A Lecture to Honour Prince Tony Momoh on Behalf of the Writers’ Association, LASU School of Communications, November 30, 2010
By Professor Sylvanus A. Ekwelie
Introduction: A state is a sovereign creation. It is normally passive but has active and competing offspring in the legislature, the executive, the judiciary and their underpinning forces. The masses, the groupings within and the mass media constitute these forces. Each of these is, or can be, an estate, meaning a class of persons in a political community. The ordinal rating of First, Second, Third or Fourth Estate grows out of perceived sequence but is generally subjective. By Henry VIII, for instance, the government, that is the executive, would be the first; by Thomas Jefferson, we would have the press as the first; in a parliamentary system, the legislature comes first; in a presidential system, the rating is difficult and usually transient.
Standing aside, each of these estates can initiate a cause or causes that may lead to the expansion or contraction or even the death of a state. Ethiopia expanded and then contracted with swallowing up Eritrea in 1952 and then disgorging it in 1993. Russia gobbled up several territories in the hysteria of World War 11 but has since been trimmed down to its former size or something near that. We have no space for the pros and cons of revanchism or irredentism beyond observing that every movement for expansion or contraction is a political development than can and should be considered by each of the estates and by the masses they set out to represent. Any government can get power drunk, as Mussolini was in 1936, and then get support from some or all of the estates. Sometimes, such a support is given without questions or even debate, as in a dictatorship, sometimes with a division as in democracies and at times denied with a chorus of condemnation, where the mass media are free, or greeted with approval. Even the judiciary can provide unvoiced support by refusing to adjudicate as the United States Supreme Court did over the legality of the Vietnam War. That way a state grows territorially or loses territory after a misadventure as Georgia did only two years ago or as Germany did after the first and second world wars. Poland was once partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia. We are not about to forget the loss of the Bakassi Peninsula in a gratuitous forensic misadventure.
The point of this excursion is to show (a) that a state is usually dormant until something, usually negative or radical, happens, (b) that each of its entities – the executive, the legislature, the judiciary and the media – is free, or should be free, to contest any development and (c) that each entity should have its responsibility enshrined, directly or in directly, in the basic law – the constitution – in order to serve as a check on perceived excesses of any branch.
Historically, the state, visualized as a territory, was personified by a strong ruler (a king, for instance) who organized a court of advisers and handed down legislation in the form of decrees. The legislature metamorphosed from that body of advisers as evidence of growing confidence and trust. In no particular order, and depending on each experiment, the legislature, the government and the judiciary emerged. It is safe to say, I believe, that the executive or whatever passed for it emerged first in every milieu. The mass media, as a social institution, had a desultory birth, appearing here as an independent enterprise and there as a tool for the ruling class. In time, independent printers emerged, initially under the thumb of the royal establishment. There was never a carved-out position for the mass media in governance until after the American Revolution. Even the framers of the United States Constitution initially failed to recognize the press as a social force. Ancient newspapers, or what were so treated, had no independent existence, independent, that is, from the people at the helm. We are reminded of the first Roman newspaper (under Julius Caesar), the Acta Diurna, which was meant to keep an eye on the Senate by recording for publication the wheelings and dealings of the senators as a precursor to the British Hansard.
The leap from this first newspaper to the Publick Occurrences of Benjamin Harris, which appeared and died on September 25, 1690, is breath-taking but we have to take it, pleading, if we must, space, time and limited knowledge. But we must salute the inventors of printing in China, Germany and England and then proceed to deal with the virus they unleashed to the world of the mighty and the worthy.
No power elite sincerely welcomed or welcomes the news media. Caesar, as a dictator, posted the Diurna on the Roman Senate as a scrutinizing agent. His successors in the royal kingdoms of Europe controlled what was published. Some there and elsewhere even celebrated the absence of the media in their power bases. We are told that the governor of Virginia, one of the original thirteen British colonies in North America, thanked God that there was no printing in his colony and hoped there won’t be any for the next 100 years. His point was that printing spread heresy and corrupted morals.
