As Nigeria prepares for the January 2011 elections, the media in Nigeria is yet to focus on what the candidates will bring to the table, but when few of them convened at a roundtable outside the country, that was their topic of discussion.
On Thursday night, three Nigerian media representatives and one delegate of the Committee that Protects Journalists were speakers at a discussion focused on elections in Nigeria, held at a Tank auditorium in New York City. It was organized by the Global Information Network and moderated by the publisher of SaharaReporters.com, Mr. Omoyele Sowore.
The panelists included Mr. Sylvester Ebodaghe, Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of National Daily, Mr. Shola Oshunkeye, Editor of the Spectator Newspaper, Mr. Mohamed Keita, Africa Advocacy Coordinator for the Committee that Protects Journalist, and Mr. Musikilu Mojeed, a Ford Foundation International Fellow and deputy investigative editor for 234Next newspaper.
“There is a danger of diversionary tactics,” said Mojeed. “If you observe, the election is just four months away, nobody is talking about what each of the candidates are going to do for Nigeria. Instead, we’re talking about which part of the country should produce the president, or the governors. The politicians are enjoying that, and the media is playing along.” He added that the media is not holding those who have been in office accountable for their tenure or asking the new candidates about their agenda for Nigerians.
“I believe they’re just trying to distract us to concern ourselves with non-issues when the real issues are being left out,” said Ebodaghe. He expressed his concern about the election timetable recently released by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, especially the time allotted to registration.
“I don’t think it is possible to register 70 million Nigerians within two weeks. It’s going to be challenging for the commission, unless we would have a repeat of what we had before where names of foreigners will be on the voters register even though they are not living in Nigeria. We’ll be having names like Mike Tyson again, then they will tell the public that they’ve registered 70 million people,” he said.
According to Ebodaghe, to register 70 million people, the commission would need at least 6 weeks.
A major concern of the panel was the difficulty of reporters doing an unbiased job when many of the media houses in Nigeria are owned by politicians.
Oshunkeye explained why some run after the rich politicians popularly known as moneybags. “Most media owners in Nigerian don’t have sufficient funds to sustain production, so most of the time they find themselves falling back to this same set of people at night to solicit funds. And in the process, they mortgage their independence and subsequently loose their voice,” he said. Although his publication is one of those owned by a politician, he said they have not experience any editorial interference from the owner.
Mojeed added that Journalists depend on ‘brown envelops’ at times because they are not well paid. “The politicians are corrupt and don’t see anything wrong in compromising the media. I see that going on except something is done to empower the Nigerian media so that journalists could earn more and be able to avoid being compromised,” he said.
Ebodaghe also added “What we have is the same politicians we’re supposed to put in check, coming to tell us what we should publish. And those who are not owned by the moneybags, run to these politicians for survival, and that has robbed the media particularly during elections of expected objectivity.”
Keita stated that the Nigerian media still operates at large by the laws set by colonial masters, which does not give much freedom to the press or give them access to vital information. He talked about the danger of journalists trying to be objective when the easiest thing to do is compromise.
“13 journalists have been assassinated in Nigeria since 1998. This year, we’ve had three journalists killed in one day in April. Some were shut dead in their homes or cars, and the rest of them died while covering violence or demonstrations. And in all of these cases except for one, there has not been a single conviction,” he said. The one case examined was also partially investigated. Keita said the impunity goes back to the era of Dele Giwa, an editor who was assassinated by a parcel bomb with the code of arms of the Nigerian state house when General Ibrahim Babangida was president.
Many in the audience of about 50 people posed questions to the panel, one of them, Lukeman Moshood, pleaded that the Nigeria media should please be objective during this election period. “Let’s use our sweat to fight for tomorrow in the name of freedom,” he said.
The members of the panel also expressed the need for public debates among the candidates. In closing, the panel agreed that in the coming election, if the Nigerian media does not stand its ground and be as objective as it is supposed to be, it will be evident in the result of the election. The discussion was followed by a light reception sponsored by Buka, a Nigerian restaurant in Brooklyn, New York.