Media and the Transparency of the Political Process: Full Text of Remarks by Oseloka H Obaze at the 3rd OPAN Annual New Media Conference

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Media and the Transparency of the Political Process: Conflict Sensitiveness and Hate Speech in Reporting Elections

Remarks by Mr. Oseloka H. Obaze, MD/CEO Selonnes Consult Ltd. At the 3rd Annual Online Publishers Association of Nigeria (OPAN) Conference At Sandralia Hotel, Abuja, Nigeria
Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Protocols
It is a pleasure to be here today. My sincere thanks the Board of Trustees of the Online Publishers Association of Nigeria (OPAN) for their gracious invitation, which allows me to contribute humbly to the very topical issue we are discussing today.

I wish to pay tribute to the leadership and members of this association for your proactive engagement and for providing this propitious interactive platform. It also goes to show your appreciation of the enormous power the mass media wields in the advancement, or otherwise, of any country. More importantly, by forming an association, you can better manage your affairs, self-regulate and weed out rogue elements.
I have been asked to share my thoughts on “Media and the Transparency of the Political Process: Conflict Sensitiveness and Hate Speech in Reporting Elections.” I will do my utmost in the time allowed.

It is That Time of the Year Again
Exactly thirty days from today, Nigerians, will through the ballot, elect its leaders and hence, decide what the next four years will be like. Naturally, those of us in politics and our associates are at the top of our games. With a slew of endless political meetings, rallies and campaigns going on simultaneously across the nation, the atmosphere is gradually getting charged.

At dining tables, street corners, pubs, joints, and many other such places, citizens discuss the turn of events, some with passion, and others with an air of disinterestedness. The optics seems normal, but to decipher the narratives on must pay close attention to media reportage of issues as they unfold.

Indicative figures from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) put eligible voters at upwards of 80 million registered voters. It is understandable; the population has been on the increase. Moreover, this general election is coming one the heels of the first recession that hit the nation in over three decades. Understandably, more Nigerians are getting involved, politically.

Although we remain hopeful that INEC will conduct peaceful, credible and sufficiently fair elections, the reality is that electorally, Nigeria is feared to have retrogressed from the progress of 2015. In fact, recent executive actions have done little to quell suspicions that the playing field will be skewed and that the nation runs the risk of “shifting goalposts.”
Nigeria is not isolated from such globalized trends. At these times of heightened demagoguery and sweeping populism, the evident rollback of standardized norms, has been further compounded by the rise in fake news and hate speech. Tese developments have put the media under the klieg lights.

Media is the Mirror of any Society
Nonetheless, the media remains the mirror of any society. At the risk of repeating myself, I must emphasize that universally, the media continue to claim a niche role as the Fourth Estate of the realm. For Nigerian media, such aspiration and role is no less so, even as we encounter a redefinition of who a journalist is or media practitioners, and what are the acceptable methods of operation.

Indeed, the once coveted watchdog role of the media all seems to have fizzled out. That reality presents very unique and confounding challenges. The truth be told, Nigerian media has evolved in ways unimaginable. True to reality but hardly flattering, some of the changes are unsavory.

It was Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States of America who once said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.” I like to think that President Jefferson refers to the power of the media. The media is simply a mirror that reflects society; its makeup, leanings, beliefs, value systems and aspirations. What could be more democratic than this? The convergence of media has ushered in some change. It has led to the democratization of media. This on the face of it is a good thing. But the stark reality is that the tools of the trade as well as the actors and the influencers in the industry continue to evolve.

The Tools Have Changed
If you cast your mind back to where we are coming from, you will appreciate that the political landscape of this country has changed exponentially. Fast track from the days of military anti-politics to the nearly two decades of uninterrupted democracy, and you will appreciate discernible decline in the use of crude tools like violent thugs, and assassination to eliminate political opponents. Save for a few sad instances, there seems to be a moratorium on the use of such tools.

Yet it will be overly simplistic to interpret this to mean that the desperation of Nigerian politicians and their bid to outdo each other have decreased. While hitherto, we heard of hooded men of the underworld who served as political assassins,, today’s political assassins do not necessarily wield AK47s and other such dangerous weapons. Rather they wield equally damaging lethal weapons like mobile phones, internet connectivity, and social media/blog accounts. These latter day political assassins ply their trade from the comfort of their homes, offices or Internet cafes. Suffice it to say that the barrel of a gun has largely been substituted by the stroke of a pen – or is it by the strike of a typing key pad?

This change did not happen in isolation. It came at a time of technology-induced democratization of media business. Presenting media content – be it news item, opinion, documentary, editorial, and the likes – which used to be the exclusive preserve of established media houses is now also in the hands of anybody with a smartphone and access to the Internet.

As members of affiliates of OPAN, you are the direct beneficiaries of this democratization process. There are many salutary sides to this development and democratization of media content delivery; one is instant reportage or the so-called “eye witness” account. As we witnessed recently soldiers on the frontline of the war against terrorism, using smartphones, can now let the whole world know the true situation of things, as against tailored press releases of their command headquarters.