The emergence of modern politics made the governor’s wish unreasonable and untenable. A polity must be guided and controlled. That calls for an effective government; its affairs must be debated and disputed. That calls for a legislature; its contending forces will need arbitration and a platform for it. That calls for a judicature. The masses and the three branches now identified must be made aware of the goings-on in and around a given state. That calls for effective news gathering and dissemination. This had been the real politick even before the era of formal constitutions.
The modern Practice: Every modern state has a formal document on how it should be governed. If the guidelines are conventions and are not reduced into a formal document, we talk of an unwritten constitution. That seems to serve the British handsomely. We can imagine that the Vatican has about the same kind of arrangement. That has kept it going since the settlement of the Roman Question in 1929. Most modern states, with or without a colonial past, have their basic laws in their constitutions. The duties and responsibilities of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary are clearly spelt out with the sanctions prescribed in some instances. Some constitutions have glittering provisions on freedom. Some even have mouth-watering proclamations on media freedom. But none is so precise as the one known as the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, one of the ten amendments adopted on December 15, 1791. It intones: “Congress shall make no law … abridging freedom of speech or of the press…”Thirteen well considered words! No loopholes! The only provision I have ever seen more precise in legal terms was Tai Solarin’s recommendation for passport request: “all countries”. At the time, the government would list countries being requested to admit the bearer and show him or her all the courtesies. That meant that Nigerians then were allowed to visit only selected countries in passive participation in the cold war between the East and the West. Nowadays the request is directed at “all those to whom it may concern”.
Check the constitutions of most African countries and you sure will find guarantees on press freedom, on assembly and on worship. On paper, then, the man in the street, the politician, the journalist, the preacher, the philosopher, the musician, the dramatist – all are free to ply their trade. But it is all deceptive. It all boils down to what political scientists call institutional formalism, paper provisions. The devil in every case is in the detail. What are the exceptional circumstances in which those freedoms can be trampled upon?
Nigerian Examples: On 12 September, 1960, the British House of Commons passed the Nigerian Constitution (Order in Council) Bill and thus granted independence to the country. Before and since then, Nigeria has had several constitutions. We can mention the basic laws under Lord Lugard (1914), Hugh Clifford (1922), Arthur Richards (1946), John Macpherson (1951), Oliver Lyttelton (1954), James Robertson (1960), the Republican Constitution (1963), the 1979, 1989 and 1999 constitutions.
Each constitution spelt out the limits of power and how each estate should operate. Each spelt out the powers of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Invariably, the press and press freedom, whenever mentioned, were dealt with within the context of general freedoms, the right to life, liberty, freedom of assembly, of religion, of conscience and of worship, as in the statutes of general application in Britain, meaning the laws in force in England on the first of January, 1900.
With no surprise, the earliest constitutions dealt with major political issues of the day: Lugard dealt with amalgamation and indirect rule, Clifford with the elective principle and the resultant political parties. Between the Clifford and Richards Constitutions, the prevailing philosophy, as articulated by Sir Bernard Bourdillon, Governor of Nigeria 1935-1943, was that “a benevolent autocracy is the form of government best suited to a people who are educationally backward and whose religion inculcates a blind obedience to authority”. How much this heady prescription for the North was diluted for the rest of the country was not always easy to determine.
With a potion of the Bourdillon medicine, Sir Arthur Richards drafted his constitution without enough consultation. Not based on public opinion, it gave Nigeria regionalism and incorporated a native administration system. It was drafted in a hurry, debated in the legislative council in a hurry and was eventually passed in a hurry by the British House of Commons during a 30-minute motion for adjournment. That constitution was criticized both by nationalists and native Britons. Even Sir Bernard deeply regretted that the governor had not seen fit that “the public should have been given every chance to say what they thought” of his proposals. The Eastern Nigeria Guardian of Port Harcourt much later commented: “It was during Sir Arthur’s regime that Nigerian nationalism was sharpened in order to meet the exploits of an administrator who rules with an iron hand.”
