Roles of the media in ensuring virile democracy in Nigeria ― Otufodunrin [SPEECH]

Lekan Otufodunrin, journalism practice, democracy
Lekan Otufodunrin

My very sincere appreciation to the organisers of this programme for the invitation to be the speaker on this occasion. I count it an honour to be given this task to share my thoughts with you all and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

With the topic like the one I have been asked to speak on, one may be tempted to embark on extensive research to present a very academic paper. It would have been very appropriate to dig up as many media and political theories as possible, coupled with other scholarly presentations on the issue to write my paper.

As much as I would have loved to do what I have enumerated above, I will prefer a practical discussion of the topic as it relates to our profession considering that the kind of audience here is not unlearned and have the necessary experience that does not require any esoteric discourse.

I also note the theme for this programme which is digital media and the 21st-century challenge and will do my best to find a link between the issue of democracy and new digital media development.

Our country has come a long way from the pre-colonial days, post-colonial independence era when we briefly had democratic government truncated by years of military regime and the eventual return to democratic era.

For those of us who practised journalism under the military, we know the difference between being a journalist when we had military regimes and now that we have a civilian administration.

When I tell some young journalists that three national newspapers, one of which I used to work for were shut down for a year, they find it difficult to imagine such a situation. When I talk of journalists being jailed and held in detention for years they wonder how we survived the era. I had the unpleasant experience of being in a police cell for a week.

Having collaborated with other pro-democracy groups to ensure the exit of the military, the media undoubtedly have a major task in ensuring the survival and building of a virile democracy in our country.

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We know what we experienced as a profession under the military and what the country went through that we are yet to recover from even now and will do anything to ensure that era remain in the past forever.

So crucial is the role of the media in building democracy that without a free and unshackled media, democracy cannot thrive, just as without democracy, the media will not be able to perform not only the roles of informing, educating and entertaining the public, but holding the government accountable to the people as provided for in our constitution.

If democracy is indeed the government of the people, for the people and by the people, it is incumbent on the media to ensure that the democratic principles are upheld in various aspects of the overall governance of the country.

After twenty years of the return of civilian administration, we cannot afford to remain at the nascent level where Nigerians are not able to fully enjoy the dividends of democracy. The situation where once in a while some Nigerians due to the situation in the country, feel nostalgic about the military era is not good enough.

Just recently The Punch had to symbolically declare its intention to prefix the name of President Muhammadu Buhari with his military title of Major General in protest against abuses of fundamental rights and the rule of law by the federal government. This is an example of why the media cannot take its role for granted in ensuring the kind of democratic environment we need to have in the country by now.

For whatever it was worth, the unprecedented decision of the media and others which supported the move was a clear signal to politicians that the media will not only bark when its sees erosion of the spirit and letters of the democratic administration we are supposed to have but will not hesitate to bite, however mild, as long as the government is forced to take necessary action like it did in the case of the Publisher of Sahara Reporters Omoyele Sowore and former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki who were suddenly released on bail after initial refusal to yield to right counsel.

If our democracy is to endure and become firmly rooted to ensure good governance, free and fair elections and much more, the media must not fail in its role of being the watchdog. We cannot afford to allow politicians to mess up the country and tempt the military to ever think of making a comeback as we have had in some countries. Notwithstanding the strides accomplished by the government in Ghana, there was a reported coup attempt that was crushed immediately.

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It would have been sad if the soldiers succeeded and who knows who may be getting ideas from such an attempt.

For our media to effectively play their role in building a virile democracy, we must all have a clear understanding of our roles and live up to the expectations of the framers of the constitution who provided that we should be the guardian angel of democracy.

Journalists must be well versed in the provisions of the Constitution and other legal provisions to know what to demand from political office holders and appointees. When democracy is being violated in any way, including the disregard for the independence of all arms of government and other infractions, the media must insist on the due process being followed.

What is apparent in some instances is that some journalists don’t know enough of the limits of the powers of government officials and appointees so they are not held as accountable as they should.

We allow them to get away with poor performance when we don’t hold them accountable to the high demands of their office. Some of our reporting are so patronising that elected officials don’t think they are accountable to the electorates who should decide the right persons for any political post.

