The Media in Nigeria: Retrospect and Prospect

Address at the Nigerian Media Merit Award Ceremony, Lagos, 11th July, 1992.

Let me state from the outset that I intend to take full advantage of the privileged platform accorded by this august occasion to venture a few candid remarks on the state of the Nigerian press. I make this statement prefatory to the commencement of my address in order that my esteemed hosts may avail themselves of the opportunity, even at this last minute, to apply the rule of prior restraint before allowing me to go to press with my observations.

The story is told of a newspaper editor who sought to explain to his inquisitive five-year-old son the reason why thunder erupts at certain times. According to the editor, whenever a person tells a lie, the heavens register their disapproval by grumbling, with the loudness of the grumble being directly proportional to the enormity of the falsehood perpetrated. This occasional grumbling from the heavens, he added, is what echoes down here on earth as the eruption of thunder.

One dreary, stormy night, at about 3:00 a.m., the little boy awoke to the deafening eruption of thunder which shook the house to its very foundations and made it extremely difficult for him to have a sound sleep. After trying to go back to sleep without much success, the little boy headed for his father’s room to inquire as to who could be awake at such an ungodly hour, telling what was apparently such a huge lie judging from the loud anger with which the heavens were grumbling.

Caught in a tight corner, and knowing that there was no way he could go back to sleep without giving a satisfactory answer, the harassed father did a quick mental exercise and came up with a response. The main rival to the newspaper of which he was editor, he explained, normally commenced the printing of its early morning edition at about 3:00 a.m. and, given the paper’s reputation for not telling the truth, it was no surprise that the heavens should choose to grumble at exactly that hour. The ferocity of this particular grumble, he further explained, only indicated that a very big lie was being published in the edition which was then going to press.

Now, we need not be Professors of Astronomy or Geography to know that if any correlation exists between the telling of lies and the eruption of thunder, it must be, at best, a very tenuous one. Yet this anecdote is instructive. First, it serves as a moral fable for the young ones on the dangers of lying. But, more importantly, given our present situation, it could be an allegory on the injuries inherent in the intramural crisis of name-calling and backbiting that now seems to characterize the way the media relates with itself and its environment.

Towards a Recapture of Media Excellence

At the inception of this Administration, one of the earliest decisions we took was to strike out from the statute books, those legislations that sought to hamper and even punish journalists in the proper discharge of their responsibilities. One of the numerous actions taken in the life of this administration that gladdened my heart was the abrogation of Decree No. 4 (DN4) of 1984 which !pronounced in my very first address to the nation on August 27, 1985. Also, very few accolades fill me with as much pride as that which describes this government as a friend of the press.

In promising to restore to the Nigerian media the freedom which had been deprived it by Decree 4 of 1984, I did, however, urge that the onus of demonstrating corresponding maturity rested squarely on the press itself. I did state then that freedom cannot be tantamount to licence; it is freedom within the context of nation-building – freedom to criticize but not to incite, freedom to criticize constructively, not destructively. Those who think otherwise are those who have converted press freedom into press flames.

Whether the goodwill which this administration demonstrated so early in its life has now been reciprocated by the Media can only be a matter of conjecture. To ascertain the level of responsibility with which the Media has fulfilled its own side of the bargain, we may need to compare the state of journalism practice today with the pre-August 1985 position. But, whatever may be the subjective parameters involved in reaching a firm conclusion, the following developments are objectively indisputable:

  1. a) owing to press freedom the number of media organizations, especially of the independent privately-owned variety has more than doubled in the past seven years. This has further ensured for the reader, the availability of many opinions on any issue or topic of national importance. Press freedom, in one fundamental respect, entails that the media is never mono-opinionated on any issue of national importance;
  2. b) largely due to the performance or non-performance of the media, there are today more libel cases in court – many of them instituted by journalists against fellow journalists;
  3. c) Unlike the pre-August 1985 situation, not a single Nigerian journalist has been held by the law enforcement agencies be-yond the duration and requirements of interrogation.

What all these suggest is that there is today a crying need for sober reflection on the state of the Nigerian Media. The media and all those interested in its proper development must now rally back to the banner of probity, objectivity and patriotism which for several decades, constituted the essential hallmark of the journalistic profession in Nigeria. Only by so doing can the media approximate the excellence which occasions such as this one are meant to celebrate.

This task becomes even more imperative and urgent when we recall that the search for excellence in the media is still on the formative stage in Nigeria. In the not too distant past, excellence was displayed in abundance by the likes of Ernest Ikoli, our revered former President Nnamdi Azikiwe, Herbert Unegbu, Olabisi Onabanjo, Abubakar lmam and others too numerous to mention. Indeed, I am gratified to note that today’s awards are in honour of some of those great names. All of these personages gave of their best and were deservedly acknowledged as such, even by their adversaries. Not only did they exert themselves valiantly in sustaining the reputation of their profession, they also worked tirelessly to train suitable successors who, in turn, gave due recognition to their excellence.

