23 October 2008

Nigeria: Private Media Ownership in Democracy


PERHAPS, in beginning this article, one have to quote the third American President, Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), a Democratic Republican who said that "a free press should be sacrosanct to the building of an enduring democratic culture".

Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States and the greatest of the brightest minds of his time pointed out that the press is the engine of any democratic system.

The mass media (print and broadcast) serve very many functions for society as well as for individuals like providing information, escapism, education and entertainment which was the last function as provided by Charles Wright in 1959. Also, in a pioneering study written in 1948, Harold Lasswell of Yale University identified three important social roles of communication expected to be performed by the media: Surveillance of the environment, correlation of the components of society in making a response to the environment and transmission of social inheritance.

From the above therefore, the mass media, especially the private media is expected to act as a sentinel. That is, we should rely on the media to keep us alert on elections, especially conducted by the government or ruling party. The media should also act as arena; that is, publicizing events and controversies, the communications media place them on the community agenda, focusing attention on issues so that consensus can be reached. The private media also act as instructor.

That is, through communications media we learn what others are saying, wearing, doing. The media educate us and to a very great degree, help us function within the social structure, importantly, the media act as social and political regulator by providing their audiences with a realistic picture of the world around them; help keep leaders honest, social and governmental policies equitable.

As the eighteenth century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham put it: "Without publicity on the entire government process, no good is permanent; under the auspices of publicity, no evil can continue. Publicity therefore, is the best means of securing public confidence".

From the beginning, there was no clear constitutional provision for the right of newspaper ownership in Nigeria. Despite this, the Constitution of the Second Republic provided for the right of ownership. Section 36, subsection (II) of the 1979 Constitution stated as follows: "Every person shall be entitled to establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of ideas and opinions, except the medium of wireless or television broadcast".

The essence of this provision is that government and private individuals are free to own the print media whereas the Federal and state governments enjoyed the monopoly of television and radio. However, series of agitation made the Babangtda administration to establish the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) which successfully licensed private individuals to participate in broadcasting.

It is true to say that in Nigeria, three main categories of media ownership exist; that is, government ownership, private ownership and joint ownership. In the case of government ownership, the media is completely financed and supervised by the government like the Nigeria Television Authority, the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, the various state-owned radio and television stations.

While private ownership refers to where individuals, establish, finance and direct the administration of the media outfits like The Guardian newspapers, the Niger Delta Standard, Punch newspapers, Life International Magazine, community-based newspapers like the Urhobo Voice and the Harbinger news magazine, to mention but a few. In the case of joint ownership, both the government and private individuals participate in the finance and management.

Ideal democracy hinges partly on the ability of the mass media to disseminate qualitative information that can guide citizens in making rational choices of leadership. This responsibility carries two fundamental assumptions: That the mass media can disseminate information from a neutral, disinterested position, and that citizens can have equal access to the media.

One important thing is that the establishment of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) by Decree No. 38 of 1992 has had a significant impact on the structure of the Nigerian broadcasting media. For the first time in Nigeria, individuals and groups can participate in the broadcasting media industry. However, the private media outfits are located in the urban areas.

As a result, majority of people who live in remote areas, including minority ethnic groups and the less educated, do not have the opportunity to participate effectively in decision - making processes because they have limited avenues for being informed or heard. In spite of the discussion on the issues surrounding the imbalance in quantity, quality, and the direction of the flow of information at national and international forums like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), little seem to have been achieved in terms of solution to the problems.

In Nigeria, a lot of explanations can be offered for the lack of interest in establishing media outfits. Publishing or broadcasting is capital-intensive with high demand for enormous resources. High cost of newsprint and other materials in addition to huge financial requirements and stringent legal requirements without sufficient revenue from advertising. Again, is the frequent closure of the private media houses by overzealous establishments of the government.

It is very clear that most of the external regulatory controls on the media are adopted by government in form of laws and legislative actions. Despite this, government constitutes a commission to oversee media organizations such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in America.

Therefore, it is a truism to say that the private-owned media, at times, lack freedom and objectivity compared to their government counterparts. The private-owned mass media do not augur well in a developing country like Nigeria whose present political, economic, social, and cultural orientations are different from that of America and Britain, where media ownership is chiefly private. Finally, the media should continue to be used for development purposes, guided by the principles of checks and balances (not frequent or incessant closure) in order to regulate the activities of the people and government.

Mr. Soeze is Chief Officer (PR), Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun, Delta State.

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