Journalism in a Season of Anomie, By Olusegun Adeniyi

Posted by News Express | 13 November 2014 | 3,287 times

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On Monday in Lagos, the weeklong activities to mark the 60th birthday ceremony of Pastor Tunde Bakare, the Serving General Overseer of the Latter Rain Assembly, began with a symposium titled: “The Role of Journalism in Nation-Building”. Chaired by Chief Ajibola Ogunshola (former PUNCH chairman), I was the keynote speaker. With respected professionals like Simon Kolawole (TheCable MD), Azubuike Ishiekwene (Leadership MD), Femi Adesina (The Sun MD and Guild of Editors president), Edward Dickson (Nigerian Tribune MD) and Dele Momodu (Ovation MD) as well as my sister, Funke Aboyade, (SAN and founding editor of THISDAYLAW) as panel members, the session turned to be a most memorable occasion. As you would expect in a gathering of such media heavyweights, not only were the engagements interesting, there was also drama. Right on the podium while making his intervention, Bob Dee received the “anointing” that “transformed” him to Pastor Joe. I enjoin readers of his Saturday column in THISDAY to watch out for “prophecies”!

For the benefit of readers who may be interested, below is my keynote address at the occasion.

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A top politician was visiting a primary school when the teacher asked whether he would care to lead a discussion on the word “Tragedy” with the pupils. Without hesitation he agreed and asked any of the pupils in the class to give him an example of what the word meant to them. A little boy stood up, and said, “If my best friend was walking to school, and one of those crazy governor’s convoys ran over him, and killed him, that would be a tragedy.”

“No,” said the politician, “that would not be a tragedy: that would be an accident.”

A little girl raised her hand: “If some Boko Haram fighters were to invade this school and killed one of our teachers, that would be a tragedy.”

“I’m afraid not,” said the politician; “That is what we would call a great loss.”

For a long while, the class went silent. The politician’s eyes searched the room. “Can no one here give me an example of a tragedy?” he asked.

At the back of the room, a little hand went up, and a quiet voice said, “If the private jet carrying you was hit by a bomb, killing you instantly, that would be a tragedy.”

“God forbid!” exclaimed the politician, “But you are correct. Now, can you tell me how you come to know that would be a tragedy?”

“Well,” said the quiet voice rather innocently, “It has to be a tragedy because, given the circumstance, it wouldn’t be an accident and your death certainly would not be a great loss to anybody.”

I am delighted to be here this morning to share in this great occasion as we celebrate a man who is to many of us a pastor, a mentor and a role model. I have been directed to speak on the role of journalism in nation-building in which case the two key concepts we would be dealing with are journalism and nation-building within the context of the challenges we face today in Nigeria.

In his book, “Understanding Politics: Ideas, Institutions and Issues”, Thomas Magstadt, who argued that the proliferation of post-war conflicts in Africa and Asia is an indication of how difficult it is to mould societies together as an integrated whole, defines nation-building as “the process by which all the inhabitants of a given territory, regardless of individual ethnic, tribal, religious or linguistic differences, come to identify with the symbols and institutions of the state and share a common sense of destiny.”

Going by that simple definition, which may be too broad or too narrow depending on the way we look at it, the basic idea behind nation-building is to mobilise human and material resources for the advancement of a given society. The implication of that, however, is that we can easily conclude that Nigeria has a long way to go in the process of nation-building but to the extent that it is a process and not an event and that it is a task that is never done, our nation is not a lost cause.

Broadly speaking, students of journalism are taught that their role is basically to inform, educate and entertain the people. But Larry Dailey, a Professor in Media Technology, has expanded that role to include the fact that practitioners must also be prepared to frustrate, to sadden and to scare certain elements in the society. His prescriptions, I would wager, is more apt for our environment.

In every country, it is the responsibility of the leadership to protect the political, social, and economic interests of the citizens in the process of nation-building while journalism helps to remind those in authority of their obligations to the people. Such obligations include finding solutions to difficult problems, stabilising the polity and guiding the society to peace and prosperity. But because regime protection is deemed to be the same as national security by a large number of political office holders in Nigeria who lack the vision, the passion, and the character to effectively deal with the challenges confronting us, it is no surprise that there is constant tension between them and the media. That has inevitably led to the erroneous conclusion that journalism in Nigeria is not only adversarial but also that it does not serve the end of nation-building.

In our country today, majority of those in positions of authority at practically all levels, believe that the interaction moderated by the media is skewed against them and that Nigerian journalists do not always promote mutual understanding between government and the people. To them, our media serve only the interest of the opposition. In fact, I have heard it said in several quarters that Nigerian journalists are unpatriotic. Yet what most of our political office holders forget is that it is the responsibility of journalists to shape the national conversation by providing insights on critical issues as they affect their various audiences. The essence of this value-added role is to help overcome the tendency for the ordinary citizens to focus on issues that do not advance their cause but help politicians to divide and conquer.

