An Address by the President of the Senate and Chairman, National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, His Excellency, Senator (Dr) David A.B. Mark, GCON, fnim, at the Retreat on the Role of the Media and Good Governance in Nigeria Held at Michael Opara Auditorium Umuahia, Abia State, on Thursday, July 26, 2012.
Let me thank the Chairman and Members of the Senate Press Corps for inviting me to be part of this historic occasion. I also want to commend the Chairman, Senate Committee on Information and Media, Senator Harcourt Enyinnaya Abaribe, for the sustained synergy between the Press Corps and the Senate. I must also thank our host, the Governor of Abia State, His Excellency, Chief Theodore Ahamefule Orji (Ochendu), who has provided a conducive environment for this Retreat.
We have good reasons to gather here to deliberate on the role of the Media in attaining good governance because we are major stakeholders in our democratic enterprise.
Throughout history, the role of the media has been to inform, educate, act as check on the government, act as the voice of the voiceless and entertain. The media also serves as the public watchdog against the excesses of governments and its functionaries. In our situation, the media beams its searchlight on the executive, the judiciary and the legislature. In parliamentary parlance, the media oversights the executive, legislature and judiciary.
Therefore, the strategic role of the media in our society cannot be overemphasized. To play its role as public watchdog effectively, the media must be able to bark and bite, when necessary.
Besides, the media can arouse the consciousness of the people from their complacency to assert their rights and demand accountability from those in authority. In a nutshell, the media provides the channel and platform for the people to know what is happening in their environment and beyond. It is akin to holding a mirror so that the society, including the leaders and the led, can see their reflections.
The 1999 Constitution (as Amended) recognises the media in Section 22 as one of the organs constitutionally mandated to hold government or public officers accountable. Section 22 states inter alia “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.” In order to carry out this role creditably, media practitioners require good conduct and high level of responsibility.
Ideally, a vibrant, alive and energetic media, which every decent society craves for, must strive to strengthen the executive, the legislature and the judiciary and other institutions by prodding them to walk the talk, travel the narrow but straight path in keeping their covenant with the people.
An accountable, responsible and conscientious media is therefore not necessarily confrontational neither is it compromised. It earns the respect of government as well as the governed by applying the sacredness of facts in its day-to-day reportage.
What is the priority of news reporting or its area of focus in a developing nation like ours? Is it the political class or the mundane aspects of scandals, corruption and violence in our society at the expense of developmental issues?
Sometimes these issues are over sensationalised and blown out of proportion. For me, any responsible media, aside from educating, entertaining and informing the public, must also create agenda for agencies of government on how to improve the lives of the people.
As media men and women working towards the common good of all, you must pause and ponder over your performance. I believe this retreat will serve that purpose.
But the media can only carry out these responsibilities effectively in a democratic and free environment. It was in recognition of this fact that the National Assembly worked assiduously for the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill.
Having attempted to define the role of the media, let me now for the purpose of this discourse try to provide the meaning of good governance. I consider good governance as an ideal form of government which independent nations or states are expected to attain in the overall interest of their citizenry.
The characteristics of good governance would be such that is participatory, consensus-oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive and efficient, equitable as well as all-inclusive and follow the rule of law.
Media freedom and good governance are intertwined because the media can only thrive in an environment where good governance exists. Wherever there is good governance, there would be access to adequate and credible information about government activities.
The passage of the Freedom of Information Bill by the 6th Senate, and its subsequent assent by President Goodluck Jonathan, GCFR, is to engender free flow of information in order to meet a major criterion for good governance. I will like to return to this point as we progress in our discourse.
The question therefore is what role is the media playing to ensure that the above stated parameters form the basis for government actions?
Here, I would like to draw your attention to the obvious but huge responsibility of the media. All citizens, be they leaders or the led, rely on the media for information. The information must therefore be correct and accurate. But one is sometimes alarmed at the conflicting reports and inconsistencies from the media. When an event occurs in Port Harcourt or Jos for instance, the news report on it would be a bunch of statistical contradictions. Most times it is the drive to sensationalise that accounts for this. So rather than assuage the situation and take the feelings of the readers into consideration, the media in these instances end up inflaming passion and aggravating the situation. I am told that there is a maxim in your profession that says ‘when you are in doubt, leave out’. I believe that this should be the guiding principle at all times.
For the avoidance of doubt, to be cautious is not cowardice. It simply means weighing all the facts before publishing or broadcast. How you aggregate these delicate balancing and uphold the sanctity or ethical standard of journalism, makes you either responsible or irresponsible professionals.
The pursuit for the unity, peace and progress of Nigeria should be the watch word of the media. Sometimes newspapers are established with the sole aim to pull down perceived opponents. Some of those employed to carry out such hatchet jobs are registered members of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ).
