1. Let me start by saying that the media is indispensable in building a virile democracy, especially by holding power accountable.
This much was recognized by the framers of our Constitution, in which the role of the media is unambiguous. Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution is clear on this role: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media to, at all time, be free to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
2. As a matter of fact, the watchdog role of the media is globally acknowledged, more so in the advanced democracies. Former American President Thomas Jefferson perhaps best captures the importance of a free press to hold the government to account. In a famous statement, he said if he had to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he would not hesitate a moment to choose the latter.
3. The Nigerian press has a rich history of holding power accountable. This is not a surprise, considering that the Nigerian press is one of the most vibrant in the world. Yes, I didn’t say that as a joke! Our experience as a government confirms this assertion.
Whereas in many countries, the press is worried about being bullied by the government, here in Nigeria, it is the government that has to contend with endless bullying by the press.
4. In Nigeria, however, there is an increasing concern about the ability of the fourth estate to hold power to account. This concern is due to a number of factors. One is bias. For example, there is a national television station here in this country that has, as one of its Anchors, a partisan, a known opposition party man. Yes, the said Anchor is also a journalist. But what kind of objectivity can we expect from such an Anchor? No matter how professional he seeks to be, his partisanship will always be a blur. Can such Anchor or his medium be trusted to objectively hold power accountable?
5. Another is the increasing propensity of the media in Nigeria to undermine their own watchdog role. Today, it is not uncommon to have media organizations hold annual award ceremonies. In most cases, their awardees are top officials of the same government they are supposed to hold accountable. Such awards include: Governor or Governors of the Year; Minister or Ministers of the Year; Politician or Politicians of the Year. Let’s even forget the fact that the criteria for giving such awards are dubious, at best. Let’s forget that some of these awardees support the awarding organizations in one form or the other, especially during the awards. To what extent can such media organizations hold their awardees, most of them top officials of government at all levels, accountable? Is this not antithetical to the watchdog role prescribed for the press in the Constitution?
6. Also, in this social media era, there are concerns about the freewheeling role of some New Media platforms.
Today, there are hundreds of online newspapers. However, unlike the traditional media where gatekeepers ensure a proper scrutiny of what goes out, most of these online papers churn out news that is neither verified nor balanced. And the society believes this fake news or misinformation and runs with it. For example, during my recent official trip to the US to engage with the international media, one online news website published that the purpose of the trip was to engage with Twitter. This fake news was published without recourse to my office to even double-check the purpose of the trip. And of course, many gullible people believed it. Can a media organization that engages in fake news and misinformation uphold the Constitutional role prescribed for the media? Can you be a watchdog when you are a dog of fake news and misinformation? Is it not said that he who must come to equity must come with clean hands?
7. There is therefore what I will call the urgency of now for the media to look inwards and engage in self-scrutiny in order to remove those things that inhibit its ability to perform its Constitutional role.