By Paul Obi
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” – Thomas Jefferson, Former US President
Democracy is a tricky phenomenon. For the African and Nigerian version of democracy, it has been more daunting; unwilling to accept political equality, freedom and equal measure of voices in the public and civic spaces. But for all that we know, a free press is the most testable and self-evident precondition of a democracy in its true sense. Framers of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution, including the 1979 piece were conversant with this global requirement of the free world: that man and woman; boys and girls; old and young should have the freedom to express themselves in a manner that does not breach law and order; doesn’t dehumanised the dignity of citizens. And that this singular right cannot and should not be inhibited by the state and even the courts except where those rights encroach permissible boundaries: i) where national security overrides the public interest to know, ii) tortuous wrong-doing in the course of news reportage and iii) to criminally wanting to or already profit from a journalistic act. That’s actus reus or mens rea. This is the acceptable benchmark within the democratic liberal world.
Thus, how the media relates with democracy in fulfilling these principles is also very key to nation-building, development and overall well being of the state. Former US President, Thomas Jefferson in the opening quote above provides the basis upon which free societies should see the media as an indispensable democratic institution. But like everything in Nigeria, the mixture of a wobble democracy and unfreedom within the media space signals a very troubling tapestry of nationhood challenges. These challenges of media democracy are both historical and systemic; considering the turbulent history of journalism, media, communication and the press from colonial, military dictatorship to the present democratic dispensation. In measuring these challenges, Nigeria has not fared better. This gap accounts for the poor ranking of the country in many global ratings focusing on press freedom and democracy. From Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Nigeria’s scorecard is a telling catastrophe of the country with regards to media freedom and democracy.
Regrettably, not much scholarly interrogation has focused on this contemporary challenge; nor has the crisis formed part of the fulcrum within the discursive space in Nigeria. Inadvertently, the Nigerian media hardly engages itself or self-reflect. It is for this gap, ignited by recent attempts by the Nigerian state to gag the press through the introduction of anti-press legislations, particularly targeted at the mainstream and online media in the National Assembly around July of 2021 that led to this book project billed for public presentation tomorrow, Thursday, 25th May, 2023. Hence, Media and Nigeria’s Constitutional Democracy: Civic Space, Free Speech, and the Battle for Freedom of the Press published by Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield in Lanham, Maryland, United States (US) took nearly two years to publish. From July 2021 to February 2023.
The book which is for both academic and general-purpose readers explored critical debates within the Nigerian media landscape, tracing the historical nuances of press freedom from the context of British colonialism and the Willinks Minority Commission and Minority Rights in the 1950s. The book also x-rayed issues of censorship; ethical self-interrogation of the Nigerian media itself, the shrinking civic space, national security versus the public interest to know, the Nigerian state’s (non) conformity with the democratic ethos of the media, government regulation, online media and the cyberspace and the ensuing diffusion, among other salient areas. Also, we particularly singled out THISDAY Newspaper, The Cable Newspaper Journalism Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) for appreciation for all the support in the course of this book project.
Propelled and bugged by the dearth of global standard and deep scholarly works in media scholarship in Nigeria compared to the fields of law and political science, the book is a pool of distinguished experts with both academic and practical journalistic field experience. From a journalist turned professor from University of Jos, an Harvard University trained legal luminary and scholar, to a retired Brigadier General and former director of the Nigerian Army Public Relations Directorate, scholars from University of Maiduguri, Cultural and Gender Studies experts, one of the top administrative head of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to intellectually adapt journalists and civil society experts with the requisite knowledge on the subject, the book is a contemporary collection that should be in all public libraries and the library shelves of all Nigerian universities, media houses, legal firms, political science scholars, national security experts among others. The book, beyond providing a poignant outlook of the contemporary Nigerian media ecosystem, is also a pan-Nigerian work given that all the six geopolitical zones are equally represented in the pool of Editors and Contributors.
As we present the book to the Nigerian public tomorrow in Abuja, we have also been discreet in selecting the Chairman of the Occasion and Chief Presenter of the book in the person of the Governor of Bauchi State, Sen. Bala Muhammed, CON. At the moment Nigeria is troubled. More so, with rancorous 2023 General Elections, specifically, the presidential polls. The book presentation is also slated as a post-2023 general elections national dialogue on Nigeria’s media and democracy. With Gov. Bala Muhammed as the Chief Presenter of the book, and being a journalist, he would provide some profound discourse on safeguarding Nigeria’s democracy and what role the media plays in navigating the contours of Nigeria’s transitional democracy. As a democrat who have climbed through the ladder as a journalist and politician, who is also media friendly and his policies in Bauchi State are people-oriented, it’s our conviction that he is the best fit for the job tomorrow. Added to that, the Chief Reviewer of the book, Prof Abiodun Adeniyi, a journalist and Deputy Director, School of Post-graduate Studies, Baze University, Abuja will be joined by other panellists like Prof Udenta Udenta, Associate Prof Taye C. Obateru, Dr Igomu Onoja of NBC, Brigadier General Sani K. Usman (Rtd), Dr Bridget Onochie of the Guardian Newspaper and the Chief Host and Director of the Abuja School of Social and Political Thought, Dr Sam Amadi. The panel for the post-2023 general elections dialogue is highly representative of all the strands and fields required in resetting the national debate on democracy and the salient role of the media.
Again, with growing concerns about attempts to suppress press freedom as witnessed during the 2023 general elections, there are fears that the country may sink deeper into authoritarian regime and innocuous media clampdown in a post-2023 Nigeria. For us, we believe these are real threats and palpable constraints ahead. The urgency of now therefore is not to be complacent, but to remain vigilant by advancing this national dialogue on Nigeria’s media and democracy. The book, therefore, aptly captures the past and contemporary dialectical interactions between media and democratic politics in Nigeria, and the unsettled challenges. It is a national dialogue and conversation intended to aggregate all the viewpoints on how to make our democracy sustainable – and irrepressible. That way, a warning bell would have been sounded on the exigency of protecting Nigeria’s democracy from unfreedom – with the media leading the charge.
Obi, is a media scholar, journalist and co-editor of the book, Media and Nigeria’s Constitutional Democracy: Civic Space, Free Speech, and the Battle for Freedom of the Press (Lexington Books, 2023)