The Macpherson constitution was developed against the conflicting philosophies of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The former had more faith in the masses than the latter who believed that “the sole pre-occupation of the masses is” the search for the necessities of life. He believed it was “a matter of indifference to them how they are governed or who governs them.” Dr Azikiwe believed “that political and economic independence cannot be won without the unstinting support of the common man.” We can consider the implication of the two philosophies – the mass idea and the elitist idea – and then guess the weight of each on advocacy for press freedom and the other freedoms.
Preparatory to the Macpherson Constitution, the Chief Secretary to the Government, Hugh Foot, had this to say, in a vague and timid allusion to possible mass-media contributions: “There is some inclination to believe that all that is necessary is to send a Committee like Moses to the mountain and all the people need to do is watch and pray – pray that the Committee will in due course return from the clouds with the perfect constitution to last forever, written on tablets of stone. No one can hand over his responsibility in this matter to others. Every Nigerian has a stake in his own country and it is for him by means of village meetings and divisional meetings and provincial meetings throughout the country and the organizations of which he is a member to make this view known.”
This classic condescension ignored the medium of the nationalist press which had been vibrant since the 1890s. My Ph.D. thesis recorded a yearly average of 30 newspapers in Nigeria for 1948, 1949 and 1950. Kalu Ezera listed 15 newspapers each for Eastern and Western Nigeria and five for the North in 1950. These included dailies and weeklies and were exemplified by the West African Pilot, The Nigerian Pioneer and the Daily Times, all published in English, and Akede Eko and Gaskiya ta fi Kwabo, the one in Yoruba and the other in Hausa. They were provincial, regional and national. Lagos was the hub but the British secretary consigned the mobilization of public opinion to village and provincial meetings, a curious verdict on the print medium and one with predictable consequences. We must add that that year, 1951, saw the birth of broadcasting in the country.
The Macpherson Constitution (1951) focused on the strengthening of regionalism by giving more powers to the regions, creating a central legislature with a central executive, while striking a balance between political independence and a dominion status. In this rush of political currents, there was no room for a luxury thought on the role of the press. There is no record of any debate on this subject in any case.
The Lyttelton Constitution (1954) introduced legislative lists, exclusive and concurrent, made federal legislation supreme and created regional premiers also called prime ministers. Significantly it turned down the insertion of the Right of Secession and a Bill of Rights put forward by an Action Group-NCNC alliance. It was modelled after the Australian constitution. If that contained any provisions on the role of the press, the Nigerian imitation did not imitate it in that respect. The real interest centred around political power, raw political power.
The Mass Media after 1960:
At independence in 1960, Nigeria had a new constitution. In section 25 of that constitution freedom of expression was guaranteed. In numerous laws, indigenous and inherited, there were provisions to control the mass media: all newspapers, radio and television stations, the cinema plus advertising and the other aspects of communication. In Azikiwe’sOdyssey, we find more than 25 laws dealing with the mass media, all enacted between 1903 and 1960 and in Tony Momoh’s Journalism in Nigeria, more than 20 laws enacted between 1961 and 1999. Each was or is a trap, or a guide on how to proceed, for media operators. Some people would have been tempted to applaud section 25 of the 1960 constitution for guaranteeing freedom of expression.
Events, however, soon proved that celebration premature. Our freedom green balloon imploded under the trial of Chike Obi, the mathematician. He had written a vituperative piece on the government and was tried and convicted for sedition. On appeal against his conviction, the Supreme Court ruled that section 25 of the 1960 constitution did not protect him against sections 50 and 51 of the Criminal Code, a code that came into force in 1916 as a colonial ordinance. Section 25, the high court asserted, provided for “nothing but ordered freedom.” It did not invalidate sections 50 and 51 of the code. Ask yourself what ordered freedom means and you get the idea. We should read into that decision the discretionary powers of the courts, at once a bane and a boon to freedom. Soon after the Chike Obi verdict, Dr. Aluko and Dr. Odumosu were successfully persecuted for an article they wrote on the findings of the Coker Commission of Inquiry which suggested that the commission was out to convict only loyal members of the Action Group.
