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Challenges of the Mass Media in Democracy

The democratic scenario that we look forward to must be governed by access, equal opportunities and decorum as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution. The principle of democratic pluralism must hold away. Nigeria presently has political parties, more newspapers and news magazines have sprung up within the past three and half years to advance the cause of some of these political parties and mobilize the electorate at the appropriate time. The scenario will definitely strengthen the democratic process. The real challenge here is for media practitioners to free themselves from personal prejudices and biases in the coverage of politics and public affairs.

Over the years, the integrity of the Nigerian media practitioners has been impugned for his or her being motivated by ethno-religious and political influences and as a result the responsibility of exposing systematic abuses has been eroded by ethnic and religious consideration. All too often, the Nigerian journalists mirror the ethnic, political and religious cleavages in society. They are even held captive by these cleavages and by engaging in the selective condemnation of wrong doing they compromise the moral nature of his or her responsibility.

It is even in this perspective of selective condemnation that many journalists particularly columnists stand accused of exonerating President Muhammad Buhari and blaming the National Assembly for virtually everything that had turned away in the present political dispensation, in an attempt to persistently portray the National Assembly as inept corrupt and unfocussed. It is largely because of the ethnic leaning and sectional disposition of journalists. The ability of journalists to free themselves from partisan politics has been a major challenge in reporting public affairs. Journalists have often been accused of interpreting the main issues of the times through partisan prisms. Until recently, radio and television broadcasting in Nigeria was the exclusive preserve of Federal and State governments.

Naturally these channels have no choice but to do the biding of their owner-governments. That is why some have perhaps uncharitably, accused government owned radio and television stations of unabashed display of sycophancy. And that is why the opposition often complains that their constitutionally guaranteed rights to the free flow of information are being breached.

In early year 2002. National Broadcasting Commission had cause to accuse some state governors of using broadcast stations to stir political and ethnic frictions in their states. Also last year, the Commission warned some radio stations to desist from violating the rules of political broadcasting by mortgaging public trust and denying other parties access to the air waves in addition to the over-concentration of the stations on the state executives at the expense of their important issues. All these are examples of the pressures that journalists in the broadcast media face in the course of duty. It is of course easy to call these journalists all manner of names.

But the truth is that the individual journalist who tries to free himself or herself from ownership shackles to defend his or her constitutional responsibility stands the risk of being wrongly punished, victimized or even sacked. Being undervalued and poorly equipped, the journalist often hands between the need for survival and the threats to life.

This phenomenon raises a great moral and ethical challenges for the journalist, how best to manage the influence of money to protect the profession from its corrupting influences. The brown envelope syndrome is perhaps the most eloquent evidence that journalists accept gratification in the course of their duties. A more serious variant of this is the practice by some news editors to ask their reporters to make “daily returns”to them. Reporters who cover the political beat, which is said to be the most lucrative presently are alleged to make such “returns”.

This breach of the ethical code makes journalists easy preys to the manipulative agenda of politicians. All these challenges coalesce into a big credibility question for the journalist and the authenticity of his report. Corruption, ethnicity and partisanship have combined to weaken the Nigerian journalist and the quality and character of political reporting in Nigeria. It is a challenge for journalists to be able to immunize themselves against these terrible afflictions of rabid ethnicity. Religious bigotry and cuthroat political partisanship coupled with these is the culture of secrecy in the conduct of government business and public affairs which characterizes national life and under which scores of government officials hide to perpetrate corruption and sundry illegalities.

The veil of secrecy which covers the conduct of government affairs routinely denies citizens explanations for actions undertaken on their behalf by government officials and denies journalists access even to the most mundane information. This situation has consistently made the much talked about commitment to accountability and transparency difficult to appreciate.

The three essential ingredients of democracy are: a well-informed citizen, participation of the citizenry in the day-to-day governance, and accountability. But unless the citizens have adequate and accurate information on all issues and problems confronting them, it will be a mirage for them to contribute their quota to the entire political process. Without such information it is impossible for them to comprehend the day by dayworking of government and actively participate in it, let alone be able to hold those in authority responsible for the acts of omission or commission. The presence of adequate information is therefore necessary for the democratic experience to be fulfilling and enduring. But who should furnish such information constantly and regularly to the citizenry? The onerous task is naturally on the journalist and the media who have the propensity to supply the largest section of the citizenry directly constantly and regularly with information, ideas and opinion on issues.

The Nigerian Constitution in Chapter IV Section 40, sub-section 3 has indeed conferred this status on the Nigerian media thus: power and authority.

The print, electronic and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times uphold the provisions of this constitution and in giving coverage to any news or programme ensure the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people and the people to the people.

The media is universally acknowledged as the Fourth Estate of the Realm, the other three being the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary – even though most constitutions the world over do not assign them specific roles. However, through convention the media have come to assume the role of the judge as observed former columnist by Mohammed Haruna over all the three, making sure that each respects the checks and balances functions for the greatest good of the greatest number of its subjects. While the mass media is playing the role of “watchdog of society” “court of public opinion”. “agenda-setter”, “gatekeeper”, “conscience of society” they are also being watched by the citizens.

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