It is fairly axiomatic that in any democracy, the media plays an indispensable role in creating, moulding and reflecting public opinion. Edmund Burke, the Irish-born philosopher and politician was said to have referred to the media as the Fourth Estate of the Realm in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the British House of Commons. Over time the media, in particular, the print media, has come to be regarded as one of the foundational structures of democracy, leading Thomas Jefferson, the Third US President (1801-1809) to declare: “…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.” India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru also reportedly said: “I would rather have a completely free press with all the danger involved in the wrong use of that freedom, than a suppressed or regulated press.”
From the above, the role of the media in a democracy seems fairly self- evident. But what about its role in nation-building, especially in those states variously referred to as ‘fragile’, ‘weak’, ‘emergent’ or ‘new nations’?
It may be germane to start by clarifying our concepts.
Media or Mass Media can be loosely defined as a collective means of communication by which the general public or populace is kept informed about the day to day happenings in the society. It is essentially an aggregation of all communication channels that use techniques that aim at reaching a mass audience.
Nation-building is a process of constructing or structuring a national identity using the power of the state to create what the Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson (1983) called ‘imagined communities.’ It is, so to say, a deliberate process, through which citizens and even inhabitants of a given territory, regardless of their primordial identities and affiliations are made to identify with the symbols and institutions of the state and share a common sense of destiny with others.
How the media negatively impacts on the nation-building process
The media, in going about their duties, sometimes intentionally or unintentionally impact negatively on the nation-building process in Nigeria.
Cultivation Theory and Social Distance
Cultivation theory was propounded by the Hungarian-American professor of Communication George Gerbner (1919-2005). Gerbner tells us that media exposure, especially to television, shapes our social reality. Drawing on cultivation as it is practised in farming, Gerbner explained that just as a farmer plants seeds that he or she cultivates over time to produce a crop, the media plants seeds in our minds and then cultivates them until they grow into our shared social reality. This is another way of saying that what we see on TV or hear on radio or read in newspapers could shape our social reality.
We can extrapolate from this to argue that media reports are slanted or tailored to reflect local realities in order to appeal to a target audience, meaning that the media play roles to reinforce or protect people’s uniqueness. If our extrapolation from the cultivation theory is correct, then we can argue that by tailoring their programmes and reports to appeal to local audience, the media also contribute in widening the social distance among members of the Nigerian federation. For instance although the media in the First Republic espoused national goals in their operational statements, in reality the dominant tone was very much sectional and partisan. This trend has continued to this day, with several media, both print and broadcast – having parts of the country as their ‘catchment areas’.
Ownership structure of the media
One of the key determinants of the way the media report events is their ownership structure because as the saying goes, “he who pays the piper dictates the tunes”. In fact a study of media ownership and its impact on elections in Nigeria by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in 2012 found that most of the broadcast media in Nigeria were owned by the federal and state governments and that for the most part the owners determined the contents. The Commonwealth Observer Group said in its report on the 2007 elections that ‘significant state ownership of the broadcast media negatively impacted on and influenced the coverage in favour of incumbents’ parties.”
Poor and Delayed Remuneration
It was found that poor remuneration of journalists, even by the few private owners, leads to self-censorship since the ‘thank you’ they get from politicians and people they write about is often a major source of making ends meet. Quite often, even the meagre salaries they are paid are not paid on time and there are instances where journalists are owed upwards of one year’s salary in arrears. Extrapolating from these, it could be inferred that because of survival imperatives, most of the media are the megaphones of their respective state governments and individual owners.
The nature of the media – bad news is good news
The nature of the media is such that bad news sells. If a dog bites a man, well it is not really news unless a special slant could be found to it. However, if a man bites a dog, the story is a candidate for the headlines. Following from this, the media’s focus on the negativities in the country – corruption, nepotism, and ethnicity – feeds into a certain pessimism out there making people feel the country is no good. This could be one of the explanations for the current wave of ‘de-Nigerianization’, as a feeling of alienation from the Nigerian state forces people to delink from the state into primordial identities where they seek meaning for their lives.
Nigerian journalism is increasingly becoming all-comers’ affairs, with anyone who can string words together – verbally or in writing – feeling he or she can become a journalist. Nigerian journalism is consequently not very professionalized. In addition to poor training, many work with primitive implements in an era of sophisticated gadgetry. One of the consequences is the inability of the media practitioner to discern the national interest or even to know how to report or write with sensitivity to such interests. For instance it has been alleged that during Nigeria’s case with Cameroun over Bakassi at ICJ, classified documents that were to be used for the defence of the country’s claims were published with reckless abandonment by some Nigerian media. Also in times of ethno-religious conflicts, sections of the media cast their headlines in ways that suggest incitement.
Appropriating the role of the judiciary through media trial
Some media practitioners erroneously interpret their watchdog role as including appropriating the role of the courts. In several societies, even if you are caught with your fingers in the cookie jar, you remain a suspect until convicted by a court of law. Not in Nigeria. Nothing fires the public fury and sells newspapers more than sensational reports, especially reports of politicians or public officials embezzling huge sums of money. Quite often, the media, rather than report such as allegations, in media trial and conviction of the suspect even before enough evidence has been gathered against the suspect. This often has the unintended consequence of undermining confidence in the judiciary and by extension the state – especially if the suspect is eventually charged to court and acquitted.
Hate Speech in the Media
One of the key concerns about the role of the media in nation-building is in the area of hate speech. Hate-filled profiling seems to have reached a new high in the current democratic dispensation with Nigerians apparently revelling in pouring invectives on one another whenever they discuss the Nigerian condition. The triggers for such warring with words are often predictable: if it has to do with the Civil War, Igbo nationalists will square with the rest of the country; if it is about Boko Haram and its alleged sponsors, self-appointed defenders of the North will be up in arms with equally self-appointed defenders of the South; if it has to do with resource control and oil politics, the North squares it with the South-south. The Igbos and the Yorubas frequently pick on each other as we saw recently with the alleged deportation of Igbo destitute from Lagos. In these exchanges, religion, region and even town union politics are all sucked into them.
Hate speech employs discriminatory epithets to insult and stigmatize others on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other forms of group membership. It is any speech, gesture, conduct, writing or display which could incite people to violence or prejudicial action. The problem is that hate speech is often the gateway to discrimination, harassment and violence as well as a precursor to serious harmful criminal acts. It is doubtful if there will be hate-motivated violent attacks on any group without hate speech and the hatred it purveys.
Though hate speech is often condemned – and rightly so- there is an inherent problem in trying to contain hate speech in an environment in which the protection, defence and sustenance of the country’s democracy rests mainly on free speech – including speeches that offend, shock and awe – being protected.
Do the above mean that the Nigerian media, in the performance of their roles are fated to undermine the country’s nation-building processes? No at all. (To be continued)
Adapted from a paper presented at a training workshop on ‘Objective and Sensitive Reportage of Conflicts’ held at the Institute of Governance and Social Research, Jos, June 8-10, 2015.