The message which I will emphasize later is that constitutional guarantees do little to enhance freedom if opportunities to derogate from them abound. This paradox has no country and is not even contemporary. It was clearly recognized by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Indian Constitution in 1934. It asserted: “Experience has not shown them (meaning guarantees) to be of any great practical value… A cynic might indeed find plausible arguments in the history during the last ten years of more than one country for asserting that the most effective method of ensuring the destruction of a Fundamental Right is to include a declaration of its existence in a Constitutional document.”
Anybody expecting anything radical, as far as basic freedoms were concerned, was in for a disappointment. For one thing, the independent country continued with its legal past, carrying the baggage of colonialism with the demands of nation-building. The enactments of the past and inherited British laws, known as statutes of general application, were intact. The sword of the Criminal Code was dangling. For good measure, add the Penal Code operative in Northern Nigeria. To add to the difficulties, politicians found it hard to adjust their sails and so wittingly or unwittingly put the system under a severe strain.
The first major eruption occurred in Western Nigeria in 1961. The Action Group was engaged in a civil war and thus exposed its underbelly to its political enemies. The NCNC and the NPC, then in a coalition, took the chance to get even with the Action Group. And so on May 29, 1962, a State of Emergency was declared in Western Nigeria. That promised to test basic freedoms and it did. Challengeable detentions were effected and comments on them became sources of irritation within the governing circles. A challenge of the whole Emergency Powers Act by Williams and Adegbenro was greeted by the Supreme Court with a bland declaration that it was not the business of the Court to enquire into the reasonableness of parliamentary resolutions. We were being told that a constitutional court had no business considering the validity of a legislative enactment!
In that charged political ferment, a new constitution was being canvassed and debated. The idea was to make Nigeria a republic and thus appear to have cut an umbilical cord. On September 19, 1963, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the Republican Constitution. Ben Nwabueze’s Constitutional Law of the Nigerian Republic is an informed volume on our republican ambitions and preparations for them. We just note, for our purpose, that section 25 of the Republican Constitution only embroidered the 1960 provisions on freedoms and rights. It reads: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom to hold opinion and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” You may be tempted to shout hosanna until you espy subsection 2 of section 25. It reads chillingly: “Nothing in this section shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society … in the interest of defence, public morality and public health” (or), you guessed right, “for the purpose of protecting rights, reputations and freedom of other persons.”
This loophole for derogation is not peculiar to Nigeria but universality does not make it any more palatable for believers in human rights. The European Convention on Human Rights would bend them for what is “necessary in a democratic society”; article 19 of the Indian Constitution for “reasonable restrictions”; article 10 of the Malayan Constitution for “such restrictions as it (parliament) deems necessary or expedient”. The first amendment to the United States Constitution must be music to the ears of libertarians everywhere: no law abridging freedom of the press. Foolstop! No equivocation! No double talk!
The American model is meant to let the courts decide the limits of press freedom in every situation. The courts have done so as needs arise and did in the case of Peter Zenger (1735), New York Times vs Sullivan (1964) and Time vs Hill (1967) and on numerous other occasions. The idea is to do away with prior restraint so that the perceived offender and the offended can battle it out in the courts. A remarkable one was staged in 1971. The confrontation was between the Nixon administration and the New York Times. The case centred on the publication of stolen documents on the history of American involvement in South Vietnam. The government had banned the publication of the details of what came to be known as “Pentagon Papers”. The Supreme Court held that the first amendment means what it says: no prior restraint. There existed, therefore, no ground for stopping publication. We can compare the American situation with what is happening in China. Intellectuals there are demanding that constitutional provisions on freedom be put into practice. The flash point had come with the award of the Nobel Prize for Peace to a dissident, Liu Xiaobo, last October. In China, as in many other countries, noble constitutional guarantees have quaranteed nothing more than pious hopes. Like the laws of Moses, they are remembered mainly as barometers for law-breaking.
