The media is adjudged to play a plethora of roles in a given society in which it operates. One of such roles is information dissemination and education of the populace on all facets of human life, not excluding their political life. Many studies have been carried out to justify the claim that the media wields overriding powers as agenda-setters for the citizenry with an attendant impact on their political philosophy and action. In the Nigerian context, the continued functioning of our emerging democracy is hinged on the pervasiveness of the media. This larger than life influence of the media has endeared political actors and players who court and woo her as a bride to realise their political ambitions. This study examines the role of the media in the Nigerian electoral system. It is anchored on the Agenda Setting Theory (AST). The historical-analytical method is harnessed to trace the ascendency of the media to its current state of relevance in relation to its pivotal duties in entrenching democracy and a credible electoral process. This work canvasses that the primary role of the media institution as the fourth estate of the realm should not be during elections alone, but be a continuous obligation.
The Nigerian governmental structure which is an offshoot of the British from whom we secured political independence consists of the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary with the media being the fourth being an institution that checkmates the excesses of the other three arms. Anegbode and Azelama (208) give voice to the place and function of the press as they assert that:
The press remains the fourth estate of the realm, the watchdog and the conscience of the nation. It is the organ that informs the public about the activities of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
The canine metaphor of the media as a watchdog is an indication of its watchful role in any government. Interestingly, the media does not only serve as a watchdog that only barks but one which guides the government towards change. Information is the basis of effecting change and to tackle the consequence of change. The information needed in running a government is provided by this vibrant organ – the media. The information carrying and dissemination role of this “estate” is a veritable tool for change. Adeyemi (151) puts it this way “Throughout the history of mankind, the press has always occupied the fore-front of socio-political and economic changes.”
From the foregoing, one can safely contend that the media’s role in running the affairs of government is that which cannot be relegated or ignored. A former President of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson, while emphasizing the importance of the media once said that if he was made to choose between a government without a press or a press without government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter.
Here in Nigeria, the Federal Government in recognition of the sacred role of the media enshrined in the Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution as amended that:
The press, radio, television and other agencies of the media shall at all times be free to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.
The Nigerian state, like many African countries that were once cololonised, was confronted with the problem of economic development and nation building. Reflecting on the problems plaguing the continent, Omoera (256) notes that:
Contemporary Africa is beset by a myriad of problems from north to south, east to west, pervasive corruption, hunger, political, religious and ethnic crisis, unemployment, illiteracy, HIV/AIDS pandemic, internal and external brain drain, etc. The leadership is almost overwhelmed by these developmental needs and ever-multiplying challenges.
The situation aptly captured by the above position is traceable to the period when the military was dominant in the leadership in Africa. No thanks to the politicians, whose squandermania and power abusing tendencies gave the military the excuse to seize power. The attendant problems of the military’s incursion into politics and undue interference in or outright rigging of the electoral process to either transform to a civilian president or instal their favoured candidate into office, were pervalent in the continent.
Unfortunately, this undemocratic and anti-people act was often perpetuated with the connivance of a section of the media.
The exit of the “politicians in uniform” from Nigeria’s political space served as a fillip to the aspirations of the Nigerian populace for true political leadership positions. The desirability of democracy over the sham of the militarized politics was succinctly put by Oluchi (119). She asserts that:
Virtually all Nigerians believed that the exit which resulted to the return of democratic government will finally put paid to the leadership problems, which characterized the military regime. This explains the ardour with which the Nigerian populace embraced the return of civil rule in 1999.
Democracy that was enthroned in Nigeria some seventeen years ago is a function of the activist role played by the media. In this regard Adeyemi (117) notes that: Press has therefore succeeded in fulfilling one of the fundamental requirements of acceptance in the new world order- Democracy.
This study is hinged on the Agenda Setting Theory (AST). The AST which was traditionally put forward by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw (1972) and reconfigured by McQuail (2010) as a popular theory which demonstrates that the more attention the media pay to a subject matter, the more importance is given it by a media audience. Okhaku (2011) in examining the theory adjudged the media, especially the press as determining what is crucial and relevant in society and it is this ability to confer importance that sets it out.
Dating decades ago, McCombs and Shaw (1972) had in their very extensive and influential research on the impact of the media in the 1968 presidential elections which proved that the voting behaviour of electorates was greatly influenced by the salience the media conferred on the election campaigns. Similar researches were done in the US to study the agenda setting of the media and its correlation with elections.
