Balancing News Coverage During Elections

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Sola Imoru

Nigeria has organised nine general elections since independence. Of these nine indigenous elections (1964/65, 1979, 1983, 1993, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015), only the 1993 election was certified and adjudged to be relatively free, fair, credible and peaceful by electoral observers (local and international) and the people respectively. The others were presumed to be marred by varying degrees of electoral irregularities and violence.

The same narrative dogged state and local elections across the six geopolitical regions of the nation during the post-independence era. Elections at the national level and in the regions at these periods left behind them varying degrees of litigation and crises, ill feelings and blood, with grave consequences for good governance, development and citizens’ welfare.

With a preponderance of botched post-independence elections and no free, fair and credible elections conducted in the 19-year-old 4th Republic (1999-2018), Nigeria approaches the 2019 general elections with tremendous trepidation and anxiety.

For reasons ranging from ownership, ethnicity and religion, to poor funding, the media, the Fourth Estate of the Realm, charged by the Constitution with holding government accountable to the people and one of the critical stakeholders of the elections, have been fingered as one of the players in the unwholesome elections. At each of the elections were gaps of education, sensitisation, investigation, information and ethics, which were the core responsibilities and values of the media. However, all the election or political stakeholders were active players in the compromise and gang- against the state and good governance.

This needless and embarrassing development calls for the need for all the critical players, including the media, in the forthcoming staggered elections and the 2019 general elections, to play the game by the rules and apply best standards so that the nation can for once get its polity, governance and development right.

Siebert, Peterson and Schramm (1956) cited in Folarin (2002:27) aver that the press always takes the colouration of the social and political structures within which it operates. It thus becomes clear that the character of the previous elections was a function of the socio-political indices of the periods during which they were held.

The bad news is that the awful situation of the violence and crisis-ridden maiden indigenous election, 1964/65 elections, have exacerbated over the years with the political and electoral climates steadily regressing into dark political abyss. The unstable steady decline in socio-economic indices of the nation over the years attests to this. The various leaderships that evolved from these elections have plunged the nation into socio-economic somersaults, uncertainties and underdevelopment. This is rightly so because a nation can only achieve development that correlates with the leadership it elects or creates.

But the good news is that the situation is redeemable. The unprecedented free and fair 1993 elections that emerged from the 58 years of the nation’s electoral chaos (1964-date) is proof that with the right leadership and following, credible, free, fair and peaceful elections are doable in 2019.

One of the main planks that hold this hope of building the democracy of our dream is the media. Chapter II Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) provides a staunch foundation for this position: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the 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.”

Joseph Pulitzer affirms this position, “The journalist has a position that is all his own. He alone has the privilege of moulding the opinion, touching the hearts and appealing to the reason of hundreds of thousands every day.”

Moulding the opinions of millions of Nigerians, touching their hearts and appealing to their reason to embrace credible elections between now and 2019 and beyond are the whole essences of this seminar. That responsibility unarguably rests on the media.
According to Oboh (2014:72), the purpose of elections in every democratic society is to enable the citizens to select a proportionate representative of the people, who would in turn represent the interests of the other citizens in the government and parliaments.

Election is central to governance and development in a democracy; it is the legitimate vehicle that brings government and its programmes into being. It is, therefore, a strong determinant of the state of the state during the life of a government. Election is critical to the wellbeing of the people as it is the tool that produces the people that will handle and manage all the sectors of the nation – education, economy, health, etc.

It is therefore important that the media balance the news of political gladiators during electioneering campaigns. Balance news coverage in an election is the equitable and unbiased allocation of time (broadcast) and space (print) by the media to competing parties and candidates during an election, including the electoral process, primary election, campaign, tour of campaigns with candidates, voting, announcement of results, post-election issues.

But the media all over the world are products of their operating or operational environment. The nation’s unstable and volatile political space has, over the years, bred a media that cannot be said to have given a good account of itself in the previous elections in Nigeria. Owing to factors of ownership influence, ethnicity, jaundiced patriotism (national versus selfish interest), religion, non-adherence to ethical issues, poor welfare and environment, the media have wavered in its coverage of elections in Nigeria.

The Final Report of the European Mission Election Observation Mission on the 2007 elections tells the story of the Nigerian media environment: “The media environment is characterised by financial instability, a lack of independence of regulatory bodies and inadequate training for media professionals that leads to a lack of high quality journalism. The low income of journalists also exposes them to offers of payment in return for favourable reporting. The practice of so called ‘brown envelopes’, cash payments some journalists receive from various sponsors on top of their official income, is reported to be widespread. However, journalists, especially those employed in the private print media, are able to operate in an environment of relative freedom, given the systematic weaknesses characterizing the media sector.”

Consequently, ownership of the media played a significant part in the elections that have been held in Nigeria from post-independence era till date. The nation’s media can be broadly divided into two: government (public) and private. Ownership of the media in Nigeria revolves around the federal, regional or state governments and individuals who are mostly politicians. Media bias during elections coverage during the post-independent era till date centres around the interests of these respective owners.

The preponderance of ownership of the media by the ruling government during the post-independence era created a situation where electoral malpractices were not adequately reported by the media. In the 2007 election which was adjudged by both the internal and external observers to be massively rigged, for instance, the malpractices were underreported due to overbearing influence of governments and private proprietors, thus pushing the responsibility of reportage of massive electoral malpractices to the courts. It took the courts, for instance, to restore the mandates of Governors Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State and Dr. Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo State after the supposed winners, ruling party’s candidates, had spent almost two years in office respectively. In these two scenarios, the media failed to hold governments accountable as they failed to expose the electoral malpractices and neglected to provide the right information to the people.

Some private media whose proprietors are politicians were accomplices of the government media. The few private media that were able to provide a semblance of reportage of electoral malpractices were those whose proprietors were in the opposition and those who were apolitical.
Imoru, a journalist and administrator, writes from Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State