By Bola Bolawole
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“If I had to choose between a government without newspapers and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter” – Thomas Jefferson, 3rd United States of America president (1801 – 1809).
A government that gags the press has something to hide. Any government that vilifies the media has skeletons in its cupboard. You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide. Good conscience fears no foe but the sinner runneth even when no one pursueth. So, a government that runs from the media is a government that has sinned and which does not want its sins uncovered. But such a government runs from its shadows! It has no hiding place!
The same Constitution that gives the three arms of government their powers also empowers the media to act as watchdog over the Executive, Legislative and Judicial arms of government. That is why the media is called the Fourth Estate of the Realm. In other words, the four realms derive their powers from the same Source and have their functions clearly set out by the same Authority. Only an authoritarian, autocratic, and dictatorial government seeks to abridge the freedom of the press.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution states quite expressly that Congress (the equivalent of our own Legislature or National Assembly) shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech; or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The First Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791 as one of the 10 amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights, which was proposed to assuage anti-Federalist opposition to Constitutional ratification. So, the US authorities’ response to agitations to dismember their country was not “pursue and destroy”, “a dot-in-a-circle” scorched-earth policy adopted here by the Buhari administration.
Laws are meant to be obeyed by all without fear or favour, regardless whose ox is gored. That was why Jefferson, quoted above, respected the freedom of the US press. He was vilified daily by the same media; yet, he lifted not a finger against it or did anything to abridge its freedom. He chose the noble path of defending the American Constitution he swore to uphold. That is the hallmark of a government under law.
As faulty as the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) is; it has provisions similar to those of the American Constitution since our presidential system is tailored after theirs. The rights enunciated in the American Bill of Rights are also enshrined in our own Constitution – especially the right to freedom of speech and to freely hold and propagate opinion; right to freedom of movement and of association; right against discrimination; right to peacefully gather and to ventilate grievances; and the right to life. But unlike in the US, these rights are respected here mostly in their breach and the chief culprits are top government officials!
The Freedom of Information Act (FoI) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (2011) labours to create a pathway for journalists to have access to information. Unfortunately, it is spurned by so-called democrats. Ex-Gov. Babatunde Fashola will never wash clean of his disdain for the FoI in the same manner Gov. Babajide Sanwo-Olu will never come clean of the ENDSARS saga. Yet, there are no better and more effective antidotes to fake news, hate speech, and malicious propaganda than the prompt release of true and authentic news by the authorities and agencies concerned. A government that wilfully shuts out the public invites prying eyes into its affairs; and any government that hoards information must bear precarious liability for whatever is served as authentic news by all manners of emergency news vendors.
If you seek to know how disciplined and orderly a society is, watch the flow of its traffic. And if you want to know how democratic a government is, consider its attitude to the media. Since 1999, Nigeria has had its longest stretch of so-called democratic government but has that made governance anything democratic? Has this government not striven strenuously to abridge the freedom of speech and of the press under different guises? Has Buhari himself not been nostalgic of his military days as a dictator where publishing the truth was criminalized? Two senior journalists of The Guardian newspapers – Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor – went to jail for that!
I am an unabashed critic of Buhari – and I offer no apologies because I do so in clear conscience – but recently when someone said there was nothing worthwhile about the entire Buhari administration, I pointed him in the direction of Prof. Ishaq Oloyede/JAMB and retired Gen. Mohamed Buba Marwa/NDLEA. Even the blind can see and attest to how Oloyede has turned things around at JAMB. The money he rakes in for the Government apart – contrary to what operated there before him – the way he has cleaned up the JAMB system has given confidence to candidates and parents alike. Before Marwa’s appointment as NDLEA chairman in January this year, the last NDLEA boss I could clearly remember was Gen. Musa Bamaiyi, not as much for his productivity or achievements as for his theatrics, but the avalanche of Marwa’s achievements in less than six months speaks for itself! Partnering with the media has played a commendable role in the achievements of Oloyede and Marwa.
No one who has something to hide can partner from start to finish with the media. Yes, there are manipulators who use the media – but it won’t last forever! It is usually like the biblical mighty structure built on sand which, when the storms arose and blew against it, it collapsed like a pack of cards. And great was the ruin of that house! JAMB’s partnering with the media the way Oloyede has done since his tenure began in 2016 has yielded good results for Oloyede, the JAMB and this government.
Who will partner with the media must be someone who is genuinely interested in good governance! He has no skeletons in his cupboard and, if there be any, is ready to turn a new leaf. Some legends have it that the assassinated Head of State, Gen. Murtala Muhammed, did exactly that after he was named military Head of State in 1976. The first assignment of smart civil servants and politicians is to understand the template of the Oga at the top. That done, the rest is history!
If they know you love philandering, their way to your heart will be sourcing women for you. If they decipher that you love gossip, they will regal you with tales by the moonlight. If you are in government to enrich your pockets, they will offer you their services as expert launderers of illicit funds. So, in most cases the leader determines the behavioural pattern of any organisation. Contrary to the hogwash by the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, CHANGE does not travel bottom up but vice-versa. Anointing flows from the top just as the fish rots from the head.
A converted democrat, like Buhari said he was, will appoint like-minded people; will deliberately search for good materials; will lead by examples; submit to public scrutiny and insist that others do likewise. Such a person has no fear of the media but sees and treats them as partners in progress, drawing them close and seeking their help and assistance. His staff members take notice and behave themselves. The scrutiny of the media helps him discover and highlight areas needing improvement. Those who fail to sit up are exposed and given the appropriate treatment. The public notices and confidence soars while public support is galvanised.
That has been the secret of the success story of Oloyede and JAMB. As a member of the Civil Society and Mass Media Group (CSG) that has partnered with JAMB to monitor its UTME exams these past years, I have witnessed, first-hand, the immense contributions the CSG has made to enhance the credibility of JAMB and its examinations. The current JAMB exams which started last Saturday are still running as we speak. CSG’s presence has caused everyone – from JAMB officials to CBT managers, candidates and their parents alike – to sit up. The integrity of JAMB exams has thus been enhanced. Problems are discovered right on the field by CSG members spread all over the country and immediate solutions are proffered. More than the honorarium that is paid to the CSG members, the passion to enhance the integrity of public examinations; and the patriotic zeal that generally fires members of the Fourth Estate of the Realm have made many take risks and suffer inconveniences believing this to be a call to national duty.
In a season of unabashed vilification of the media, Oloyede/JAMB’s healthy and refreshingly different attitude to the media gives hope that, perhaps, all is not lost. Who knows, Nigeria may still sing the Redemption song! Certainly, the fault, dear Nigerians, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.