Nigeria’s media scene is one of the liveliest in Africa with state radio and television stations operating at federal and regional levels. All 36 states run at least one radio station and a TV network. There are hundreds of radio stations and terrestrial TV networks, as well as cable and direct-to-home satellite offerings. There are more than 100 national and local press titles, some of them state-owned. They include well-respected dailies, tabloids and publications which champion ethnic interests.
Historically, Nigeria has boasted the freest and most outspoken press in Africa, but also one which has consistently been the target of harassment by past military dictatorships, and an instrument used by civilian administrations and opposition politicians. Many agents of Nigeria’s press have been imprisoned, exiled, tortured, or murdered as a result. In all of these, enhanced ‘brown envelope’ journalism is the order of the day across many media houses in the country, with the highest payer calling the shots in the number of sponsored stories that are published in the daily tabloids and online platforms.
The role of the media in nation building and development is as important as the role of any other core sector of the nation because a well-informed citizenry would breed a well value-orientated society, and a well value-orientated society would ensure a well-positioned country for development. However, over the years, the Nigerian media has transited from its lofty position of the guardian of cherished values to a pedestrian player, making itself malleable to sectarian political interests. The Nigerian media has shown how easy it could be manipulated by interest groups, judging from what happened in the past administrations and its role in it. The media was used by the opposition during the President Goodluck Jonathan administration and it played a major role in influencing international opinions and opposition to the nation.
Former President Goodluck Jonathan had more than a fair share of battles with the Nigerian media when in 2014, he accused the media of over-reporting the insecurity in the nation. He thereby sought to regulate their activities. This was met with a fierce backlash from the then opposition, which is now the ruling party – the APC. Then, Lai Mohammed, who was the National Publicity Secretary of the party (now the Minister of Information), in a press release on behalf of the APC, condemned what he alleged and described as a “siege” on newspapers across the country by security agencies under Jonathan’s regime.
The party warned that the Jonathan administration, by tampering with press freedom, had taken on a battle it cannot win. In the statement, Lai Mohammed, on behalf of the party, said the then President failed to learn the lessons of history that the Nigerian media could neither be intimidated nor suppressed by anyone, and that all those who tried to do so in the past lived to regret their actions. He further said it wondered why a government that was having problems prosecuting war on terror was instead waging a war on the media and using the security agencies to interfere with the country’s democracy.
Many of the allegations at the time bordered on opposition politics and propaganda, and a large section of the mainstream media played along. The question now is, has the story changed today?
The media played a major role in eventually bringing down the former President’s administration by allowing itself to be used by the opposition. It is widely believed that former President Goodluck Jonathan is the most insulted president in Nigeria’s history. It is even now reported in the media of Jonathan saying Nigerians will miss the freedom they had when he leaves power. The media that allowed itself to be used against the president then is now the same media that is pitched against the sitting President, then an opposition leader.
The current situation on a flipside is shocking, as the media has again taken to the side of the new opposition that it had antagonised in the immediate past administration pre-2015. In recent years, the media and the President Muhammadu Buhari-government have been in a kind of war. In the course of one year, the fight seems to have heightened to the degree of open showdown between the President’s administration and the media. In a somewhat deriding move, The Punch newspaper, for example, against the wish of the President began to refer to the President by his military title rather than simply as President Muhammadu Buhari. Before 2015, the Buhari Media Organisation utilised web-based media platforms and powerhouses to influence the assessments of Nigerians in the developments leading to the 2015 elections. Back in 2015, the APC delighted in enormous help from the media, as most media associations pilloried the then administration of Goodluck Jonathan. Presently, that relationship has become strained.
In recent weeks, the battle between the Buhari administration and the media has become stiffer after the government decided to suspend the activities of an online media organisation, Twitter. The Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, and the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) have been pushing for severe guidelines in recent months. At a conference on the NBC and the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) Bills in the House of Representatives, the Minister called for internet broadcasting to be included in the guidelines of the NBC, and online papers to be added in the Nigerian Press Council Act. The critical concern of government has been the growing, destructive wave of fake news in the country. But the bills have only made another cold connection between the Buhari administration and the media, as the Nigerian Guild of Editors, the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria, and the Nigerian Union of Journalists all kicked against the Bills, with protests on the front pages of significant dailies in Nigeria.
The strategy of the Buhari administration to re-adjust the position of the media has been met with a bitter repulse from the media. By and by, having abandoned its traditional role of enlightening the public, giving accurate information at all times, and nourishing the people with balanced reports, the Nigerian media that has over the years shown how flexible it can be in bending the rules and going for the highest bidder, which in most cases is the opposition, is all out again to do what it is good at doing – bringing down administrations by playing the script of the opposition, thereby perpetually positioning itself against the state. Judging from the collective activities of the media in recent years, a huge section of the Nigerian media continually pits itself against the government of the day and the state, successes and achievements within the dispensation notwithstanding..
Much of this has been demonstrated in the role they played in the media war against former President Jonathan, what they are presently doing, and what the result is most likely to be. Beyond issues of constructive criticisms and engagements, a large section of the Nigerian media is just a tool in the hands of the opposition politicians. The indication is that the lack of an independent media in the country derives not from government policies or actions aimed at gagging the press, but from many Nigerian journalists and media practitioners selling their souls to politicians and serving as outposts of partisan and sectarian interests. Rather curiously, sections of the Nigerian media have been at the forefront of the promotion of insurgency in the country.
The Jonathan administration accused the Nigerian media of over reporting the insecurity in the nation at that time, and the present administration is accusing them of the same thing. They have played a major role in making the situation messier than it seems by over-reporting the insurgency in several way, including tacit promotion of the activities of insurgents.
The general attitude of feasting and promoting separatists’ agenda that seek to break up the nation is also another role they assumed and have executed well at the moment. They have in recent months given a massive support and publicity to the IPOB agitations for Biafra, and the southwestern version – the Yoruba nation. They have portrayed the frontrunners of these agitations as messiahs and the constituted authorities at the federal level as evil. Nnamdi Kanu, Sunday Igboho, El Zakzaky, and even Shekau (dead or alive) have received various degrees of glorification in the media, in spite of their subversive actions that have disrupted the state and led to countless number of deaths across the country. For a section of the Nigerian media and their promoters, the greater virtue of these insurgents is the opposition that they offer to the government of the day.
The Nigerian media that is at the centre of the media war in Nigeria is responsible for making a host of people haters of their beloved country, hence the call for its regulation in some ways. The Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, has said the regulation is not to witch-hunt anyone, but to bring some sanity to the sector and to be able to clamp down on publishers of fake news and hate speech in the country. The media has once again frowned at this latest development and is using its powers to influence the thoughts of many Nigerians who do not know any better.