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.