Did the Republican Constitution make a difference in the standing of the Nigerian press as a fourth estate? It did not and could not in the Nigeria of muscular politics, of corruption, of intolerance and of political myopia. You can check the law reports for the number of prosecutions of press men and women. But such reports can never convey the true picture. They will not cover the Dele Giwa-type stories, the deployment of Tony Momoh and other non-cooperating journalists, the Tunji Osenis, Ray Ekpus, Innocent Okparadikes, Cyprian Ekwensi or raids on media establishments. They will throw no light on suppressed news items and editorials, the subjugation of the talented to make room for cronies or the influence of the unelected first ladies. We remember that Mrs. Lucy Kibaki of Kenya slapped a journalist but forget that we have our own Kibakis. The editor of the Nigerian Observer, Tony Ikeakanam, lost his job and standing just for using a pensive picture of a first lady on the front page while polishing a cheery one of hers on an inside page. The decision came from board-member supporters of that lady. Vera Ifudu was sacked from the NTA for refusing to surrender an interview tape. Law reports will not reveal denied promotions or the infliction of indignities on those who refused to play ball. Nor will they advert to the stifling embraces that came with being embedded with government agents and agencies. They will not report on mob rule that did descend on media houses in periods of high-voltage politics. We can’t forget the drama that followed the elections of 1983, accentuated by the Omoboriowo phenomenon.
All these must be weighed against the background of military take-overs and the do-or-die nature of Nigerian politics. The first coup d’etat took place on January 15, 1966, followed by another in July, then by another and then by another, each with less commitment to the tenets of liberty than its predecessor. Each new group was cheered into office by the cynical masses and at times by the embattled media. Mohammed came on the scene in the middle of 1975, tough-talking but did not last long in office. Obasanjo took control early in 1976 and stayed on until 1979. By 1977, Nigeria seemed awash in oil money and squandered a lot of it on Festac ’77. Some leaders lined their pockets while people in the mass media watched, stunned and somehow silenced. They could hardly catch their breath. In those circumstances, fourth estatism was at best a pipe dream. This is not to say that journalists did not flex for freedom in a contracting room for action.
Ironically, the last gift of the first Obasanjo regime was a democratic constitution. In section 36 of that constitution (1979), freedom of expression was guaranteed while personal liberty was guaranteed under section 32. Section 21 assigned a duty to the mass media: to uphold the fundamental objectives of the constitution and the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people. If you understand this, you can understand anything.
Under Shehu Shagari, a man of democratic credentials, the media tried to fulfil their role, in spite of, not because of, these fuzzy injunctions. But Shagari had followers of a different cast of mind, men who did everything they could to undermine their own administration. The mass media had to contend with them too. Their actions provided grist for media fire. We recall the one who was later crated in Britain and the professor who went to gaol over rice. The executive governors unleashed on the states kept the political pot boiling, always calling attention to the need for an effective fourth estate. Some of the media people responded to the call and paid dearly for trying. We have already mentioned some and can add Lade Bonuola, Mohammed Haruna and James Jukwey, as a small sample of media martyrs.
On December 31, 1983, Shagari was overthrown by Muhammad Buhari who was himself overthrown in August 1985 by Ibrahim Babangida. The succession of military rules meant hastily drafted decrees, some of them simply whimsical. Earlier ones in the 1960s encouraged the circulation of newspapers only to ban the unbanned in relatively double-quick moves. Some of the decrees were a rehash of earlier laws like the 1964 Newspapers (Amendment) Act. All were meant to intimidate reporters and their editors. Surprisingly, editors and their supporting cast kept the flame alive, daring to tell indifferent Nigerians what they should know about their government. I took personal note of what the Guardianwas doing under the leadership of Olatunji Dare, a man of scintillating intelligence and intellectual honesty. I recall particularly his spoof on the military during one of the ASSU strikes. My feeling is that he ended that strike in ASSU’s favour with the might of his pen.
The current Scene: We are now guided by the proclamations of the 1999 Constitution. True to precedent, it was handed down from a military dictatorship for the rebirth of a democratic system. True to form, it provides for press freedom in the usual give-and-take-it away fashion. Under section 22, the duties of, or expectations from, the press are spelt out. Like any other wishy-washy provision, it has no clause for enforcement and no criteria for measuring conformity. In fact, nobody can pretend to understand what the command or wish amounts to. Then out of necessity, or by a process of elimination, we have come to read the section to mean holding members of the identified estates to the responsibility and accountability of their oath. That is not what the section says in English. To uphold is either to maintain or provide moral support. How do the mass media do either of these? Why should anybody command the mass media to do either? How does this exhortation differ from the injunction on the mass media under Marxism? The courts are not even permitted to perform these patriotic duties! You would have to be a Pollyanna to celebrate section 22.
