The independence of the media is the bedrock of journalism. The concept implies the provision of stories that reflect social reality in a way that puts the interest of the populace first.
However, the challenges of policy, ownership, technology and sustainability drive are threatening the existence of independent media in Nigeria. This has led to a situation where the media is less able to hold power accountable and promote transparent governance.
According to the Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Nigeria is ranked 120th out of 180 countries. This ranking reflects the challenging environment that journalists and media houses are in the country because of various factors such as incessant arrests and detention; physical assault, digital censorship, self-censorship, ownership influence, and poor financing.
To proffer solutions to the problems confronting the independence of the media in Nigeria, the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ), recently organised its 3rd Amplify In-depth Media Conference which was not to give awards to astute investigative journalists only, but also to brainstorm the freedom of the press vis a vis its sustainability in a digital world.
In her welcome speech, Motunrayo Alaka, Executive Director of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ), said that the need for media independence could not be overemphasised.
Alaka said the press still struggles with identity crisis and the dilemma of pursuing owners’ interests versus public interests while complying with the ethics of the profession.
“For this gathering, we have summarized the main issues that determine the independence of the news media into what we call the independent media equation: Policies, ownership, technology and sustainability.
“There are other issues but these are essential and can make or mar the future we hope the Nigerian journalism landscape transforms into for the good of democracy”.
She called for the formation of policies that would enable journalism to thrive, the deployment of technology by the media to have fair and balanced reportage as well as adoption of innovative techniques by the media to remain financially viable.
Sharing a similar sentiment, Amina Salihu, Deputy Director, MacArthur Foundation, said “Press freedom and quality reporting is not negotiable in a context where there’s a need for working democracy; the one that serves the people”.
Salihu said that the media had to reflect and maintain wellness to enable it to continue to be the watchdog of society.
“The media has to take that wellness to the ecosystem where it operates and also has to inspire citizens to do the needful via emphasizing the duties of the citizens,” she said.
She also urged media owners to see investigative journalism as an ethical business where funds could be generated to sustain their activities, noting that “the media can not continue to depend on donor funding”
Delivering the keynote address, Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher of Premium Times Newspaper emphasized that journalism was about making a democratic government more accountable to the people urging journalists to operate within the ethics of the profession.
Olorunyomi, who is also the founder of the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID), urged journalists to embrace fact-checking and digital literacy tools to fight information disorder in the country.
He also called for the regulation of AI (Artificial Intelligence) just like other products like drugs and food that were regulated in the country.
“AI has a lot of benefits, it can help solve problems but it needs effective regulation. Journalists need to take the lead in the AI revolution. For journalists to be able to take the lead, they must be educated about AI”
During one of the panel discussions, Lateef Olagunju, Secretary General, National Commission for UNESCO, Nigeria, said that “Democracy cannot be sustained if there is no media regulation.
“If media regulation is government-regulated, it will be difficult to achieve media independence. We cannot talk about sustainable development if there is no independence of the media,” said the UNESCO official.
Olagunju noted that UNESCO had different media interventions to allow for media independence to thrive in member states.
For her part, Franca Aiyetan, Director of Broadcast and Monitoring, Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) noted that a synergy between the regulator and the regulated was key in allowing the commission to carry out its mandate better.
Aiyetan, who spoke during a panel discussion on Media regulation and independence: “What is the balance?, said that the commission was drafting out a regulatory guideline for broadcast media to operate in the digital space.
“NBC has specific guidelines to regulate the digital media platform; some of the considerations include access to information, freedom of information and local content.”
She, however, recommended that digital technology companies should train young people on what they can post on the internet space.
Dili Ezughah, Director-General, Nigerian Press Council (NPC), said the essence of the body was to ensure press freedom and citizens’ rights.
Ezughah noted a need to review the NPC Act, noting that most of its content was outdated. “When reviewing the Press Council law, all stakeholders should be brought together to contribute their input”.
Not impressed with a situation he called ‘strangulation of the media’, Mr Lanre Arogundade, Executive Director, International Press Centre, advocated that media regulatory bodies should be independent of government’s influence.
Arogundade also called on the NBC and NPC to have prior conversations with media organisations as they plan the review of the laws regulating media bodies.
The event also provided a meeting point for the town and gown in the media space to cross-fertilise ideas on ways to strengthen the powers of the media.
Prof. Umaru Pate, a renowned media scholar and Vice-Chancellor of Federal University Kashere, Gombe State said the need for the media to have economic independence could not be overemphasised.
The VC said the new unbundled curriculum for students of mass communication was tailored in line with the dynamics of the new media.
He said, for instance, the new curriculum would enable media students to learn how social issues like conflict shape how journalists operate in today’s world and media economics.
He urged students studying mass communication to develop a passion for ethical journalism as well as the business of journalism
Jimeh Saleh, an Editor at the BBC, also called for a new mindset and new ways of collaboration among media practitioners, especially in the area of investigative reportage.
Saleh said having such collaborations could also be extended to non-journalists who could give useful insight into investigative reports.
“Cross-border collaboration can enhance the knowledge we have about investigation and there is the need to recognize the power of language in investigative journalism. Not all investigative stories can be written in English”, he said.
Speaking about financial sustainability for the media, Dayo Aiyetan, Executive Director, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, said that there was a need to produce news as a business product.
“We need to see news as a product that we can sell but keep in mind the ethical considerations. Different technology platforms make good money from selling news materials they don’t produce.
“So the media, who is in charge of gathering and producing the news items, should make use of technology to make them into sellable products”, Aiyetan said.
All in all, independent media plays a critical role in shaping society by bringing important stories that hold power accountable. The onus is now on all stakeholders to ensure that the media thrives in an environment that is fair, transparent and conducive to growth.
Joy Odigie is a journalist with the News Agency of Nigeria, and received the WSCIJ fellowship to attend the AIM Conference in Abuja.