilian toga of the sponsors or their self-acclaimed conversion to democratic norms should deceive no one. The bills are capable of forcing our democracy into darkness. And lest history begins to repeat itself, the National Assembly should, for once, stand for the people, defend civil rule by quashing the obnoxious amendments and shame the enemies of democracy.”
The recent proposed amendment is actually a precursor in the so-called “Frivolous Petitions Bill 2015”, which seeks to impose a two-year prison sentence or N2 million (about US$10,000) fine, or both, on any person who “through text message, tweets, WhatsApp, or through any social media” posts any abusive statement against any person and/or group of persons or government institution.
Government is understandably worried about the kind of content that is being circulated on a daily basis on both the conventional and the social media, and really wants to do something about these. However, I must say that government’s move to take action via legislation alone demonstrated a high level of naivety and a painful lack of historical awareness. Even in a dictatorship, government’s attempt to encroach into the media regulatory space has met with deep suspicion, if not outright resistance. Too often, the defence of national security has provided a pretext to those whose real intention was to suppress the media and enthrone the culture of silence.
Having said that, and in the face of overwhelming evidence, I consider it quite presumptuous, if not downright hypocritical on the side of the media, to project any attempt at media regulation as an attack on democracy and Nigeria’s democratic survival, while ignoring the reality of the wanton abuse of media power, which equally constitutes real danger to a nation’s corporate existence.
Our ability to make it to another 20 years, however, would depend on what actions we take today as political leaders, as journalists and as ordinary citizens. In our respective spheres of influence, we can make an individual decision not to write, promote or share any content that can only serve to inflame, incite or instigate to violence. Surely, this does not solve all of the problems; but we would have taken a position that enable us to stand tall as part of the solution, rather than a part of the problem.
Sometimes in March, the Ondo State government reported that it had intercepted a group of young men who had travelled to the State from the northern parts of the country, declaring them a “security risk.” Several leading newspapers reported gleefully on their page one that: “42 Northerners Intercepted in Ondo,” or variations of that. How can a Nigerian be “intercepted” in his own country?! About the same time, a newspaper based in the North also reported, “Northern Traders Killed in Fresh Imo Attack.”
How come we no longer see anything wrong with this kind of reporting? Because, ultimately, the battle is about power. Rather than a certain pretension to the defence of democracy and freedom, both sides, the media and the government, are actually contesting for power. Like Norman Fairclough noted, “those who hold power at a particular moment have to constantly reassert their power; and those who do not hold power are always liable to bid for power.” If we understand power, as Michael Foucault does, as a dispersed phenomenon that pervades the society and is in constant flux or negotiation, then we will understand that what is going on between the government and the media is actually a battle for control.
The media seems to gain the upper hand because, unlike the government, its own power is well hidden, even though it is more potent and more dangerous. The media doesn’t only get to decide what the people should know about, they also determine what you get to think about and how to think about it; what you should consider important and what you should ignore. As media scholars have noted, news and opinions are ideologies coded in vocabularies. Every headline we write, the metaphors we use, the adjectives we use, the illustrations we use and their position on the pages, which stories goes in the morning belt, how many times a story gets repeated, who gets interviewed on an issue, how much time is allocated; all these are practices of discourse, and discourse is the exercise of power in language form.
Fairclough has noted that “the effects of media power are cumulative, working through the repetition of particular ways of handling causality and agency, particular ways of positioning the readers…media discourse is able to exercise a pervasive and powerful influence in social reproduction because of the very scale of modern mass media and the extremely high level of exposure of the whole populations to a relatively homogenous output.”
As usual, the media have argued that the best way to deal with irresponsible behaviour in the media is through the self-regulatory mechanism. This has been the argument since 1964. And there is a lot of merit to it. However, one must wonder whether the media have given enough thoughts to how we plan to make this self-regulation work or this is just the same old reflex argument to push back against any form of control or regulation?