Since the section does no harm to the mass media, we move on to section 39 which does some structural good for the mass media. It provides for press freedom in 54 words – that is, for freedom to express in, and freedom to own, the mass media. The core of the celebrated American amendment contains only 10 words and has no room for derogation. Our constitution has 143 words for legal derogation. But we appear blissful and equanimous about the core of the provision: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinion and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” Altogether, the section has 197 words to guide seekers of freedom in pursuit of the constitutional expectations under section 22 and the general duties as fourth-estate denizens. We leave this section with Francis Bacon’s warning: “Words are like leaves. Where they most abound we cannot find the fruit of the truth beneath.”
Effects of Constitutional Guarantees:
We have traced the history of constitution making for Nigeria, from Lugard to Abacha. We have noted some of the milestones on the road to liberty. As citizens, we have observed how the mass media have fared in our history. We have noted some of the triumphs and some of the tribulations, some of the casualties and some of the heroes. Dr. Azikiwe, in a 1964 lecture at the University of Nigeria, paid tribute to those he called “pioneer heroes of the Nigerian press.” Ernest Ikoli, of the African Messenger, was among them. What emerges from our story is that constitutional guarantees and statutory enactments, on their own, do not and cannot make for the growth of freedom. So, what then can lead to a solid foundation for the development of a fourth estate for the Republic?
Factors for Press Freedom: We suggest a number of factors the presence of which may lead to a better atmosphere for press freedom and then to a fourth estate, an estate in which practitioners will be in a position to campaign against greed, lawlessness, corruption, inhumanity, lack of ethics but for the betterment of the human situation, fairness, peace, the environment, equality and dignity, for a political culture in which the elected may begin again to act like servants, not like masters, of those they represent.
The Judiciary: The first port of call is the judicial system. The Judges, acting with freedom and courage, can pave the way for the growth of liberty. This is a world-wide phenomenon. Politicians would be naïve or even foolish not to try to make themselves appear sacrosanct, god-sent and indispensable. They must act like politicians. It is up to the masses, the electorate and the press to challenge illegality and up to the judges to define what the limits of propriety are, what legal provisions really mean. In 1961, the Supreme Court decided against Chike Obi even though there was a supremacy clause with which to strike down the clause in the Criminal Code under which he was convicted. In the Arthur Nwankwo and Jim Nwobodo court battle, some 22 years later, the Court of Appeal backed a government critic in a sedition case.
Said Justice Belgore for the court: “When between 1961 and 1979 the democratic Executive and Legislature fell, the judiciary, apart from one or two bruises, stood firmly on its legs. So will it continue.” The Court of Appeal held that the Criminal Code provisions on sedition were inconsistent with the constitution and therefore void. Earlier in the same year 1983, Justice Araka held that those statutory provisions were inconsistent with the 1979 Constitution and therefore void. He was adjudicating over sedition charges against the Trumpet, an Enugu newspaper which ran afoul of the law within two weeks of its existence. These are stuff of which fourth estates are made. Our courts can do a lot more and faster. Judicial activism is usually a vista into the future. It is high time we are saved from protracted arbitrations in the belief that justice delayed is justice denied. A cheated victor at election should not wait for years to be vindicated. Wrongful detention should not take weeks to be overturned.
