Reinforcing the Infrastructure of Press Freedom

Address delivered on the occasion of the formal presentation of licenses to private radio, television and cable owners, at Sheraton Hotel, Abuja on Thursday, 10th June, 1993.

It is my pleasure to be at this historic occasion in partial fulfilment of a promise which I made to the nation a year and half ago. I recall with a deep sense of commitment that on 7 January, 1992, I publicly declared the determination of this administration to make private ownership of radio and television a reality before its exit. The occasion today is to me as exciting and historic as it should be to all mass media practitioners and to all proponents of stable democracy in Nigeria.

This occasion marks the beginning of a new era in broadcasting in the country. But it marks much more. It witnesses yet another major step in the articulation of a comprehensive national mass communication framework, the policy of which this administration established early in its existence and has studiously pursued.

It is our belief that a free, self-disciplined and well-articulated mass communication system should form the bedrock of our evolving liberal participatory democracy. As an administration, we believe that, a free, vibrant and responsible mass media sector remains a major vehicle of propagating values which mould the civic consciousness of the people and guide the healthy orderly development of the nation. It is therefore, with joy that we are today reinforcing the infrastructure of press freedom by adding the institutional voice of privately owned electronic media. It is our hope that this major step will not only further amplify the voice of freedom of expression but will also widen the tapestry of shades of opinion which will constitute what should properly be defined as national opinion.

Since its inception, this Administration has been consistent in its resolve to uphold the principle of freedom of expression and the contingent environment of a self-sustaining and self-regulatory growth of the mass media industry. On coming into office, we removed all regulations we met that tended to impinge on people’s rights to free speech and released from incarceration victims of such stringent laws. This was followed by the enunciation of a comprehensive National Mass Communication Policy. We then proceeded to set up a set of statutory regulatory bodies including your distinguished self, the National Broadcasting Commission. The others are the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria, and the Nigerian Press Council.

Permit me to reiterate that we have no regrets for the decision we took in 1985 to repeal Decree 4, because our conviction on press freedom remains as strong today as it was then. Our print media have since then enjoyed all the freedom that is in consonance with the environment of a developing democratic country. It is a fact that, there has been a tremendous growth of the print media industry over the past eight years of this Administration. Although the growth of certain subsections of the industry may not represent the best reflection of our society’s cultural and religious values or even the best values and ethics of the journalism profession, the fact remains that there has been a flowering of print media during the period of our Administration. We have continued to accommodate so many criticisms with so much tolerance.

The electronic media industry has also made significant progress. The administration’s acknowledgement of the pivotal role of the electronic media in information dissemination is expressed in the serious attention which it has given and continues to give to the necessity of encouraging every state in the Federation, especially the new states, to own a radio and television station.

On the continental level, we have contributed to the establishment of the Pan African Advertising Union (PAU) which held its first congress in Otta, Nigeria, last year. Nigeria holds the position of Secretary-General of the Union. We also recognize and support the continental public relations body, the Federation of African Public Relation’s Associations, the Chairmanship of which is held by Nigeria. We made contributions to the formulation of the African Communication Policy which was considered by the OAU Summit in 1990. Our commitment to the survival of the Pan African News Agency (PANA) remains unshaken.

All these achievements point to our resolve and practical commitment to the development and freedom of the media, because we believe that freedom of the media is freedom of the people; that the freedom of the media, responsibly exercised, promotes good government and an enlightened citizenry.

It is because of this crucial role that I appeal to the mass media, especially the print media, to remain alert to its highly sensitive and grave responsibility. While the mainstream of the media has done extremely well, the industry must protect its fellow citizens and our national integrity against speculative smear campaigns and fiction-writing which could compromise the nobility of the profession in its peripheral subsector. The profession must save itself from the excesses of its own phenomenal growth.

On the issue of private participation in electronic media industry, I wish to recall that there is a school of thought which saw deregulation of the electronic media as prescription for disintegration of the nation. The contention is that, given the scope of activities of these media and their reach, they could be utilized by powerful politicians to undermine the political stability of the nation that is grappling with the problems of national integration.