It is therefore no surprise that in seeking to recapture that excellence of yesteryears, the Nigerian media should now have, at the forefront of that noble crusade, a man who exemplifies the brightest and best among the veterans still alive today. I speak, of course, of Alhaji (Dr) Ismail Babatunde Jose who, not surprisingly, is Chaimian of the Board of Trustees of the Nigerian Media Merit Award. It was largely due to the contributions of the pioneering giants whom I mentioned earlier that the generation of Alhaji Jose was born. Under his direction, the Daily Times was formidable but lawful, such that today we can refer, with nostalgia, to the era of people like Babatunde Jose, Peter Enahoro, Sam Amuka, Alade Odunewu (Allah-De) Stanley Macebuh and Dr. Haroun Adamu.

There is today a most pressing need to sustain, if not surpass, the standards set by these giants. The Nigerian Media, both in its print and electronic segments, must strive to uphold the cumulative legacy of these personages.


Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe

The Trustees Honorary Award to the Right Hon Nnamdi Azikiwe, who the Chairman of the Board of Trustees described as the Father of Journalism in Nigeria, is a very commendable highlight of today’s awards. There is no better head for the cap to fit. Right Hon Nnamdi Azikiwe is the father, founder, shining star and professional model of Nigerian, indeed African, journalism. Right Hon Nnamdi Azikiwe was a pioneer of positive, dedicated, progressive and dynamic journalism who utilized his stable, his leadership and his intellect to restore and advance the dignity of Nigeria, Africa and man. We salute him for his monumental contributions to our national development and we wish him many more years of service to our fatherland.

At the risk of sounding immodest, we can confidently assert that this Administration, more than any other, has contributed immensely to facilitating this journey of self-rediscovery which the Nigerian press is now embarked upon to recapture its lost glory. We have, within the limits of our capabilities, furnished the media with the economic, attitudinal, infrastructural and political environment conducive to the pursuit of excellence. The free-enterprise spirit nurtured by our economic policies has blossomed in the media industry, perhaps more visibly than in most other sectors during the past few years. Several journals have sprung up and, from all accounts, many of them have gone on to prosper, because they have succeeded in securing readership and clientele.

Also, we have been more tolerant of criticism or even downright provocation than many previous regimes, be it civilian or military. We were never discouraged in our determination to facilitate the growth of a national press, the orientation and operation of which shall be in tandem with the aspirations that animate Africa’s most authentic democratization process.

We do not need to cite anonymous sources to validate our claim of keeping faith with the development of a free press. All that anyone in doubt has to do is compare the independence and vibrancy that characterize the Nigerian media to what obtains elsewhere on the African continent or even in the entire world. Indeed, nowhere in the world does any segment of society enjoy unlimited freedom. The distinctive hallmark of the Nigerian example is that we continue to push forward the frontiers of press freedom rather than roll them back. No less a person than one of our country’s most fearless journalists acknowledged this much on his return to the country some time ago. I am gratified to note that even the earlier speakers on this occasion only spoke of degrees of press freedom and not an absolute lack of it.

In the search for excellence that informs the instituting of an award of this nature, there is an acute need for a sense of proportion in what we publish and broadcast. While it is true that the performance of the Nigerian media has often been impressive, the use of intemperate language sometimes renders some of our publications and programmes depressing, while the hectoring propensity of self-anointed crusaders often times prove too oppressive for the average Nigerian. It is okay for the media to seek to impress its audience if that does not also entail depressing and oppressing innocent compatriots. The road to excellence in media practice does not pass through journalistic belligerence. It is possible for the media to be combative or even adversarial without being needlessly bellicosal. Striking that delicate balance is an aspect of excellence.

I have affirmed it on many occasions that we do not claim a monopoly of wisdom and knowledge. The media should know that it can render help to the readers and listeners independently of government programmes and their execution. The media should initiate and sustain columns and programmes to educate and inform Nigerians about how to cope with present day economic and social realities. It should display originality and creativity in assisting the public to cope with economic, political and social exigencies.

The Press and Transition Process

I would be stating the obvious if I say that the press has a crucial role to play in the conversion process of the Nigerian polity, from military rule to civilian-led democratic governance. The sheer amount of resources and advertisement expenditure which political aspirants and even the transition agencies have been deploying to woo both the print and electronic media since the commencement of the transition programme bears ample testimony to the central importance of the Fourth Estate in the on-going process. While the attention lasts, it is necessary for the sake of our collective political health to caution the media on the need to avoid being used by those whose motives may be inimical to the unity, progress and well-being of Nigeria and her people.