The Masses: It will never be possible for judges to act in a vacuum. A complaisant mass is a curse to civilization. According to Pericles, a person who takes no interest in public affairs is not only useless but also dangerous. The Yoruba have always demonstrated the mass-ness of their society. They often express their political views with pertinacity and vitality, sometimes violently, but have excellent report cards on the fight for political fairness. When the populace is active, there is an invitation to the press and then to the courts. (Last month Egyptian judges, on application, ordered the government to remove police from university campuses). The mass media will then have a starting point with news sources available and willing to give information. We followed the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, the Aquino Revolution in the Philippines, the one in Georgia and the anti-Syrian demonstrations in the Lebanon. We followed the Kenya story and saw the consequences. We saw the French at it again last month over pension reforms and recall their 1968 anarchy in which the president was almost toppled. A mass movement everywhere mirrors societal feelings and does provide the stuff of which good journalism can be made. Our cynicism contributes nothing to the growth of freedom. Our passiveness is a poison to democracy and freedom. By 1968, English law could not allow the staging of Hair, a Broadway parody on wars. The show contained nudity and obscenity and other objections. People demonstrated and campaigned to have the play shown in Britain. Parliament in a hurry amended a 200-year-old law to allow its staging in the United Kingdom. The voice of the masses made the difference, even in a country set in its ways.
The Mass Media: People look up to media practitioners for all sorts of things; for leadership in political crises, for guidance in bewildering situations, for calming the waters in times of turbulence. And much more. The media cannot afford to shirk this responsibility. That is the raison d’etre for their existence. The mass media should fight for freedom with all the guns blazing. But they must fight in a way to fight another day. With internal and external support, the mass media can help disentangle a lot of complex situations, whittle down powerful elites and help make the oppressed go free. The fight for Nigerian Independence was not won in spite of the media. The sustenance of sovereignty is not likely to be attained without their contributions. Presidents and prime ministers around the world lose their jobs because of media exposures and criticisms. We recall the departure from office of Joseph Tarka and Paul Unongo and numerous others. The most prominent profile has been the Nixon story in the American media. Two reporters, Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, emerged from the Washington Post as believers in the fourth estate. Nigeria lost two speakers prematurely in the federal legislature, one over certificate claims and the other over extravagance. Given the chance and acting responsibly, the mass media can contribute immensely toward the development of their own estate, the fourth estate. The pursuit of this objective must be treated as a class act. It cannot succeed without trophies for self-respect and professional dignity.
Acting with Restraint: The mass media must proceed with caution. Practitioners cannot act recklessly and hope to succeed. Libelling is an expensive undertaking. One long trial can empty a medium’s treasury. The Triumph and the Satellite of Enugu can testify to this assertion. Libels apart, a newspaper, for instance, is a legal person. It has a social presence. Irresponsible editors are insupportable and cannot earn anybody’s respect or sympathy. And so, all journalists must proceed with professional competence, adequate education and social responsibility. All this calls for solid training and ethics. The one comes mainly from institutions and the other from professional associations. Without these and more, the road to a fourth estate will always prove a cul-de-sac.
Self-Regulation: Doctors and lawyers have their associations. Practitioners are guided by their rule book. Everybody wants to get in on the act of controlling journalists. They might as well but the healthiest control would come from professional bodies – associations for print journalists, for broadcast journalists, for advertisers and for public-relations practitioners. Each association should develop practical and enforceable rules and guides. In the end, the image of each association may prove as good as the behaviour of its weakest members. One demand for a brown envelope can be multiplied a hundredfold. The best among each association stand a chance of enhancing its standing in society in all cases, even if as a balancing act. We all celebrated Ebenezer Williams when he was Ebenezer Williams, Gab Idigo, Peter Pan, and Babatunde Jose, all of the Daily Times, Abubakar Imam, of the Gaskiya Corporation, Herbert Unegbu, of the West African Pilot, Abba Zoro and Joe Atuona, of Radio Nigeria. Stanley Macebuh, of the Guardian. These and their colleagues made a strong case for a fourth estate. The English had their Cassandra in William O’Connor and Cecil King, of the Daily Mirror, Peter King of the BBC; the Americans, their James Reston, Arthur Krock, Drew Pearson, Harrison Salisbury and Walter Cronkite; the Egyptians, their Mohammed Heikel and the Ghanaians, their John Hammond. These built their reputations and made society eat out of their hands.
