Assessing Media Performance in Consolidating Nigeria’s Democracy: Citizens’ Verdict and Outlining an Agenda for the Future

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  • Posted by: Imoh Robert

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak at this important event. Our paths intersect in many interesting ways. AUN is a development university and we see ourselves as extensions of our community. We believe that what affects our society affects us. That is why we have partnered with a range of organizations including media organizations. We have recently partnered with Premium Times newspaper to create a Development Data Hub where we draw on data to provide analytical depth to contemporary events and how they affect our collective future. This event, therefore, connects very intimately with our interests at AUN and I congratulate the Nigeria Guild of Editors and the Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy in Abuja for this important collaboration. 

I will begin by discussing the state of the media in Nigeria and then go on to discuss the agenda-setting function of the media. I will conclude by advocating a new role set for the media and an ethical makeover of journalism in crisis societies.

Nigerians are avid consumers of news. According to a Gallup research, two-thirds of Nigerians access news at least once a day (66.6%). This rate is even higher among men (72.8%) and those living in urban areas (72.4%). Radio remains a dominant news platform in Nigeria, with 77.4% overall and more than seven in 10 across all major demographic groups saying they listen to the radio for news at least weekly. Most Nigerian households have both a working radio (83.4%) and a television set (74.6%). There is little demographic variation in ownership rates, but urban households are more likely to have a TV (83.7%), and TV ownership rates are considerably lower among those with less than secondary education (60.6%).  

I will discuss new media data later. 

With that broad background on media uses and consumption in Nigeria, we will now shift our attention to the state of journalism practice in Nigeria and the need for a New Media Manifesto for a changing audience. 

While exploring possible new frontiers for journalism practice in Nigeria, one must be mindful of the rather peculiar challenges of practicing journalism here. 

Journalists are among the worst-paid professionals in Nigeria. Several media organizations owe their journalists several months’ salaries. The consequence has been an increasingly worrying “brown envelope” culture where journalists are given financial rewards in exchange for covering media events. This culture exposes the press to manipulation by powerful politicians and businessmen and corrupt government officials. Also, due to poor regulation, the field has seen an unfair share of quacks, resulting in yellow journalism practice and an abundance of fake news. This has no doubt diminished audience trust in the media. 

Historically, however, the Nigerian press has been one of the most independent in Africa. For example, The West African Pilot newspaper founded in 1937 by Nnamdi Azikiwe, who later became Nigeria’s first president, led the way in challenging British colonial rule and helped to mobilize agitations for Nigerian independence. The press played a crucial role in challenging the military rule and helped to restore democratic rule in Nigeria despite horrifying attacks, including the ruthless killing in October 1986 of Dele Giwa, editor of the Newswatch magazine through a parcel bomb delivered to his residence. In 2015 the media played a very important role in creating an atmosphere for a transparent democratic process that resulted in the election of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari. Indeed, the Nigerian press has risen to some of the most fundamental challenges that have faced the country, and at defining political intersections. 

As Nigeria gradually moves to stabilize the situation in the North East region, the media can also potentially function as a trusted partner and an agency for peace and reconciliation. For it to do so, however, there is a need for a new ‘manifesto’ for the media for a changing society.

Our world is changing. Our country is changing. We are facing new threats that require collective action. Threats such as climate change, youth population growth, poor access to quality education for young people, religious and political hate and violence, a global pandemic among other megatrends that affect us all. 

These issues do not call for neutrality, aloofness, indifference, or ambivalent neutrality but for strong voices that diligently diagnose the problem, propose evidence-backed solutions, and mobilize a collective consciousness around the solutions.

Nigerians need narratives that articulate our concerns and outrage against injustice and political corruption and the nonchalance of the political elite. Such narratives should simultaneously evoke a spirit of collective optimism and hope.

All around the world, we are now seeing an awaking of nativism and worrying levels of hate, extremism, and xenophobia. We are also seeing a mass misuse and abuse of the media as vehicles for misinformation, misrepresentation, and disinformation. 

Media editors have a critical role to play in the emergence of a different kind of journalism for a changing world and a fundamentally different kind of social and technological system.

The question then is, in our increasingly volatile context, what stories should the media privilege, what agenda should they set for public discussion?

I will focus on two megatrends that affect us all: youth population growth and increased mass access to smart mobile phones and the internet. Megatrends reinforce each other through various interlinkages. For example, youth population growth has implications on economic growth as well as food security, migration, peace, and stability. How Nigeria deals with these megatrends will determine the future of the country. 

In just over a decade, Nigeria will have some of the highest concentrations of young people in the world. Currently, 43% of Nigeria’s population is aged under 14 compared with the global average of 25%. This poses significant opportunities and threats. 