Such developments come with its merits as well as associated pitfalls. Since the rich world order of editorial filters have been upended by technological advancement, masked mischief makers may also hide behind the veneer of anonymity the Internet provides, to put out media content that may induce strife and orchestrate conflict.

As my rudimentary sense of economics informs me, there is always a demand-and-supply side of every transaction. Hence, demands by the political dramatis personae to outdo each other through sponsored media postings is incessantly met with an equal fervor of supply of hordes of new and even traditional media practitioners ready to put out scurrilous, fake and insensitive materials. Essentially, there is an increasing black market demand for fake news and hate speeches, and there is also a corresponding increase in supply.

It is needless to try to convince you of the impact the speed and sheer volume of these new media platforms can make – whether positive or negative. The fact remains that that some of us in this hall, despite our intellectualism, drank and bathed with salted water in the early days of Ebola crisis, shows how much impact “forwarded as received” messages can make. This, to me, is a compelling enough reasons for convening conferences such as this and having related discussions.

The expansive explosiveness of the social media world that its juxtaposition with mainstream media guarantees us on fact: news will remain instant but related challenges will not disappear instantly. The challenges that confront us are not going away anytime soon. They just have to be better managed.

According to Jumia Mobile, “Out of the 162 million mobile subscribers in 2017 in Nigeria, 21 million of them are smartphone users, and only 17 million smartphone users are active on social media via their mobile phones. This new figure for active mobile social media users doesn’t capture the number of active desktop social media users (those that use their desktop computer, laptop or tablet to access social media).” This has brought a lot of quackery and unprofessionalism to the erstwhile venerated media profession. The bar has been so drastically lowered that regulated media professionals now envy and even seek of compete with these social media quacks. On the positive side, the use of mobile devices has translated to the political processes becoming increasingly transparent.

2019 Elections: Potential Tripwire
As we go into the 2019 elections, certain vexatious issues occupy the minds of the Nigerian public. Foremost is the Security situation in the North East, the Herders-Farmers Conflict and pockets of insecurity in Zamfara and Kastina. There have been reports of intermittent but localized political violence in this build up.

The truth is that the country is challenged on many sides. Let us make no mistake; Nigerians are hungry and therefore unhappy. Government’s policy and precepts continue to strain national unity.
Similarly, those in the media, especially the OPAN family have a critical role to play. Whatever you write carries some weight, and could be the guiding light as we go into the elections. You have a duty to report the news fairly, accurately minding the several tripwires of our existence as a country. We have a history of post-election crisis. We cannot afford to repeat it in 2019. In practicing journalism globally, the emphasis is to report the truth and not to stay neutral. Nigeria’s should not be an exception.

Responsible report is imperative. Recent events in India, where viral social media messages triggered mob actions and violence, only for the stories to be hoaxes and misinformation, are noteworthy. We must avoid sensational campaigns or stories capable of stoking conflicts. Consideration of national interest remains essential.

Keep an Eye on what is happening at the Grassroots
It is especially gratifying that frontline presidential candidates have all committed themselves to a peace accord. So far the candidates have campaigned with civility and decorum. I had hoped to say same about some of their overzealous supporters and grassroots mobilizers. It is therefore incumbent that we invite candidates to rein in on their supporters to tone down their rhetoric, both online and offline; trying to whip up political sentiments can exacerbate tense situations. From my personal experience, it is at the grassroots that we get to see the most vicious of hate and divisive speeches. We must therefore watch keenly what is happening with the campaigns for the 109 Senatorial, 360 House of Representatives and some 998 State House of Assembly seats up for grabs.

Concluding Thoughts
As you engage Nigeria, and you report the politics of 2019, always do remember that you have a duty of care to the nation you serve. Today we have a situation where traditional media, deficient in its expected role of reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly is complimented by an even more deficient new social media. We have had experiences that painfully taught us that no information is dangerous but wrong information could be much more dangerous and can throw nations into chaos. We must remain mindful that conflict sensitiveness becomes a compelling norm, when we are at risk that hate speech embedded in reports on electoral activities could be explosive.

In closing, my appeal to journalists across the country is NOT to fight media convergence or abandon new forms of communication. To the contrary, I urge journalists as media practitioners to embrace media convergence and the new communication tools. Accordingly, I implore you to be fierce defenders of the truth, of accuracy and fairness when reporting – be watchdogs of our democratic system by engaging in investigative journalism – be educators of the public and do so by living up to the high standards your profession has set for itself.
Carry out your civic duty!!! That’s the only way you can regain the trust of the public and push back on “fake news” a phenomenon that is here to stay, regardless of any regulation we may impose on the use of the Internet! If you commit to doing this, our Republic will go from strength to strength. I thank you!

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