I understand the economic situation in the media, but we must realise that we have an important role to play in ensuring that we continue to have a country where the citizens are entitled to good governance and not where corruption and other forms of misgovernance thrive while we look away or not as discerning as we should than the ordinary citizen who feels helpless about the situation.

We must remain the voice of the voiceless when their rights are denied them and maintain the trust of the people who rely on us to always speak truth to power based on the principles of truth, fairness and justice.

In accordance with the preamble of the Code of Ethics for Nigerian Journalists, Journalism entails a high degree of public trust. To earn and maintain this trust, it is morally imperative for every journalist and every news medium to observe the highest professional and ethical standards. In the exercise of these duties, a journalist should always have a healthy regard for the public interest.

More than ever before, we need more incisive and investigative reporting of issues at all levels, informed commentary, data analysis and fact-checking that can guarantee the future of the country. Not only must we report, but we must also engage in some level of advocacy that ensures that necessary actions are taken over the misdeeds we expose in collaboration with civil society groups.

We must ensure that all agencies of government, especially those whose work impacts directly on the sustenance of democracy are properly funded and allowed to discharge their responsibilities.

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What else can we do? We should set agenda and insist on best practices by all concerned instead of allowing them to get away with untenable excuses of why they are unable to abide with the oath of offices they swore to uphold.

To be able to do all the above, the media needs to be viable and have the required level of independence. It must also come to terms with the challenges of the digital disruption of our industry and be compliant.

It’s important to pay attention to the shrinking space for freedom of expression and fundamental human rights despite the fact that we are supposed to be under a democratic government. We are witnessing some systematic crackdown on individuals which may soon be extended to us if we don’t speak up now.

The existing revenue model of the traditional media is no longer sustainable and there is need to explore new revenue streams to be able to pay journalists commensurate salaries, fund the kind of reporting required and provide necessary facilities.

Lack of adequate capital has been a major challenge for media organisations in the country with many organisations unable to pay their staff as at when due. Unless journalists are financially comfortable, it may be difficult to enforce the code of ethics that seeks not to make them subservient to those they should be holding accountable. How can a hungry dog keep watch when there are those who are always willing to offer it what to eat to gain access to where it should be watching?

Some new media platforms like Cable Foundation, Premium Times and Daily Trust have been able to source available funding from international organisations to fund investigations they cannot pay for.

Media organisations should acquire the capacity to access similar grants and funding to be able to produce the kind of in-depth reports that can monitor government expenditure and implementation of projects.

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Traditional media must also become fully multi-media in their operations to benefit from additional income that can be made from new media platforms. It’s not enough to have websites and social media platforms for the sake of having them, there is need for deeper understanding of the operations and technical know-how involved.

There is need for proper convergence in our newsroom sourcing and dissemination and to maximise the large number of staff we have compared with smaller platforms that make more money than we do. Why should advertisers be ready to pay more for adverting on smaller platforms, why do some new platforms have more followers and readership than traditional media houses? There are definitely things we need to learn before it’s too late to remain relevant.

At individual levels, every journalist must become digital savvy to have a role to play in the future of the media. The new media is liberating and offers opportunities for owning private platforms, but only digital attuned journalists can maximise the opportunity.

My advice is that we should be very prepared for the challenging times ahead. We all need regular trainings, coaching and mentoring to survive the new phase of media practice which is more than reporting news.

I am not a prophet of doom, but the truth is that traditional media houses will gradually continue to scale down in operations, some will lay off their staff and probably shut down. That should not be the end of our careers, we should maximise the opportunities we have now to learn as much as possible and be prepared for life after the newsroom which will come sooner or later.

I need to add that we need to run our media unions more professionally and like any standard non-governmental organisation. Unless we do this, we will continue to over depend on the support from government and politicians who we are supposed to hold accountable.

In rounding up, the media undoubtedly have a major role to play in sustaining and building a virile democracy in our country and we must not fail to live up to expectations. We must appreciate our crucial roles knowing that without democracy our industry cannot have the freedom to operate as we should.

Being a speech delivered by Lekan Otufodunrin, Executive Director of Media Career Development Network at the maiden NUJ South-West Zonal Lecture/award programme held in Ibadan, Oyo State on January 10, 2020.