Therefore the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) as well as the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) must regulate the media to respect our national security as well as our national values and encourage patriotism. Doing this would guarantee good governance.
The emergence of social media like facebook, twitter, blackberry messenger, YouTube etc have changed the face of media practice by making information sharing easier, faster and quicker. But this is not without its demerits. Social media has become a threat to the ethics of media practice and good governance because of its accessibility and absolute freedom. Every freedom carries a responsibility. Even in advanced democracies, where we all agree that good governance is practiced, there is no absolute freedom.
I therefore believe that there must be a measure to check the negative tendencies of the social media in our country. I say this because media practice, particularly journalism, process its news gathering and dissemination. It also operates a feedback mechanism and where the practitioners err there is room for rebuttal. But in the social media a faceless character can post any information that is absolutely false and misleading but will never retract it. At the end of the day one is bombarded with questions over what one has no business with.
I suggest that schools of mass communication and journalism should review their curricula to include the operations of social media.
You will recall that I had earlier remarked that I will address the issue of Freedom of Information Act later. It is imperative to state that the FOI Act is not the exclusive preserve of media practitioners. Rather, it is a balancing Act. It is for all Nigerians because all citizens have a right to know.
Press freedom, freedom of speech and civil liberties are indices for good governance. In a developing nation like ours, these alone are not the only requirements for good governance. Other freedoms such as freedom from hunger, poverty, diseases and ignorance are just as important.
For instance a nation that is full of poor, hungry and ignorant people cannot claim to be on the path of good governance. It is therefore the responsibility of the media to use every avenue to educate the masses about their rights to food, security, shelter, education and healthcare. These are the freedoms and rights that the media can also fight for to strengthen our democratic institutions for good governance.
As you fight for these rights and freedoms that we are entitled to, you must balance out these rights of the individual against other rights of the State and other members of society because any right cannot be absolute or superior to the other. It must coexist with other group rights.
In fact, the government also enjoys the rights to govern according to the mandate given to it by its citizens and the laws of the land. Such rights must also be respected.
On the other hand, if media practitioners connive with corrupt public officers, receive gratification that influences their editorial judgment or fail to promote public good at the expense of the fact, which is regarded as sacred in their profession, the media cannot be said to be propagating good governance.
I cannot claim to be unaware of the challenges confronting media practice in Nigeria. These range from harsh economic environment, security threat and non insurance to very poor remuneration of staff. It sounds ridiculous to hear in certain quarters that media staff are owed salaries in some cases up to 12 months. What do we expect from a media practitioner who can barely afford three square meals on account of non payment of his/her entitlements? This is akin to unleashing terror on society by an angry, hungry practitioner who unwittingly transfers his/her aggression on the society. Government and politicians are the victims of this onslaught.
I think media owners and regulatory agencies must live up to their responsibilities. In this connection, I strongly suggest that the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON), the Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE), as well as the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) must collaborate to address this situation. After all, a labourer deserves his wages.
The government should consider import duty waivers on media equipment such as newsprints, ink and other machineries to lessen the pains in broadcasting and publishing. We would need to work together with media owners and regulatory agencies to find a way out of this through strong legislation.
In the Senate today, I am glad that many of your colleagues are now Senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria including former President of the NUJ, Senator Smart Adeyemi, Senators Ayogu Eze, Chris Anyanwu and Babafemi Ojudu.
By and large, I must salute the courage, doggedness and steadfastness of the Nigerian media. The press has been in the vanguard for the promotion and sustenance of democracy we now enjoy. Even the struggle for independence was pioneered and fought for by the Nigerian media.
Sometimes I do disagree with you, but the media generally has fared well. They can still do more by deliberately planning and sustaining the efforts to bridge the information gap between the leaders and the led. The press can achieve this if it applies the basic principles of patriotism, accountability, transparency and objectivity in the discharge of its duty.
The Nigerian media must uphold the sanctity of truth and fairness at all times as a cardinal contribution towards strengthening good governance and democratic institutions in Nigeria.
On our part, we shall continue to create a conducive environment that will assist you to thrive as Reporters in the Parliament. However, I urge you to continue to refrain from mischief.
I also urge you to educate Nigerians on legislative practices and procedures. As you can see, not many Nigerians have a grasp of the workings of the Legislature. This largely accounts for the demand by the electorate for elected members of the National Assembly to come and build roads and other infrastructure, whereas the job of the law maker as the name connotes is to make laws for the peace, progress and good governance of Nigeria. However as Legislators, we shall continue to provide interventions that will make life meaningful to all Nigerians.
I now have the singular honour and privilege to declare the 2012 Senate Press Corps Retreat open.
I wish you successful deliberations. May God bless us and our efforts. Thank you.
Senator (Dr) David A. B. Mark, GCON, fnim
PRESIDENT OF THE SENATE AND CHAIRMAN,