Many scholars of repute have written extensively on this popular media theory which crowns a subject matter by harping on it and delivering it for public consumption. This role of the media gives it a kingmaker status. Whatever the media says it is, that is what it is. Baran (2002) sums up this theory when he posited that the ” media may not tell us what to think, but media certainly tell us what to think about.” The consistency and repetition of programmes by television medium signal to the viewers the imperatives of the issue or event. The roles the media have been playing/ought to be playing/should be playing in the political communication sustenance is the context in which the research is anchored.
The Nigerian Media and Political Praxis
It has become imperative to discuss the history of the Nigerian media in the same breath with Media and Politics as the Nigerian media were birthed for nationalistic struggles. Although newspapers like “Iwe Irohin” and others of its ilk predate the “West African Pilot” by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Omu in his work “Press and Politics in Nigeria (1880-1937) on the history of the Nigerian press, gives credence to the fact that the newspapers were established to fight colonialism and dominance by the British.
John and Julius (45) assert that:
Nigeria’s foremost nationalists: Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Anthony Enahoro and M.C.K Ajuluchukwu, to mention a few, used their newspapers as veritable tools to fight against and to dethrone colonialism and for the establishment of independent democratic Nigeria.
The history of the Nigeria Press cannot be complete without the mention of the electronic media. The period between 1950s and 1960s witnessed the establishment of radio and television stations, as well as the growth of the print media. Balogun (23) recounts that prior to independence, the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) was under the administration of the British government. The Federal Government, no doubt, inherited the NBS and all ministries of information as legacies of the colonial government. It was not until in 1959 when the first ever television in Nigeria came on stream in Ibadan known as WNTV. It also became the first television to go on air in Africa.
Today, from the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) to state owned broadcast media, there has been a proliferation of broadcast media ever than before. This is not to mention the various privately owned radio and TV stations across the country. All these media organisations join the newspapers, magazines, news agencies and the social media in keeping the public abreast of electoral activities before, during and after elections.
The history of the Nigerian press reveals that the press played an important role in the struggle for the country’s independence. Okenwa (22) explains functions of the media as thus: Nigerian Newspapers have played an active role in the society, relaying news of politics and political strife and stimulating discussions on variety of matters of public interest. According to him, Late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was among the eight West African journalists that visited Great Britain in 1943 to submit a proposal in that regard to the British government.
The Impact of the Media on Nigeria’s Democracy. .
As earlier discussed in the historical perspective of this paper, the whole business of the Press arose from the need to awaken the dormant consciousness of the people towards good governance through a credible, free and fair electoral system. Quoting Zik, Anegbode and Azelama (218) state that “There is no better means to arouse the African people than that of the power of the pen and tongue. The Nigerian press has lived up to expectation in spreading useful and developmental information to its society. This accounts for the news stories, editorials, commentaries, interviews and other information giving activities of the media in both the Print and electronic media. The media has helped the Nigerian people to keep abreast of the developments in the political space of the country. The “Nigeria Decides” programme on NTA and the “Mandate Studio” on FRCN during elections as well as many special programmes created by private television and radio stations on the elections, typify the information giving role of the media in making the electorate to get a “blow by blow” account of the electioneering and the profiles of their potential leaders.
Stressing on the importance of the information role of the media, Opubor (24) asserts that:
Many people in our urban areas will find it difficult to imagine life without the media. Just think how it would feel to wake up one morning, turn on your radio set and receive nothing but static noises. Many of us would not want to experience such a deprivation more than once in a lifetime.
The scenario painted by Opublor shows the deprivation we could suffer without the media in the society.
The Nigerian press has always been useful as a medium for structuring the political landscape of the country, an avenue for agitation and proper political leadership. One of the tenets of the social responsibility theory is enlightening the public and making them capable of self-governance. This tenet therefore puts on the shoulders of the media, the responsibility to ensure good leadership in the society in which it operates. Anegbode and Azelama (218) wrote on the leadership role of the media in ensuring independence for Nigeria, when they affirm that:
One of the instruments of African (Nigerian) Nationalism therefore, was frequency or longevity; each Nationalist newspaper was a vehicle for the formation of public opinion. The press was a medium for agitation and political leadership.
The press referred to here, were the newspapers like Iwe Irohin, The Comet, Lagos Times, West African Pilot, etc, which were instruments for fighting colonialism or bad policies in different capacities. The aim was to arouse empathy and political awareness in the demand for independence. The media does not only agitate or draw attention to the bad polices of government but also drum support for the positive initiatives of government. The efforts of the press in lending to credible government policy is seen in the instances of organizing press conferences and interviews, undertaking public campaigns on important national issue like the Operation Feed the Nation (OFN), the Green Revolution, Road Safety Campaign, MAMSER, Census and a host of other government programs.
