Tuesday, September 1, 2009

There is a Nigerian Spirit

There is a Nigerian spirit... and it is not a bad spirit. Recently, our youngest daughter was on admission at the University College Hospital (UCH) for a surgical procedure. UCH is top on the list of tertiary health facilities and teaching hospitals not only in Nigeria but also in West Africa. But news about UCH can be terrible: nagging nurses; uncaring doctors; consultants more interested in research than in patients, and stinking corruption. A friend of mine told me how his mum on admission at UCH needed oxygen and he paid for 12 cylinders of oxygen but got receipts for only two! Pretty much like what you hear about Nigeria. But not much different from what you hear about the Blagojevitchs, Halliburtons etc. of America!
My experience with UCH showed me something not often heard about Nigeria. My daughter had just been wheeled into the theatre and we were sure the surgical procedure was on when electricity went off! In Nigeria, we would say NEPA (or PHCN, that is, power authorities) took light. My heart skipped a beat. But right in the reception where we were, other medical teams were examining other patients including a six-week old baby. Pronto! All of them--nurses and doctors--brought out their handsets and switched on the flashlights! Each of the fifteen or so handsets had a flashlight. So the examination out there at the reception and, I imagined, my daughter's surgery right in the theatre continued under the light provided by the galaxy of twinkling flashlights. This event and several others I had at UCH (for instance, nurses and doctors raising funds for patients) showed that there is a Nigerian spirit--a great and indefatigable spirit. It is a spirit that achieves something working with nothing! This spirit works with nothing because of irresponsible and irresponsive national and state leadership. And sadly, it is a spirit that often goes unacknowledged in the national and international media.
This is not a campaign for the Nigerian government's rebranding exercise. As a matter of fact, I think the slogan of that exercise should read: Good people; great nation; bad leaders! (Not just 'Good people; great nation'). Rather, this is my attempt to celebrate a spirit we have trampled underfoot for ever so long.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

JCLA Special Edition on Media and Democracy in Africa

The Journal of Communication & Language Arts (JCLA) just released a special edition on 'Media and Democracy in Africa'. Guest-edited by Dr Anthony Olorunnisola, Head, Department of Film/Video and Media Studies, the Pennsylvania State University, US, the edition contains contributions from Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and the United States. Click here for the Table of Contents. Click here for abstracts of the articles. Click here for more information about JCLA including guidelines for submission of articles. A copy of the special edition costs $10 including postage. For your copy, send a mail to ayo.ojebode@gmail.com

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Naked oath-taking picture and the question of press freedom in Nigeria

On June 29, the Compass Newspaper published an article reporting that some members of the Ogun State House of Assembly, Southwest Nigeria, secretly took a blood oath to ensure unflinching unity in their bid to remove the governor of the State. Mr Wale Alausa, one of the members was shown nude, taking the blood oath and the photograph was published on the front page of the Nigerian Compass. This has expectedly generated a lot of comments. The comments are about the social disdain for blood oath, power thirst and political intrigues.

What worries one about the story is none of those issues. Rather it is question of the freedom of the press in a democracy like Nigeria. Is the Nigerian press truly free in this democracy—freer than it was during military regimes? By some risky extrapolation, is the press really free in a democracy?

Siebert and his team in their seminal Four theories of the press assume a smooth transition from the authoritarian press system to the libertarian or social responsibility press system as a nation transits from autocracy to democracy. In fact, Anthony Olorunnisola in his book on the press in South Africa after apartheid describes as theoretical incongruent a situation where the press does not transit with the nation. But it appears that the Siebert et al’s definition of press freedom was influenced by the context of physical violent harassment and military oppression against the exercise of the professional rights of the journalist.

Current events in Nigeria and in some other African democracy (eg. Kenya and Uganda) show that the absence of physical harassment and military oppression, and transition to democracy do not truly expand the elbowroom with which the journalist practises his trade. This is not a new finding. Again Olorunnisola warned that the press may simply transit from being controlled by government to being controlled by the wealthy especially advertisers.
Back to Ogun State, Nigeria. I interacted with a staff of the newspaper that published the nude photograph of the lawmaker from Ogun State. The paper is owned by the governor of the state, and the lawmaker was one of those allegedly intending to impeach the governor. It is clear where the paper belongs in the controversy between the governor and the lawmakers. My friend told me he was truly ashamed that the paper published such an offensive photograph, and that the paper has become an instrument in the hands of the governor in the ensuing battle. He believed that the picture was distasteful and could invite disaffection from readers. He said it violated ethical standards; it was wrong. But why then was it used? My friend’s answer boils down to this: it puts bread on the table.