The Media would need to set for itself the obligation that just as journalists and critical commentators have x-rayed this Administration and previous ones, they must now also subject the various aspirants to the litmus test of patriotism, probity and performance. Journalists must strenuously avoid any conduct in their relationship with present aspirants that would compromise their fearlessness in safeguarding the integrity of the Third Republic when the need arises. This is one duty the media owes itself in particular and Nigerians in general.

As we continue on our historic mission to the Third Republic the Press must renew its patriotic commitment to our collective national ideals. In the same vein, permit me to use this august forum to plead passionately with all Nigerians, and the political actors in particular to appreciate the fact that a political programme or system, however perfectly designed, can only be successfully implemented in a peaceful and harmonious milieu. The current transition programme has been widely acknowledged as the most elaborate and painstaking one ever put in place by any military regime anywhere in the world. But it requires our determination, self-discipline and high sense of social responsibility to ensure that the programme succeeds and endures.

Policy Statements

As part of our contribution to helping the media discharge this duty, it is the intention of this Administration to extend private sector ownership to broadcasting. You will appreciate that each station will need one or more frequencies, and as these are not inexhaustible, we need to put in place a machinery for licensing private broadcasting stations. The instant appeal and other pervasive powers of radio and television make it necessary also that the licence holder is expected to exercise more circumspection than obtains in other media. Considerable progress has already been made by the Ministry of Information and Culture in the direction of deregulating broadcasting and, some time before the end of this year, as I have had cause to say before, the first licences will begin to go out.

Also, permit me to renew our commitment to the operation of the Media Council which has been a subject of intense debate among communication practitioners and groups in the past few years. I expect that very soon, the Media Council will be inaugurated. I know that the Minister of Information and Culture is working very hard in this regard. Whatever emerges from his current shuttle between, and consultations with, the professional interest groups will be accepted for immediate implementation.

I have always found much delight in being associated with positive developments in the growth of the Nigerian Media. And I do not seek to flatter if I declare now that the unique occasion which we are here gathered to witness represents a most laudable development in the march of progress upon which the Nigerian media had embarked since the heroic days of the anti-colonial struggle. Indeed, the press in our country has a proud history of upholding the rights of our people in the face of foreign domination; it stood its grounds and, acting as the vanguard for colonial resistance, it established for itself a tradition of courage, truth, and nation­alism. My happiness at being able to attend this ceremony is further grati­fying for the reason that this is an event which has been made possible by the efforts of men and women who singly and collectively exemplify ex­cellence in the journalistic profession in these parts.

I salute the foresight that informed the efforts of the initiators of this Award and hope that the Award shall be nurtured into becoming a perma­nent feature in this noble profession’s unending search for relevance and excellence.

The Challenge

I note with much pleasure that the categories upon which these awards are based cover virtually every aspect of the media, be it electronic or print, reportorial or graphic. This is as it should be, especially because a news medium is nothing if not the unity of all its parts. And just as each medium must present itself to its audience as an organic whole, so must the media, as a ‘collective’, seek to maintain a modicum of coherence, in its monumental duty to remain vibrant, truthful and, above all, fair and patriotic.

It is no news that outside observers often get the impression that the media is in disarray, sometimes turning its gun, or shall we say its pen, against itself. This might have been a healthy development but for the sorry spin-offs that ensue from such lack of unity. Our experience with this intramural bickering and one upmanship has been that ‘facts’ are thereby exposed as being not so sacred in the estimation of some of our media practitioners. This is injurious not only to the profession, but also to the society it is meant to serve.

The challenges that confront the Nigerian media are multifarious, with many of them rendered even more problematic by the conduct – or the lack of it – of some journalists themselves. An uplifting occasion such as this would have lived up to its promise if it becomes a forum at which a much needed and almost belated self-appraisal by the press shall com­mence.

Let me congratulate today’s award winners and runners-up on their success which, I am informed, came after surmounting stiff competition. It is my hope that you will now place yourselves at the disposal of your noble profession in the search for excellence and that you will, in fact, be at the vanguard of that search. Once again, let me also congratulate the organizers of the Award for their thoughtfulness and resourcefulness. I am positive that not only the award winners but the entire journalistic profession would have found this occasion richly rewarding.

Finally, I wish to record my pleasure in accepting the title ‘Grand Patron’, as conferred on me by the Board of Trustees of the Nigerian Media Merit Award. I wish the Board greater success in the future, the award winners and runners-up a happy celebration, and I earnestly hope that media men and women will strive to attain the standards of excel­lence inspired by the Nigerian Media Merit Award.