The Nigerian government and media bullies

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Recently, the aphorism which claims the pen is mightier than the sword received an exaggerated upgrade at the hands of no less a person than the Minister for Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed.

Speaking like one at the end of his tether, he said last week at the Nigerian Economic Summit: “Whereas in many countries, the press is worried about being bullied by the government, here in Nigeria, it is the government that has to contend with endless bullying by the press.”

It was a sensational statement confirming that the much-vilified media don’t own the franchise on sensationalism.

What I found astounding, however, was that his comments didn’t generate even the mildest of protest.

It was either he was speaking a truth so powerful that even the accused surrendered to his logic, or people just took the position that some things are better left unsaid.

The minister’s opinion isn’t unique. I dare say if people in different arms of government or the security agencies were polled, they would have views that aren’t dissimilar – which isn’t to say they are correct.

Nigeria is passing through unprecedented trials. Security challenges that not even the best fiction writers could conjure have seized our land. The economy is in dire straits and these struggles are exemplified by the slippery slide in value of the naira vis a vis major world currencies.

Any government that has to deal with these things would understandably feel the heat – especially when they think they are doing their best. They would be defensive and develop a bunker mentality that says it’s them against us. They would see enemies in everyone whose views are not in sync with theirs, or who doesn’t share their perspective.

Unfortunately, whatever the government is throwing at the country’s many challenges hasn’t had the kind of effect that would transform the media and citizenry into some kind of hallelujah chorus line.

As some of us stated circa 2014/2015 when the Goodluck Jonathan administration was reeling from fierce media and opposition criticism, if there’s a lot of criticism of government it’s because there’s so much to criticise.

Jonathan at some point threw up his hands and declared himself the most criticised and insulted president on earth. To listen to some officials of the present government you get the impression the former president not only handed over power, he also passed on the mantle of being the world’s number one flak magnet.

But much of the resentment, anger and defensiveness in officialdom stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the media.

The primary job of the media is to report the news factually, with balance and in a socially-responsible manner. The media is to hold government accountable, speak truth to power and not get into bed with it. Some would even say it is their role to make life difficult for the powers-that-be.

Unfortunately, government officials and leaders of the security agencies expect media organisations to be nothing more than public relations outlets that will inflate their modest achievements. Their dream media would ‘patriotically’ not report the actions of bandits and insurgents because it glamourises such activities. Really!

The media gets a bum rap most of the time; it is damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. It’s a convenient whipping boy to demonise when a government feeling the heat needs to deflect attention.

At some point in the last two years the media wasn’t paying much attention to atrocities of bandits in the Zamfara axis. I recall how they were criticised and made to look as if the lack of focus was down to some regional bias. Then, suddenly, newspapers turned their focus and begun to publish the scale of the horrors. The same figures began accusing the media of paying too much attention to banditry!

Many government officials lecture the press about how their Western counterparts cover the country, suggesting that journalists in the United States and United Kingdom don’t ventilate the evils of their societies or the shortcomings of their leaders. Nothing could be more ignorant or divorced from facts.

In the final year of the Donald Trump presidency he constantly faced hostile media questioning right there in the White House briefing room. Scenes of reporters irreverently exchanging words with the most powerful president on earth were regularly beamed across the world.

In one particular incident an exasperated Trump slammed a particular correspondent for her challenging line of questioning. “Don’t talk to me like that. I’m the president of the United States,” he declared petulantly.

Imagine if a reporter were to summon the suicidal audacity to question a Nigerian governor or president in such a fashion!

When the US made a hash of the pulling out its forces from Afghanistan, it wasn’t the Cambodian or Cuban press that magnified it. It was the American media that led the charge – calling out their government before a global audience for bungling on a historical scale.

Just the other day, President Joe Biden was caught having a senior citizen moment – taking a brief nap at a conference of world leaders. It was the Fox News of this world that led the reportage that put the president of their country in less-than-flattering light.

Nigerian government officials would cry treason if journalists did any of these things mentioned in the last few paragraphs.

It is truly ironic that the current Minister for Information who proved quite adept at pushing media buttons to make life unbearable for the government of the day when he was opposition spokesman, should be the one driving this narrative of the media as a pack of demons.

To their credit, the Jonathan administration even at the lowest point of the bashing they received, restrained themselves from overreacting. Instead, they tried their best – albeit unsuccessfully – to change the way they were being defined as ‘clueless’.

But instead of working to change reportage with evidence that policies are transforming the things people complain about, officials want the media to become the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil collaborators of government. It doesn’t work that way most places in the world – except maybe in North Korea, Myammar, Azerbaijan etc.

The media isn’t bullying this government. If anything it has been at the receiving end of inelegant attempts to beat it into submission through crude legislation or other ham-handed action like the Twitter ban.

Those efforts continue daily with sustained attempts at calling a dog a bad name preparatory to its hanging. But the whole world knows who the real bullies are.

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