For instance, the challenge of insecurity in our country today manifests on several fronts: From the activities of kidnappers and armed robbers to the violent encounters between farmers and pastoralists to the perennial settler-indigene sectarian violence. To compound the situation, we now have the Boko Haram insurgency that has killed thousands of our people, displaced millions and now threatens the corporate existence of our country. Given such a state of affairs, it is the duty of journalists to report the facts as they are while putting their analyses within the broader context of the efforts to resolve those contradictions and to point out if and when there are none. But to the extent that journalists have to constantly remind and challenge those in positions of authority of their onerous responsibilities to the people, many of our politicians do not always take kindly to that.

In December 2012, I was invited by the National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Olisa Metuh to be one of the faculties at their party’s workshop for all organizing secretaries and publicity secretaries in the 36 states. It was held in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. From the opening remark of then National Chairman, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, to the intervention of another former chairman of the party, Dr. Okwesilieze Nwodo on the strategies for winning elections to the thesis of Chief Ebenezer Babatope on the efficacy of propaganda, I learnt a lot about the disposition of Nigerian politicians to journalists and journalism in our country.

The most revealing of the presentations was the one by Chief Babatope, who blamed the media for what he described as the negative perception of the government and the ruling PDP in Nigeria. To quote from his paper, Chief Babatope said: “While the media will sensationalise or falsify achievements of our governments in order to sell their newspapers, the members of the party will automatically disseminate the achievements of the government to the entire country without any emmision or unnecessary punctuation marks. While the media will only report government events to the elite of our country that is not up to ten percent of the population, it is our own members who will ensure that the remaining 90 percent of the population are adequately informed of our government activities.”

Since he spoke the night before my presentation, I was able to challenge his thesis by asking for the platform through which the so-called 90 percent of the population would be reached. I also reminded the audience of what Colleen Lewis said in her essay titled “The Declining Reputation of Politicians: Is it Deserved?” where she wrote: “Politicians largely blame the media for their poor reputation and the public for expecting and demanding more than they are capable of delivering. The media blames the politicians – after all, they only report what politicians do. The community blames politicians because they do not deliver on their promises, ‘feather their own nests’ and put party interests before the interests of those they are elected to represent. These vantage-point explanations largely seek to displace blame. However, there is an element of truth in all of them.”

While I believe that the accusation that the PDP is subjected to biased journalism is unfounded, I am also aware that the process of nation-building in Nigeria can benefit more from the old traditional role of journalism. By investigating and reporting critical issues of governance, pressure, however fleeting, is often brought to bear on those that are in positions of authority to raise their game. The challenge, however, is that at this most critical period in the history of our nation when we are contending against a dangerous insurgency, there is also need for some form of collaboration between the media and the government.

As we move towards the 2015 general election, there is a growing apprehension, in several quarters, of an impending national crisis. For instance, there is currently an intense contestation for power between and among the major geo-ethnic groups in the country, with religion being gradually added into the mix. Tensions arising from the projection of such interests by the media could be distracting so it is important for practitioners to moderate the discourse in a manner that would promote the security of our country. In that context, the nation-building role of journalism would entail not yielding our platforms to hate mongers whose polarising rhetoric could only push our plural society towards its delicate fault-lines.

The 2015 general election is crucial because Nigeria is going through a period in which we must ask questions of those who are leading us as well as those who seek to replace them and, as I said earlier, it is our responsibility as journalists to help moderate the conversation. We cannot continue to elect our leaders on the basis of ethnic or religious sentiments. We must know how they intend to revive the economy, reposition critical social sectors like education and health while the character of such people is also important. And when I talk about leadership, we have to look at it from all levels because the man we send to the state house of assembly or to the government house in our state is as important to our collective welfare as the man we send to Aso Rock.

It is unfortunate that today people are not asking questions and we as journalists are not either so we are practically going to the election blindfolded. Yet it is important that we demand of the people who seek our votes to participate in debates so that we can know what they stand for beyond providing some “stomach infrastructure”. On this score, I think the Guild of Editors will be doing Nigerians a big favour by leading the efforts to have the candidates of the leading political parties debate on critical issues of the day.

Against the background that democracy is a process of inquiry by which consensus is formed, debate among those who seek the votes of the people is important and it is the duty of the journalists to make it happen. By enlightening the citizenry on what the real issues are and how they intend to govern, such engagements can only help to institutionalise the democratic process because the more diverse the information available to the public, the more accurate social valuations they can make. The other side to it, however, is that if those who aspire to public offices are not tasked by the people, then they would not feel challenged to accurately assess society’s problems or make any efforts to prescribe solutions.

