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Channels Television is arguably the most prominent privately-owned television station in Nigeria. It has won several awards for broadcast journalism on countless times, and it is based in the South-West region of Nigeria, birthplace of television broadcasting in Africa. What is the big deal, you might ask? It is that a television station dedicated to breaking news has, itself, become the news, of late. It has come under what appears to be a sustained ‘attack’ by the authorities for not adhering to its commitment to impartial news coverage. A vibrant, ‘free press’ is the cornerstone of any democratic society. ‘Free press’ is a relative term though. For good or ill, there is no media outlet without its own institutional bias. At its basic, the press is generally thought to be ‘vibrant’ and ‘free’ when it is not subject to government control either in form or in substance. Most media outlets in Africa fall well short of even this modest criterion. Being the “Fourth Estate of the Realm”, in Western societies, the concept of a free press is a lot more profound than simply not being under government control; it is about the fundamental (unalloyed) right to free speech, the limit of which is a regular subject of fierce debate and contention as it should be.
Free speech by one person can become so stretched that it threatens the liberty of others. It is thus a moving goalpost.
In Africa, debate about the media and free speech is hardly ever anchored around freedom and liberty of the individual; it is mainly anchored around government sensibilities, and the fragility of the post-colonial state. Free press has less profundity in Africa than it does in Western societies. Channels Television is smack in the middle of this media trajectory. It is neither tied to government, nor free in essence. It is a station trying hard to exercise its freedom to disseminate information within the context of a rapidly evolving socio-political milieu in a key African country. The media in Africa carries the burden of the fragility of the state to the extreme sometimes. Heaven is always about to cave in on hapless citizens for any ‘loose’ or ‘incendiary’ broadcast. It does not take much to shake the fragile state to its foundation in Africa. A little oxygen of publicity given to some renegade political leader or groups, for example, venting their spleen on ethnicity, or, autonomy, nationalism, etc, can set things off violently in a jiffy. So, the media is permanently burdened by the imperative of self-censorship in that regard. For this reason, most African governments believe they know best. They believe they understand what it takes to steady the fragile state; put the media on a tight leash. Channels TV has felt the sharp edge of that of late.
African leaders embrace ‘free press’ as long as the reportage is done through the prisms of public policy, and ‘national security’. Many will stop at nothing until they secure a zombie-like compliance from the media. Some media houses are better at negotiating this than others. It is said that in a society of the blind, a one-eyed man is king. Channels TV is one of a handful of privately-owned media houses that has become ‘mainstream’ from which millions of viewers at home and abroad obtain their staple diet of information. It enjoys a degree of trust for its content that the government media houses do not, could not, and will never match. That is why its programmes attract so much attention from a wide audience. The irony is, not everyone thinks Channels TV is a super brilliant channel in every respect. The manner in which the station sometimes treats its political “VIP” guests with kid gloves is embarrassing. “Sir, please tell us what you think of…” is one of their favoured, not to say, sheepish lines of questioning. The interviewer would often then fold their arms, and watch passively as the interviewee rabbits on, reeling out party lines, and making bland statements totally unconnected to the question asked. Much of that lack of rigour, and pertinent questioning are due to inadequate background preparation by the producers. The media in the UK and the US, which we like to emulate here, does not suffer from that type of meekness mainly because the terrain over there is fundamentally different. Society is polarised along clear ideological lines (right, left, centre, moderate, extreme, maverick). News editors and producers set up their anchors and their line of questioning in a way that reflects the polarisation in society as closely as possible. In the absence of ideology, and established political lineage, society like ours remains polarised along primordial and ethnic lines; amplification of which is to be avoided, especially in the broadcast media.
What makes this even more problematic in the context of Nigeria is the fact that key government ministers are generally media shy. With the exception of one or two, once appointed, most ministers remain faceless, simply doodling along quietly in the background. They are rarely, if ever, put forward to defend government policy on camera. Does anyone remember ever seeing the Minister of Finance, for instance, being interrogated on TV about the economy? What about the Minister of Defence? Minister of the Interior? Or, any of the other over-pampered Federal Government ministers? The answer, of course, is no. Press officers answer for almost everything in Nigeria. That is not accountability; that is government by spin. This is what the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission should be demanding of government to rectify, instead of issuing a pretty infantile ‘query’ as it did to Channels TV on August 25, 2021, on its ‘failure’ to balance up the ‘anti-government slant’ in the interviews conducted by its anchors.
That being so, why not let the President himself, or the relevant minister (not press officer, not minister for ‘communication’) provide the counter-narrative? Channels TV should make a point of inviting relevant government ministers to participate in debates even if they will not accept. The anchors are then able to announce at the conclusion of the exchange that minister so, and so, was invited but declined to take part.
All said and done, it is not for the NBC to compel television journalists to defend government position on any issue, or rebut an opposition attack on government policy, in the guise of complying with some broadcasting code. Let the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), lead by example, by making himself available for a live interview once a month. That way, no ambiguities about any aspect of government policy would linger for too long. It also means less focus on the President’s “body language”. (No laughing matter). The Channels TV journalists have often been at pain to admonish their guests to ‘tone down’ or ‘moderate’ their views on issues many viewers see as mundane, and innocuous. It is something many of them would rather not do, I am sure. Only last week, the station was visibly anxious to accord prominence to a military media spokesperson paying a ‘courtesy’ visit to its Abuja office, following the ill-advised notice from the NBC. The soldier had decided to stop by in a show of media ‘solidarity’ with the TV station. Of course, the door to their recording studios was swiftly flung open to him. Channels TV, please, you do not need the endorsement of a guy in military fatigue with a smug on his face, to burnish your image. A written statement of support from the army media corps, read out on air, would have been sufficient. Note, the media house is not in trouble because of its failure to toe the government line; it is in trouble because it is trying too hard to please the establishment.
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