The Watchdog Role
The media being described as a watchdog is in recognition of its watchful and criticizing role against the bad practices of the government. Ralph Akinfeleye describes Journalist (media) as “corps of intrepid reporters who were always caught in the web several steps ahead of the goons” (quoted in Ugulah and Erebi 12). The political leaders and their cronies at one time or the other try to find ways to tailor the constitution to suit their selfish needs and aspirations. Ugulah and Erebi (12) agrees with Ralph’s position on the power of the media to avert such activities when he maintains that:
…Obasanjo’s third term agenda would have succeeded but for the vibrant media and a coalition that Nigerians were properly informed to resist the unconstitutionality.
Olusegun Obasanjo in pursuit of third term in office, an attempt to remain in power for long, motivated the law making organ of the government to attempt to circumvent the constitution. But the media in performing its watchdog role drummed publicity to this ignoble act and his ambition to perpetuate himself in office longer than necessary was truncated. Another example bordering on Obasanjo that the media called attention to and criticized was his donation of a huge sum in millions of naira to his party – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) during the 1998 local government elections. The 2015 election is one still fresh in our minds. Sahara Reporters and Premium Times inundated us daily with cases of fraud in the electora system. The latest is the Abia State imbroglio and the rulings and counter rulings from the courts.
The Electioneering Role of the Media
The mass media is very useful in the electoral process of any nation. The media in its agenda setting role help the electorate to have an insight into the personalities of the political office seekers and their party manifestoes. During the transition from the military to democratic rule between 1998 and 1999, the media lived up to its expectation by keeping the public abreast of happenings in the political space of Nigeria. This explains why the Tell Magazine did a countdown to the handover in every single issue of its publication between July 1998 and May 1999 The late Mr. Tunji Oseni (a senior Journalist) organized an agenda-setting seminar for newsmen in August 1998, entitled “The Media and Transition” to reflect on the transition programme (Olukoyun 2).
The role of the mass media is essential to the political and electoral process in any country. It is worthy of note that the media in Nigeria has played a positive role in the process. During the last elections in Nigeria, the media was alive to its duty of creating awareness, sensitizing and mobilizing the electorate to participate in the election. This is evident in the various media coverage, interviews of politicians, giving insights into their profiles and making their manifestoes heard. The publicity no doubt helped Nigerians to make their choice on whom to vote for.
Although elections are over and elected officers are already serving in different appointive capacities, the credibility of the elections are still being questioned as evidenced in the election tribunals. The media is also at the forefront of the agitation for electoral reforms by reporting the irregularities and malpractice that characterize the 2015 elections and calling for immediate action after the election. In President Umaru Yar’Adua’s inaugural speech (VOA news May 29th, 2007) he accepted that the 2007 general elections was flawed with irregularities and therefore promised to make reforms. In his words: “I will set up a panel to examine the entire electoral process with a view to effecting reforms and to ensure that we raise our general elections to met international standards. The press did not only go to town with reports of election malpractices but are also part of the changing process. Reuben Abati, Chairman, Editorial Board of the Guardian Newspaper emphasized this stand when he observed that “the media has played a role in the electoral reforms by carrying out civil campaign on problems of the electoral reforms and are doing a good job of it” (the Sun March 18, 2008).
The Nigerian media professionals have in furtherance of the electoral reform process attended a training organised by the International Republican Institute (an international body that ensures the growth of democracy in countries of the world) to train journalists to effectively report the major issues at stake during electoral reform process. The trainingl enabled them to educate the citizenry on the process and improve the technical competence of participants.
Conclusion and Recommendation
This paper has chronicled the role of the media in Nigeria’s emerging democracy from informational, leadership, watchdog, electoral reforms and a plethoral of others roles to affirm that the media is indispensable in any polity where democracy is practised and where a credible electoral system is germane. Even in autocracy, the media is needed for it to function. Armed with the knowledge of the indispensability of the media, we wish to recommend that government should provide a conducive environment for the press to flourish. That one way to ensure a free and fair electoral system in Nigeria is to carry the media along as partners in progress. It is only through the media that elections are not only regarded as being credible by are seen by all as being so. Also the press needs not to be cowered or shouted down.
Besides, the ownership of the media should not be made to have overriding influence on its offerings to the detriment of the public. As difficult as it may sound, regulations can be put in place but the press should not the muzzled with the ownership or control apparatus.
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