The Proprietors: The founder of a news medium has a set of objectives and trims his sails in pursuit of those objectives. All the actors in his employment have to toe his line or quit. On October 20, a newspaper, The New Age, failed to make a promised debut in South Africa. Five of the senior editors had a falling out with the owners on editorial content and quit. The owners of the New York Times, who are Jews, refused to have Jewish editors for whatever reasons until A. Michael Rosenthal in the 1970s. The paper was founded in 1851. There is something to be said for a supportive media owner. When the Watergate story broke on June 18, 1972, it was a minor one and only very few newspapers paid attention. But not Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, who with Ben Bradlee, the managing editor, gave increasing support to the two reporters who eventually succeeded in helping bring down a president for the first time in American history. We are aware of the help Dele Giwa received from his publisher after one stint in detention and the help rendered Minere Amakiri for his ordeal in the hands of a governor’s aides. All the same, we know that editors do do battles with media owners on what to leave in or out. Some of the owners are simply overcautious and unwilling to test any waters. The Daily Times once put a damper on some aspects of political reporting. Some act out of ignorance and dabble into what they know little about. Our position is that press freedom will grow or dwindle on the basis of gatekeeping as driven by ideology or the cash register.
Good Education: We expect trainers of journalists to provide excellent education. They, in turn, need the proper setting for effective delivery. We will not hesitate to note that we are not near the ideal situation. The material sent in for re-moulding appears unshapable. The very best among the recruits easily succumb to the pressures of the environment. The pursuit of pleasure soon overwhelms the quest for knowledge. Inquiring minds get stultified and inactive. The emperor however is himself ill-clad. He is lacking in books, journals, equipment and other things. Opportunities for the production of rounded products do not exist. A lecturer, in a writing class, has before him or her some 120 or more students. But the show must go on. In the absence of books, handouts; in a class that needs practice and PCs, others can watch a lucky few and leave the rest to the imagination. The editing lab can take in only a few at a time. There is probably no money for the publication of a practice newspaper or even to hire enough faculty.
In the end, we send into industry quarter or half-baked graduates whose difficult journey started from elementary school. Finding themselves in a society that is breezily waving goodbye to quality and excellence, a society in which cheats and the noisy are in the ascendancy, the young, who now want to be re-moulded again for practical purposes, are left on their own. The green horns suddenly are manning the trenches, editing and proof-reading. The result is the mess that greets us daily in our publications. On such a heap, talk of an estate of any grade is at best based on wishful thinking.
An Enabling Environment: According to Will Durant, “no mortal can be omnipotent and sane.” We read about Caligula, the Roman emperor who made his horse a consul. We know about Idih Amin; we sweated under several strong men beginning with Yakubu Gowon. Military intervention in politics may seem out of fashion now but nothing says the phenomenon is dead. All of us ought to be aware that the fourth estate can never blossom under non-competitive regime, in a one-voice state. Small-man governments create the ambiance for the growth of the fourth estate in a liberal atmosphere. We ought to bear this in mind as we struggle under unpopular civilian leaders and secretly hope – and may be pray-that they be toppled. After the fall of Shehu Shagari on December 31, 1983, the National Concord had this editorial reaction on January 2, 1984: “The new Government would be right to feel that the verdict it delivered on Saturday is the verdict of the people.” The following year, another verdict of fewer people was delivered by Ibrahim Babangida. Eventually another verdict was delivered of still fewer people and that one denied the owner of the National Concord an election many believed he had won.
Conclusion: We conclude by stating that the journey to true estatism is slow and arduous. Along the way, there may be distractions in the form of autocracy and variants of ochlocracy. The real struggle is for the establishment of a constitutional rule of law as a leveller. Such a regime is nourished by egalitarianism and is manifest in equality before the law. Its ingredients are civic activism, a probing legal system and a responsive judiciary. With these in place, a state in lethargy or deviation will be given the necessary nudge. Laws tend to have long shelf lives. That is how we have anachronistic and at times anachoristic decrees in our books. My position is that we cannot have a thriving fourth estate in a freewheeling regime. All in all, we note that the fourth estate has grown in the country, both in real but, especially, in relative terms. Against the background of social diversity, economic development, political evolution and the demands of modernization, the need for a more effective fourth estate of the republic is self-evident.
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