By UMARU A. PATE
The subject of freedom and responsibility is an issue that societies have continued to address at various times in history. And, it is not likely to end in our time or be restricted to the mass media of our country; because, so long as societies exist, people would exert their freedoms which would naturally attract corresponding responsibility. In very simple terms, freedom cannot be separated from responsibility be it in politics, the media, family or other aspects of human endeavour. The inextricable linkage between freedom, responsibility and public safety is exceedingly pronounced in diverse, multicultural and democratising societies like Nigeria where weaknesses in societal structures, endemic poverty and high literacy level can have definitive impact on interpersonal and group dynamics, many a times negatively and dangerously.
In Nigeria, like in many other countries with a liberalized media system, the mass media has been continuously reminded, in fact, professionally required to always seek to balance their generous freedom to gather, process and disseminate information with a high sense of responsibility to the various constituencies. By their nature, the mass media require the highest level of freedom to be able to perform optimally and respond to the desires of an increasingly critical public in a democratically competitive environment that is hugely multicultural and heterogeneous. Thus, this paper focuses on maintaining the required delicate balancing between the enforcement, protection and promotion of high level of professional media freedom and the upholding of the obligatory concept and practice of social responsibility. Simply, media freedom connotes the unhindered performance of the media and its professionals in the task of collecting, processing and disseminating information professionally judged to be in the public interest. Media freedom suggests absence of censorship, fear, hidden or visible threats, economic impediments, political pressure or any other impediment that may impair the operational capacity of the system to deliver professionally and to the satisfaction of both the media personnel and the audiences. The country’s constitution has clearly granted the media some level of independence to keep the structures of governance accountable to the people. But what can the media give in return for this generous freedom it enjoys on behalf of the society?
The need to satisfactorily answer the above question led to the infusion of the concept of social responsibility in the media in line with recommendation of the Hutchinson Commission in the USA in 1947. According to the Commission, a responsible press should “provide a full, truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning’. It should serve as a forum for the exchange of comments and criticism and be a common carrier of the public expression’. It also advised that the press should give a “representative picture of constituent groups in society groups in society and also uphold the ‘goals and values of society’ in addition to rejecting sensationalism of the press and the mixing of news with editorial opinion (McQuail, 2006).
The concept of social responsibility stands for the sustenance of a diverse, objective, informative and independent press institution. It discourages the promotion of violence, crime and disorder. In summary, social responsibility insists that:
o The media must be obligated to society and by extension, media ownership is a public trust
o News media should be truthful, accurate, fair, objective and relevant
o The media should be free but self regulated
o Media should follow agreed code of ethics and professional conduct
o Under some circumstances, government may need to safeguard the public interest
The plural and diverse pattern of media ownership in the country is the basis for its vibrancy and relative independence. The plurality of channels ensures that Nigerians have access to multiple sources of information. The mix between government ownership and constitutionally guaranteed rights of the private sector to own and operate media channels ensures that Nigerians are provided with alternative sources of information.
Legally, Section 36 (1) of the country’s 1999 Constitution guarantees freedom of the press in Nigeria. It stipulates that: “(1) every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”. Section 39(2) guarantees that “…every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions”. In Section 22, the responsibility of the media to hold the government accountable to the people is defined. It provides thus: ”the press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people”. Section 16 gives the media the right and freedom to ensure that governments uphold good governance and “control the national economy in such a manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity”.
The implication of this section of the Constitution is that the media has been empowered to investigate and criticise poor and corrupt leadership and promote political stability, economic prosperity and social justice. In May, 2011, the country enacted a Freedom of Information Act that compels agencies to provide information on demand from the citizens and the media. The law was welcomed by the media as “as a significant development for widening the space for freer flow of information, transparency and accountability in governance; and… energize the fight against public corruption” (Media Review, August, 2011).
However, there are many laws that are capable of undermining the above provisions on the freedom of the media. A number of laws (Official Secrets Act, 1962; Press Registration Act, 1933; Newspaper Act, 1917; etc) including the unlimited powers of the National Broadcasting Commission and the Nigerian Press Council, both of which are Federal Government agencies can, if inappropriately exercised, undermine the establishment and unrestricted operations of the independent media. Equally, the commercialization regime in the industry tends to restrict the participation of the majority of the people that are economically weak and by extension undercut the freedom for access to the media space.
REPORTING CRISIS IN THE MEDIA
Crisis, conflict, insecurity, disorder and crime are very attractive sources of news for the media. Indeed, they are seen as “the bread and butter” of journalism (Owens-Ibie, 2002). People turn to the media for relevant information during conflict or crisis periods. Studies have shown that the media have remained the most credible source of news and information to most people. The importance of the media goes beyond just providing information per se. For most of the times we also use such information to form opinion on very serious issues in material life. Earlier studies have established a relationship between issues considered important and issues that the public also consider important. Even though they do not tell us what to think, the media are found to direct our minds on what to think about.
A number of attempts have been made to analyse the pattern of media coverage of diversity and conflict issues in the country. From the various studies, one can easily summarise the common professional errors that are often found in the media (Akinfeleye, 2003; Albert, 2002; Yusuf, 2002; Pate, 2002; Ojo, 2000).
A number of problems have been identified in the nature and pattern of how the media in Nigeria struggle to balance freedom with responsibility in covering sensitive diversity and conflict issues in the country. These include:
1. Promoting, by selective reporting, prejudicial stereotypes about groups and individuals.
2. Reporting inter-group conflicts out of their fundamental sociological, economical, political and other contexts. In many cases, media persons merely respond to statements of politicians, ethnic champions, religious zealots and other interested party rather than initiate their own independent inquiries about specific social conflict, issue or disorder.
