As arguments continue to rage, with Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, pointedly calling out the media for attempting to use fake news against President Muhammadu Buhari ahead 2019 elections, communication experts, particularly from the academia, have weighed in on the matter. In what appeared a unanimous verdict, they stated categorically that both government and the media are culpable and were advised to put their houses in order.
The academics made their views known recently in Asaba, Delta State, at a conference of the Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria (ACSPN) in a special panel on 'Media Narratives as Bridges.' The conference had 'Media Narratives: Hate Speech, Fake News and the Political Stability of Africa' as its theme. In fact, the academics expressed dismay at the prevalence of fake news or disinformation in the polity and cautioned that if left unchecked it could spell doom for the electoral fortunes of the country in the 2019 election.
While the media was blamed for being the purveyor of fake news, government was held responsible for not doing enough in terms of good governance and its failure to deliver dividends of democracy to stem the tide of fake news. Particularly, African governments were held culpable for its serial failures to develop after over half a century of political independence from colonial rule. Emeritus professor of communication and former Sierra Leon Minister of Information, Cecil Blake, expressed bitterness that Asia, which lagged behind most African countries in the 1960s, has long overtaken Africa in development strides. What is worse, Africa now goes to Asia to beg for economic aid!
Blake, who teaches communication at Pennsylvania University, U.S., said American democracy is founded on the logic of adversary, division, saying "it is the best environment to promote hate - you denigrate your opponent to win election. Yet, there is development there.
"Eighty per cent of our population lives in squalor. Is it not time to begin to ask questions? Africa went to begging in China recently. African is reeling in so much debt. Soon, Europeans and Chinese may recolonise the continent by the 2060s. African is not making progress. In fact, there is a regression."
Vice Chancellor of Adeleke University, Osun State, Prof. Dayo Alao, situated the issue on the proper location of the media, saying it was critical to the issue in discourse, as the reason for the formation of the media association.
"Journalism scholars need to distinguish themselves as to what we do in molding young lives, who will practice journalism," he stated. "We need to go beyond the normal and advocate social media regulation. Journalists today have contributed to the problem we have. Journalism has become a loose, unregulated profession. Is journalism regulated? Is journalism a trade or a profession?"
Communication teacher, Prof. Stella Okunna, said it was easy to blame the media for doing its job and lose sight of government's negligence in failing to deliver good governance. As former Commissioner for Information in Anambra State, she has the benefit of hindsight in the matter and shared it with the audience.
"Quite often the blame is with the media, but if those in government fail to do their work, the media won't fail to do its work of telling it as it is," she said. "God help you if your government fails to do well, you turn a propagandist and liar to cover the deficiency of your government as information commissioner. Division and fake news have always been here. So, why is it coming up now? Has it been this bad before? If you ask me, government is responsible by creating divisions. However, media too hasn't done too well. Those teaching and practicing media haven't done too well, but government too has a lot to do."
A professor of communication from Bayero University, Kano, Umaru A. Pate, gave the conversation a different spin and laid the blame at the doorstep of the political elites, who he said were culpable in openly creating divisions along ethnic lines in Nigeria's public institutions.
According Pate, "Political elites are disorganised in Africa and they cause conflicts in social, political, religious and ethnic lines. Financing and ethics challenge Nigerian media and they impact what the media puts out there. Most media work as retainers for hire. We are constantly partitioning ourselves and what you have is fake news. Government is actively promoting divisions by sectionalisng the Civil Service, when only one tribe occupies particular ministries."
Publisher of Premium Times, Mr. Dapo Olorunyomi, said there was need to build on media heritage, as the media was capable of rising up to the challenges of its times, adding, "What are those challenges? A smart government ought to know how to manage our diversity to create harmony and not promote sectarianism. Financing is crucial for media. In an age of social media, how do you regulate journalism?"
However, Blake made the clarion call that would be Africa's redemption, which he said lies in taking advantage of technology and creating such tools that would lift it from a beggarly continent. He charged Africa's youth to seize the day and innovate, noting, "Nigeria and Africa are yet to catch up with the digital innovations going on in the world. Africa, stop being beggars! Innovate and create your own."