Is the press free in a democracy? My friend feels it is not. The enemy of press freedom in a democracy is only different from, it is not less vicious than, the enemy in a military regime. And the enemy is NOT the commercial advertiser. My friend felt that if any staff of the paper refused to do the bidding of the governor—the owner of the paper—such person’s job was up for grabs. There is a fast growing trend of establishment of newspapers by politicians in Nigeria. In fact, about 90% of existing Nigerian newspapers are owned by serving governors, legislators and active political heavyweights. These ones dictate what the average Nigerian knows through the papers. Is the press freer in a democracy? I am truly worried.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The ban on radio review of newspapers in Nigeria: five months after

In December 2008, the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) and the Nigeria Publishers Association (NPA) had a meeting during which they announced a ban on the review of newspapers by radio and television stations in Nigeria. Their reason was that the sale and readership of newspapers were being adversely affected by these reviews. They claimed that once people listened to the reviews, they no longer bought the papers; they felt they had heard everything the papers had to say from the reviews by radio and television.

That ban is five months old now and it may be premature to ask if it has increased the sale and readership of the papers. It is however not premature to ask if the broadcast stations are conforming to the ban. The answer is ‘no’. Rather than cancel newspapers review programmes, stations have found ways of reviewing the papers without calling it a review and running foul of the ban. The stations still review the papers but do not refer to their programmes by such names as they used to do. Names such as Today in the papers; What the papers are saying; Inside the papers and Koko inu iwe irohin have since disappeared. What we now have is Daybreak gist; Review; or Have you heard? Not only this, reviewers no longer mention the newspapers they are reviewing nor refer viewers and listeners to the pages from which stories have been picked. Every direct or remote reference to the newspapers is avoided. In addition to this, some reviews are now spiced with local gossips and reports.

This raises a number of issues. NPA and BON based their ban on the review programmes on emotional economics, not on facts and figures. There were no studies or statistics to show that readership and sales of the papers were related to radio and television review of the papers. In fact some have claimed that the reviews encouraged them to buy the papers.

Secondly, the laws, policies and promulgations in Nigeria are ‘an ass’. They are mute and lame in most cases. That is why it is easy for broadcasters to freely sidetrack the ban. That is why months after the National Assembly banned public ‘spraying’ of the naira, the practice still continues and is publicised on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) in its weekly Newsline. In Nigeria, the law is an ass especially when the violator is rich, powerful and well connected. That is why the National Broadcasting Commission turns a blind eye on the excesses of some stations (such as Silverbird) and hammers others (such as AIT and Channels).

Third, broadcasting in Nigeria is really a business venture wholly in the hands of entrepreneurs. The newspaper review programmes are among the most heavily sponsored programmes. Most stations cannot immediately discontinue these programmes because sponsors have paid for the whole quarter. Even government-owned stations cannot run like public service stations because the government has asked them to become profit-oriented. It matters little whether or not a programme is injurious. What matters is the availability of sponsorship.

The ban on newspaper review programmes may have succeeded in bringing to play the Nigerian ingenuity when it comes to interpreting, manipulating and sidetracking a ban, a policy or law. It has also shown that broadcast stations would go to any extent to please sponsors. In addition to all of this, it has shown our total disregard for scientific research as a basis for individual and corporate decision-making. Just as they did not conduct any research before banning review programmes, BON and NPA will most likely not commission any research to find out if their ban has influenced newspaper readership and sales in any direction even five years after the ban. It is Nigeria.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Campus radio licenses: a diversionary tool in Nigeria