However, I think that the fear of abuse of the electronic media should not stop our nation from the determination to promote democratic ideals and institutions. We have implicit confidence in the high sense of civic responsibility and patriotic commitment of the Nigerian operators of the private electronic media. We expect that any conflict between the lures of maximum profit and demands of national interest must always find an unambiguous solution in favour of the higher public good. We are confident that the National Broadcasting commission, entrusted by law with, the responsibility of monitoring and regulating the electronic media industry will guide the industry to the highest level of professional excellence in service to the Nigerian community.

At the same timer the National Broadcasting Commission should ensure the right behaviour in our relationship with international organizations. In ensuring that our electronic media industry conforms with inter-national legal standards, the body should firmly discourage programme piracy and other acts which could smear the image of the nation. On the choice of foreign programmes, I expect that our media operations will also always bear in mind the cultures and aspirations of this nation, and the need to protect our cultural identity.

With the widening of the infrastructural base of the mass media industry and the anticipated increase of institutional voices of freedom, we are now entering a new era of structural complexity in the mass media industry. It is now time to think seriously of a national information policy as an operational spin-off to the National Mass Communication Policy.

The object of such a policy would be to ensure the better management of our information communication resources to facilitate overall development of the relationships between the organs of government and those of the mass media in both the public and private sectors of the country within the context of a liberal democratic political economy.

Another major consideration of such a national policy is the need to provide an official guideline for the orderly and healthy growth of the nation’s mass communication industry including government’s information services throughout the country, to ensure that their resources are channelled largely to the establishment, and for the promotion and sustenance of the ideals that inform and direct our nation-state. These ideals include, for example, national unity, self-propelling economy, social integration, a broad-based participant democracy in the context of the peculiar characteristics of our society’s pluralism, a tradition of orderly and peaceful constitutional change of government and, above all, delegitimation of individual and self-centred acts that undermine our corporate efforts towards the realization of the national objectives.

It is obvious that the way in which the totality of our public affairs information apparatuses – both public and private institutions inclusive -are structured and the context of their unguided development within which their activities have expanded over the years, has created more negative than positive impact on practically all aspects of our post-independence national life. For example, although the nation’s mass communication industry has witnessed a phenomenal growth during the tenure of this ad-ministration, that growth has been concentrated only in the primate cities of administration and commerce established during the period of colonial rule. This is particularly true of the print media. But it is equally true to a significant extent of the growth pattern in the broadcasting sector, as well as in the information services of the government. Consequently, much of the information that flows through the system is largely produced from, and for, the interests of an elite minority in the urban settings.

The interests and development needs and aspirations of the greater majority of the population who reside in the rural communities, as well as those who form a large majority of the urban socially deprived population, are marginally catered for, and perfunctorily too, by the modem mass media industry. As a result, participation in public affairs and in governance has remained the exclusive preserve of the elite class. Opinions that are shaped through the media of mass communication and projected to reflect the mood of the nation, and hence influence perception and programmes of government, arc largely contrived. This has led not only to the continued impoverishment and powerlessness of the greater majority of our citizenry but also to their alienation in the socio-economic, political, cultural process of our nation building.

A policy is therefore urgently needed to reverse this trend, and to ensure through various forms of incentives and other innovative arrangements that the resources for communication and participation in public affairs are broadly distributed throughout the country. Similarly, all social class formations in the society should be encouraged, motivated and effectively mobilized to play active roles in charting the purposes of good governance and the direction of nationhood.

Finally, I congratulate the recipients of this first set of broadcasting licenses. I enjoin these recipients to appreciate that they have a sacred duty, which is to contribute to the building of this nation. I trust that they will live up to expectations. I also believe that the balanced spatial distribution of the approvals and the grant of licenses will achieve the desired balanced information dissemination in the federation.

I also congratulate the Ministry of Information and Culture, the National Broadcasting Commission and all those persons who have contributed in one way or to making today’s celebration of achievement a reality. We are aware of the enormous monitoring and regulating responsibilities vested on the National Broadcasting Commission and we are pleased with the progress of the Commission’s take-off. In recognition of these, I assure the Commission that every possible assistance within available resources will be given by this administration to enable the Commission to procure the necessary equipment for its effective operation and achievement of its laudable goals.

Once again, I wish the proprietors of private electronic media good luck.