However, the debate that I suggest is not only between and among presidential candidates, it is important that those who seek to be governors in the 36 states also participate in such process. Right now, many of the states cannot meet their obligations, including the payment of salaries to workers. Yet as bad as that situation may seem, things are likely not going to get better since our economy is still dependent largely on receipts from oil rent that is now on a free fall. Therefore, those who seek to be governor next year must be able to tell the people what their programmes are and how they intend to finance such programmes beyond relying on the ever-dwindling Manna from the monthly FAAC Allocation meetings in Abuja.

On the security front, only during the civil war did we have the kind of situation which obtains today in a section of the country where a bunch of criminals are daily carving out territories for themselves. According to the figures released last week in Abuja, from July 2009 to date when Boko Haram terrorists attacked Maiduguri Prisons and freed 482 inmates, a total of 2,255 inmates have been freed from various prisons across the country in 14 different attacks while a total of 46 prison officers comprising 42 serving and four retired personnel have been killed. President Goodluck Jonathan two months ago put the figure of Nigerians that have been killed as a result of the insurgency at well over 13,000 while millions are now displaced. We must task the incumbent president who seeks to continue and those who want to replace him about their strategies for dealing with the Boko Haram insurgency that is tearing apart the fabrics of our society. The security situation is compounded by the seeming hopelessness of a vast majority of young graduates who cannot find jobs and I don’t think I need to bore you with the details of the Nigerian Immigration Service recruitment exercise tragedy since you were all living witnesses.

The foregoing are some of the issues that ordinarily should dominate discourse as we move towards the 2015 general election and it is our responsibility as journalists to bring these issues to the fore. We must begin to ask serious questions of political office seekers. Whatever happens next year and regardless of the antics of our politicians, it is how we play our role as journalists (in the selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information and in keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premise), that will shape the direction of our country for good or for ill.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, let me now conclude by going back to the story with which I opened this intervention. The politician in question, like all politicians, is too taken in by his own self-importance. But since God in His infinite wisdom has also ordained strength in the mouths of babes and suckling, the pupil had to remind him that he was not as important as he considered himself to be. The role played by that pupil is important in every society because some people would have to summon the courage, even at great personal risk, to speak the truth to power. Therefore, it goes without saying that many of us are here today because the man we are celebrating has for years demonstrated the kind of intervention done by that pupil. For almost two decades, Pastor Bakare has been a thorn in the flesh of inept and incompetent leadership in Nigeria and we must salute his courage and doggedness.

On a personal note, Pastor Bakare is one man for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration and because of that, I have also never shied from telling him the truth, however unpalatable. Fortunately, he has tolerated me and it is indeed a measure of his generousity of spirit that I am invited here today. When in 2002 or thereabout, I thought Pastor Bakare was getting too personal in his criticisms of President Olusegun Obasanjo, his Egba kinsman, who at that time was not exactly my friend too, I used one of the sermons I once heard him preach to warn him in a piece titled “In the year that King Uziah Died”. That critical column did not earn me friends in Latter Rain Assembly but it also did not count against me with Pastor Bakare who, in my hour of serious distress as spokesman to the late president (or “spokesman to the cabal”, if you believe in rumours), was one of the few people whose counsel helped me to navigate the political landmines at the time.

However, when on the morning of January 31, 2011, my wife woke me up in Cambridge Massachusetts in the United States where we were at the time, to show me news feed on her Blackberry, that Pastor Bakare had been nominated as the presidential running mate to Major General Muhammadu Buhari, I was taken aback. Since we were out of the country at the time, I was not in the loop about what was going on so it came right out of the blue. I waited three days before I called Pastor Bakare on phone and I am sure he will remember my exact words because they were few. I said: “Sir, I am sure you know why I am calling. I am not going to congratulate you but I will be praying for you.”

As Pastor Bakare marks his 60th birthday, and having regard to the totality of his sacrifices and contributions to our society, I have no doubts that it is most fitting to honour a man whose ministry advances the work of God and the service of man, a worthy example for members of my generation and the Christian faith. It is also perfectly in character that we are gathered here today not to launch another Private Jet but to discuss ideas that will advance the cause of our country. Without any hesitation therefore, I say to Pastor Bakare today: Congratulations. Igba odun, ojo kan!

•This piece by Adeniyi (shown in photo) originally appeared in his column “The Verdict” in today’s edition of ThisDay. He can be reached via olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com


Source: News Express

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