3. Making generalized statements not supported by concrete facts and figures.
4. Attributing statements by individuals to collectives.
5. Publishing of rumours as facts.
6. Publishing unfair and discriminating adverts.
7. Use of inflammatory language in news reporting.
8. The problem of editors allowing the letters column and opinion pages to be used to make inflammatory statements against some people or groups.
9. The use of inflammatory, misleading and sensational headlines to attract sales.
10. Demonisation of certain ethnic, religious or political groups in an already divided and tensed society.
11. The use of cartoons to malign a community, group or individual.
12. Use of unrepresentative pictures
13. Un-objective and clearly biased reporting against some groups, individuals or communities.
14. Inappropriate usage of language in reporting conflict stories.
15. Total blackout on some groups, individuals or community
16. Expression of ill-informed opinions by columnists, writers, etc. on issues that affect certain groups of people in the country.
17. Shallow and episodic coverage.
The failure of many Journalists to abide by the professional code of ethics which emphasizes objectivity, balance, fairness, thoroughness, honesty and relevance have led to the perception that many of our media organs “often de-emphasize how to make a contribution towards a culture of peace, and build policies and leadership ethos that could support sustainable peacemaking. Instead, the Nigerian press raises more issues about our differences as ethnic and religious groups than our similarities” (Albert, 2002).
Perhaps, the above problems may not all be deliberate, but a manifestation of mental laziness, professional incompetence, poor research and analytical skills, and very disturbingly, arrogance found among some media personnel. For example, it is not uncommon to read, watch, or listen to poorly researched, ignorantly written and inappropriately delivered pieces that embarrassingly portray poverty of ideas on the ethnography, history, sociology and other attributes of the various peoples in this country. Journalists who produce such materials end up confusing, antagonizing and dividing farther the people instead of educating and uniting them. In the words of Dahlgren (1992), “Journalists must become sensitive to, and acknowledge such aspect as the multiple subjectivities of every life…”
We also disagree with the common notion especially among government officials, that suppressing information during tense moments is desirable or necessary. This may be dangerous and counterproductive; because to pretend that the crisis or conflict did not happen will create room for circulation of vicious rumours and dependence on non-credible alternative sources of information. Instead, it could be reported accurately without using inflammatory language. As noted by Sankore, (2001), “Nothing has a greater capacity to undermine the moral and ethical credibility of a writer or the media than evidence of distorted reporting of factual events. In Journalism what is omitted is sometimes of greater value than what is reported”.
However, if we examine the challenges of the Nigerian Journalists, we can understand that many of them work to beat very strict deadlines. They are handicapped by weak resource base, poor infrastructural facilities, absence of some basic working tools and inadequate security cover, among others. Consequently, they are forced to depend on unreliable or incomplete sources of information without conducting proper, deeper, and contextually relevant journalistic investigations. In fact, there were extreme situations when some journalist lost their lives covering conflicts in the country (Ojo, 2000).
Similarly, some of the Journalists, even where they appear competent are often subdued by the attitudes and policies of their individual media houses to the detriment of their professional honour. Thus, it is important to also address media owners for their understanding in this issue.
Linked to the above also is the survival instinct pervading most media organizations in the country. In their desire to sell copies and attract viewers and listeners, they trample upon all journalistic ethics through “colourful, unique and unexpected” stories, which may have negative consequences on the society. On the other side, too, as part of the survival strategy, many journalists resort to self censorship and the unedifying cliché of he who pays the piper dictates the tune. That has killed the spirit in many
It is also common knowledge that several media houses that appear national in their publications and broadcasting are anything but national in their employment policies. Take a general look at the by-lines in many newspapers and magazines, and convince yourself on the diversity that exists in the individual newsrooms.
THE WAY FORWARD
· Broad and continuous capacity building for media professionals
· Continuous advocacy to review the laws establishing state media houses and ensuring that private media uphold social responsibility
· Promotion and strengthening of relationships between the civil society and media personnel
· Promotion of diverse media environment that reflect in their structure and content the various social, economic and cultural realities of the society in which they operate, in a more or less proportional way
· Encourage the practice of real peace journalism which include “balance news coverage, positive education of people about what is going on in a divided society, controlling dangerous rumours and providing a trusted source of information for all parties in a conflict”
· Promotion and strengthening of Investigative Journalism at all levels in the media
· Continuous advocacy on the proper funding and equipping of the media
· A significant improvement of the salaries and security of job for journalists should be the first attempt to safeguard the editorial independence of the media. The fear of the unknown, as far as job security is concerned, and the effect of very poor salaries are two factors that combine to influence journalists in softening on their editorial independence.
· Journalists, editors and media owners or government officials should be sensitized on a regular basis on the need to enforce, promote and protect professional ethics and guidelines in the operations of the media. The editors should enforce adherence to ethics among their journalists and also make sure that they do not allow “lobbying” for posting to “lucrative” beats. The owners on their part should be encouraged to give free hands to editors to perform their duties in line with the dictates of their ethics. In addition, the Code of Ethics for journalists should be constantly reviewed and circulated among the journalists. This is because some of them have never seen a copy (though they constantly talk about it), some do not have a copy while others simply do not follow it.
· The Disciplinary Committees of the media platforms (particularly the NUJ) should be strengthened and given constitutional powers to sanction erring journalists. Presently, many of the State Chapters have the Disciplinary Committee in place; however, there is no prove of the committees performing any significant role apart from satisfying the constitutional provision about their existence.
Umaru A. Pate is a Professor and Head of Department of Mass Communication, University of Maiduguri. The piece is a paper presented at the Press Week of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Bauchi State Council holding at Bauchi on April16, 2012