Since Nigeria returned to ‘democracy’ in 1999, advocates of community radio broadcasting in Nigeria, led by the Institute for Media and Society (IMS) in Lagos, have intensified their call for the approval of community radio in Nigeria. They asked for a separate licensing regime for community radio. Their argument was that if a community intending to own a radio station is made to pay the millions that commercial broadcasters pay, the station would be under the control of a few rich people in that community, and thus would not be radio stations owned, staffed and run by the community. Getting a ‘democratic’ government to approve community radio looked very simple: if democracy meant expansion of people’s access to communication, not just as receivers but also as message makers, deregulating the airwaves should be one of the steps a democratic government should first take. Not only this, if the military deregulated the airwaves partially in 1992 by allowing commercial broadcasting, a democratic government should need little or no persuasion to approve the third tier of broadcasting—the most people-oriented tier.
But the advocates were mistaken. Nine years after democracy, Nigeria still doesn’t possess a single community radio station. It is the only West African nation without a community radio station. The excuse has been that a community radio station could be used to fuel ethnic and religious animosity in the volatile Nigerian context.
Advocates have tackled this headlong persuading government, lobbying lawmakers and enlightening the society. Backed by international organisations (especially Panos Institute West Africa and Association Mondiale des Radiodiffuseurs Communautaires, AMARC), advocates selected six sites for potential community radio stations and trained potential radio workers. They got the ears of Silas Yisa, the Director of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the body that regulates broadcasting in Nigeria, and the sympathy of the then Minister of Information. A panel set up by government (led by the eminent professor of communication, Alfred Opubor) submitted a report emphasising the desirability and mapping the policy for community radio broadcasting in Nigeria. At a point, the advocates could almost fix a date that the government would release a white paper on community broadcasting.
Then came the bang: government announced the release of eight radio licenses, not to communities but to university campuses! Advocates were for a while confused and divided. Some called for celebrations, others for a protest. “Is a community radio the same as a campus radio?” A campus radio speaks English, and serves an elite community. English is understood by less than 50% of Nigerians. The advocates decided that they had not got what they asked for. They wanted community stations not campus stations. A campus station was not a community station, they explained. But it was too late for Mr Obasanjo to listen. His obsessive scheming for an unconstitutional third term which, when it failed, was followed by his efforts to ensure that his party won the elections ‘at all costs’. That brought all governance to a standstill. Advocates lost audience with a government interested in only one thing: power.
Yar’Adua succeeded Obasanjo and has proved to be as much opposed to civic-centred democracy as Obasanjo was. (Recall his meddling with the Electoral Reform Committee report). Advocates picked up and mended the debris of their advocacy and approached Yar’Adua afresh. But again, two weeks ago, government announced the approval of broadcasting licenses to 18 campuses—including several that did not apply for any license. This brings the total number of campus radio to 27 in Nigeria. Again, the community radio coalition is asking questions. Campus radio licenses have become a weapon to divert the attention of community radio advocates from their goal. It is a diversionary tool.
It is not clear why a democratic government should be opposed to giving people a voice. The present arrangement leaves the majority of Nigerians without a voice of theirs. No known democracy theory can explain it. But again, this is Nigeria. (AND IF I FEED THIS BLOG SO IRREGULARLY, IT IS BECAUSE I AM BACK HOME IN NIGERIA. I APOLOGISE TO MY READERS.)

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I was in Nairobi, Kenya from January 14 to 18, 2009. This was about the time the furore generated by the amended communication act in Kenya was peaking. The government of Mr Mwai Kibaki had amended the Kenyan Media Law and included a draconian section 88 which empowers the Minister of Internal Security to “raid media houses” and seize and confiscate whatever is found incriminating before, during or after publication or broadcasting. The response has been that of condemnation and outcry. Some Kenyan papers reported an appeal by Media Owners for a revision of the amendment; Mr Kibaki’s intention to revise it; Prime Minister Odinga’s displeasure with it as well as parliamentarians opposition to the revision. In fact, parliamentarians promised to reject any attempt by the president to commence a review process (See for instance, Daily Nation Jan 14, 2009). This was surprising to me who expected that parliamentarians would be more pro-freedom and pro-people. I chatted with a few Kenyans over this and got some interesting insight.
The parliamentarians were glad to pass the amendment which Mr Kibaki later signed into law because they (the parliamentarians) saw it as a way of getting even with the media. The media, in the words of Chris (one of those I chatted with), “had been harassing the parliamentarians” over taxes. Only the basic pay of the lawmakers was taxed; their buxom allowances, which quadrupled their basic, are not taxed. The media felt this was unfair privilege for the lawmakers. Secondly, several lawmakers were aggrieved by the role the media played during the last bloody elections. Some media houses gave reports that made it clear that Mr Kibaki and his allies cheated their way into victory. Passing an act that severely limits the freedom of the media is thus a way of hitting back at the ‘obstinate’ watchdog.
But it may be more than that. Clement and Milton, with whom I also chatted, felt the parliamentarians want to pocket the media in order to make cheating their way into re-election smoother in four years when elections come up again in Kenya. A thoroughly intimidated and pocketed media would be unable to announce unfavourable election results or to report election rigging. The Act is thus a preparation for large scale, seamless electoral fraud.
It appears that a mixture of vendetta and fraud undergirds the communication law amendment. Whatever the case is, the story of this infamous law illustrates the important place of the media in the democratic equation, and the threat a good media system continues to pose to fraudulent leadership.
Now more than before, Kenya needs a strong and independent media to fight the growing large-scale corruption in the country. The papers in the week I was in Nairobi reported cases of the incredible levels and acts of corruption in agriculture, petroleum and tourism sectors of the country. Kenyans have spoken against the Act. The media should be poised and allowed to fight such evils.
Opinion polls continue to show that close 90% of Kenyans oppose the amendment. But Kenyans may have to do more than just express displeasure. They may need the kind of protest, uproar, threat of litigation, widespread lobby that greeted the closure last year of Channels TV in Nigeria. That reaction immediately brought the Yar’Adua government to his knees.