The code of ethics represents the main ideological framework for media self-regulation in most democratic societies, while the Press Council and journalists’ associations most often act as supervisory and, sometimes, enforcement agencies for this code of ethics. Although we have a robust Nigerian journalists’ code of ethics, I strongly doubt if most journalists have seen one before. For example, Section 6 of the Nigerian Code of Ethics on discrimination says “Journalists should refrain from making pejorative reference to a person’s ethnic group, religion, sex, or to any physical or mental illness or handicap.” It goes further in Section 11, Public Interest, to say “[a] journalist should strive to enhance national unity and public good.” We must therefore wonder why, in the face of some of these Codes aimed at restraining journalists from what Clement Jones has described as “irresponsible, antisocial or propaganda use of the media”, this behaviour has persisted? What this goes to show is that we need more than a few exhortative declarations. The media is right to remain suspicious of government’s intentions, given our recent history; however, the media itself must demonstrate a stronger interest in accountability. Unfortunately, the situation has become a lot more complex with the advent of the social media.
Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution is to ensure that no right is conferred on a journalist that is not ordinarily available to every other citizen. This provision has become more relevant with the advent of the social media and the rise of the so-called citizen journalism. Some have argued that the social media is the greatest democratic force in human history. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc. have empowered the people more than anyone would have imagined at the turn of the millennium. The ubiquity and pervasiveness of new media technology makes it almost impossible not to be informed. And as people upload and download, tweet and retweet, share and broadcast on multiple platforms, ordinary citizens have become active agents in the information value chain, not only receiving but also creating and recreating meanings. No force in human history has had such a telling revolutionary effect on society and human relationships.
With the social media, technology has essentially become democracy’s life support system. Quite ironically however, through the same social media, technology has also become the means by which democracy can easily commit suicide. The rise of fake news signals democracy’s capacity for self-destruction. While information technology has made it easy for us to manipulate reality in ways that were hitherto considered impossible, social media have made it possible for us to disseminate this distorted reality and fabrications at such an unbelievable speed. A picture taken or fabricated can make it across the country faster than a phone call. The spread of hate and outright instigation to violence and social destabilisation have never been made so easy. Selective disclosure and delicate lies are active tools of propaganda. But this is what fake news does.
If fake news is a weapon of war, as some have strongly suggested, then one can safely conclude that Nigeria is already under attack by Nigerians themselves. As we grapple with the complicated politics of our multiple identities of race, religion and region, the destabilising impacts of fake news make this challenge even more complicated than ever before. As we develop, share and promote contents that accentuate those fault lines, it would be almost impossible to fashion a sense of national cohesion for our country. Without this, it would also be impossible to develop a consensus around those fundamental issues that would move us forward as a nation. The danger contained in information is not the information itself. Rather, it is what people do with the information they receive. All through history, all conflicts have started with words; what people say to themselves and what they say to others.
The long term solution, however, would bring us back to education. Plato said “you cannot be wise and be wicked”. There is a level that ignorance and lack of education are the real drivers of the risks posed by fake news and other irresponsible use of the media. After all, like I said earlier, the danger is in the content. The more people that are genuinely educated, not only about their rights, but also about their responsibilities to others and to their society, the less number of people you will get who are willing to serve as vendors of fake news or purveyors of hate.
It has been noted that the power of the media does not mechanically flow from their mere existence. The media are powerful because readers and listeners consume their products. They therefore derive their power from the audience. The significance of this is that the media should actually be made accountable to the people, not themselves, not the government. The customer is king. Media contents are commercial products. We therefore need to empower the people, both in terms of capacity and capability to be able to demand this accountability from the media. I propose a framework for a Participatory Media Accountability System, which potentially provides the pathway for a more robust media accountability without undue government interference.
I believe this too is a passing phase in the history of mankind and of our country. The transformation that has happened to our society within the past 20 years is the greatest evidence that the next 20 years may not be the same. Our ability to make it to another 20 years, however, would depend on what actions we take today as political leaders, as journalists and as ordinary citizens. In our respective spheres of influence, we can make an individual decision not to write, promote or share any content that can only serve to inflame, incite or instigate to violence. Surely, this does not solve all of the problems; but we would have taken a position that enable us to stand tall as part of the solution, rather than a part of the problem.
Bolaji Abdullahi is a former Nigerian minister of youth development and sports.
This is the text of a speech delivered at the 12th Year Anniversary of the University of Ilorin Radio, Ilorin, Kwara State.
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