Of connected interest is the youth population of our significant neighboring countries. Niger, Mali, and Chad (in that order) have the three highest percentages of 0-14 population in the world at 50%, 47%, and 46% respectively. Increasing pressure from climate change and resource scarcity across the Sahel region will lead to a mass migration of young people in search of opportunities. Nigeria will be the likely destination considering the cultural similarities between these countries and northern Nigeria as well as the relative economic opportunities in Nigeria. 

Additionally, the political instability and insecurity in these countries will further impel mass movements of people towards Nigeria. Migration is not necessarily a bad thing, however, when it is a migration of uneducated, unskilled, unemployed (and potentially frustrated) youth, the consequences can be dire. Niger, Mali, and Chad have some of the poorest youth education outcomes in the world. They also expectedly have some of the lowest adult literacy rates in the world. 

This will have implications on Nigeria’s future and the media must keep it as part of public discourse.  

The second megatrend is increased mass access to smart mobile phones and the internet. Nigeria currently has 187.9 million mobile connections, meaning that 90% of Nigeria’s 208 million population have mobile phones. 104 million, or just about 50% of Nigerians are regular internet users. 33 million or 15.8% of Nigerians are active social media users as of January 2021. 93% of users accessing the internet do so via their mobile devices. This represents a 22.2% growth from January 2022. This growth is similar to the spike in internet users between the same period. Between the same period, 19 million more Nigerians became internet users.  

Mobile ownership has since surpassed ownership rates for radio, television, and computers both at the personal and household levels. Indeed, web traffic analyses show that 82.1% of all web traffic in Nigeria is via mobile phones – this is a 13% increase from the previous year.

Considering Nigeria’s very young population and the age range of social media users, it is not surprising that the largest share of the audience that advertisers can reach on social media is mostly young people between 18 and 34. Last year, Nigerians spent an average of 3 hours 41 minutes on social media a day. This is significantly higher than the global average of 2 hours 22 minutes. The total digital ad spend in Nigeria in 2020 was $233.9 million representing year-on-year growth of 11.2%

Why we should be concerned

Machine learning and extensive data collection have created new opportunities for governments and private companies both domestic and foreign to mount algorithmic influence operations across boundaries of states and issues. Such influence activities are increasingly subtle yet more powerful. Most people do not question why they see certain content or ads on their social media feeds. We are increasingly exposed to the content selected and curated by AI and autonomous systems. 

The implication is that the basis for individual judgment, opinions, and perceptions and often behaviors and attitudes are influenced by non-human autonomous systems and can be subject to machine manipulation. With such influence, little room remains for debate and authentic engagement. 

Finally, since this workshop is for the northeast region, I would like to reflect on the need for a new role set for the media in the northeast. 

During conflicts, robust information is a humanitarian need – as important as food. For people in conflict or disaster areas, the hunger for truthful and dependable information is not borne out of mere curiosity, but out of a fundamental need to know their vulnerabilities so they can negotiate their resilience. They want to know if it is safe to go out, to run to a bush or hill nearby, to go to the market or the farm, or just to stay indoors. In this need, the audience craves a relationship of trust with the media. 

During conflicts, rumors are very common and are most times believed as true, irrespective of how implausible they may be. Most of the rumors in conflict areas are false, yet they spread most in situations where reliable information is lacking. Needless to say that rumors can be very destructive. It can put one group against another. There are cases where false rumors were deliberately used to create panic and hate. In such situations, therefore, the media becomes the community’s best friend – the main and sometimes the only source of reliable information about their safety and that of their families. It is natural in such circumstances for the audience, who are in most cases psychologically and physically drained by the conflict, to gravitate towards media that they can trust to provide them with not just truthful information but also reasons to hope that the conflict is transformable. 

People know the media they can trust because they are on the ground. They know when the topics covered count because it is what they talk about with their families, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. They look out for reports to add to the pieces of information they gather themselves and it is heartwarming when they receive useful and factual information from the media. Even more importantly, people look for hope. These are the central questions on their minds: when would this end? How would it end? The media can provide a humanitarian information intervention that answers these questions every day until the conflict ends. 

There is a need for more community-driven media in northeast Nigeria. Although traditional liberal theorists have always maintained that the key function of the media in a pluralistic democracy is to position itself as a check or watchdog on the state, it is upon journalists to demand more of themselves than a mere watchdog role or even mere “objective” reporting of news. In crises societies, editors must reflect on what should constitute news not only for their media organizations but also and more importantly for a society whose greatest need is peace and reconciliation. 

If information, peace, humanitarian aid, and social justice are the key desires of audiences in crisis societies, editors should be driven by communitarian values that privilege stories that help to meet the needs and desires of the society covered. Under the communitarian media ethic, the press has the cardinal obligation to be involved as engaged members of the community and to use their resources, privileges, and expertise to stimulate discussions that can lead to peaceful co-existence. 

I hope you use this workshop to reflect on this role and recommit yourselves to meeting the information and psychological needs of the people of northeast Nigeria.

Author: Imoh Robert

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