The media must moderate its political bias and commercial instinct in the impending campaign season, writes Bolaji Adebiyi
The electioneering is here at last and politicians are about to storm the populace with their usual promises to provide heaven on earth. The veil was lifted on Wednesday by the Independent National Electoral Commission, the election management body empowered by law, to regulate electoral contests in the polity. Mahmood Yakubu, its chairman, had at several fora, including the Editors’ Forum of the Nigerian Guild of Editors a couple of weeks ago, promised to deliver what he called electoral justice to Nigerians in 2023 even as he enjoined them to shine their eyes and ensure that their votes count.
The task of ensuring that votes count is as important as engendering qualitative leadership at all levels of governance through the ballot cast by the people. What this means is that citizens need to be carefully deliberate in the choices they make because they would determine the quality of life, they would live in the next four years beginning from 29 May 2023.
The case for the thorough interrogation of the politicians parading the social landscape has always been lavishly made but it would appear from the outcomes of the past electoral exercises that they were probably not heeded by the electorate or that the powers that be succeeded in forcing themselves through. Whichever is the case, there is now another opportunity to reboot and correct the mistakes of the past.
The rebooting will have to begin with the environment for the contest. It is okay to ask the people to be vigilant but it is also important to ensure that there is a convivial atmosphere for the citizens to be able to make their decisions without fear of any harm whatsoever coming to them. So, the authorities have the responsibility to make the environment safe and peaceful enough for the citizens to be able to ask the appropriate questions without any form of intimidation by the canvassing politicians.
It is against this background that the commitment to peaceful conduct during the electioneering by the political parties and their presidential candidates on Thursday in Abuja is a commendable step forward. Guaranteed by the National Peace Committee, a non-governmental initiative conceptualized in 2014 in response to emerging threats occasioned by the 2015 general elections, it is hoped that the political gladiators will keep to the terms of the agreement that bound to be of good conduct.
Of course, there is a basis for this hope. The NCC is an initiative made up of eminent elder statesmen, including Abdulsalami Abubakar, a former head of state; and Matthew Kukah, the hugely respected Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, who undertook efforts to support free, fair and credible elections as well as intervene in critical issues of national concern through high-level mediated and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. Since its inception, it has decisively intervened to douse the usual tension which precedes elections and the anxiety that attends post-electoral contests.
With the leading politicians committing to peaceful electioneering the other very important task is how the people will interrogate the offerings of the contestants. A total of 18 candidates will be on the presidential ballot and are going to be out there in the field. Add to that the thousands of governorships and federal and state legislative contestants that are jostling for the various positions. It is going to be a bedlam out there? How do the candidates get their programmes and plans to the over 84 million registered voters and vice versa? This is where the media comes in.
It is the social responsibility of the media to yield its platform as the market at which both the electorate and the power seekers will converge to sell and buy ideas that will determine the next set of leaders of the country. Incidentally, a couple of laws, particularly the ones regulating broadcasting mandate the media to be even-handed in the coverage and reportage of the electioneering. So, the media both by orientation and law are saddled with the task of gathering and disseminating information on the electoral process to the people for them to be able to assess and make the weighty decision of who leads the country in the next dispensation.
There are, however, limitations to the capacity of the media to discharge this noble responsibility. First, is its pluralistic nature, which speaks to the varied ownership and the interests they are established to protect; and the second is its commercial interest upon which its survival is based. Media ownership, be it private or government, affects the editorial bent. This is more pronounced in outlets sponsored by politically exposed persons. And to sustain their operations many of them have business models that emphasise profitability.
The implication of these is that sections of the media may be discriminatory in their coverage either as a result of political cum ethnic as well as religious bias or the need for commercial gains. There is the possibility, therefore, that candidates without established political backgrounds or financial muscle may have hindered access to the media. The good news though is that the multiplicity of outlets in terms of numbers and platforms, including print, electronic and social media offers the chance that many contestants will still have access and the opportunities to ventilate their programmes and plans.
Whatever the case may be, the most important thing is the need for the various outlets to provide access to as many contestants as possible and ensure that their programmes and plans are lucidly presented for the electorate to grasp. This need cannot be overstated given the underperformance of the outgoing regime which has placed the country in its prevailing sorry state. Not a few people have said that any further error of choice arising from the misjudgement of the character and capacity of the political contenders will be ruinous for the nation. The media must help to prevent this from happening.
Adebiyi, the managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, writes from email@example.com