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  • Posted by: Imoh Robert

“The quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined” – Bill Moyers, American journalist and former White House Press Secretary (1965-1967).


Let me begin by expressing my sincere appreciation to the leadership of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) for inviting me to speak at this important workshop.My gratitude also goes tothe U.S Embassy in Nigeria for supporting this workshop, which seeks to remind editors of their constitutional and sacred duties as we gear up for the 2023 general elections. With ‘Agenda Setting for Sustainable Democratic Culture’ as its theme, this workshop could not have come at a better time than now. There are a number of issues subsumed in the theme such as the challenges faced by the media in times of elections and the growing menace of fake news and media’s potentials in supporting democracy, peace and reconciliation. The theme is also clearly in line with the objectives of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as the African Union’s Agenda 2063.  Specifically, Goal 16 of the SDGs recognizes peace and democracy as preconditions for equitable and sustainable development. Simply put, the quality of engagement by the media with the society is a critical ingredient for the health of any democracy.

Election outcomes and their aftermath are usually moderated by the nature of political discourse and communications, which are reflected in the media during the political process. In recent times, contributions of free, pluralistic and independent media to democracy have been under unprecedented stress particularly in the face of social media. Citizens’ trust in the political process and in the media have been waning. Divisive  political discourse has threatened peaceful elections as well as press freedom. Therefore, in this paper, we will explore Nigeria’s democratic experience since 1999; review the state of Nigerian media landscape; establish the role of the media in a democracy;and examine the challenges facing the media. We willsuggest some specific ways through which the media can help to build sustainable democratic culture.


In spite of its inherent challenges, many political scholars agree that democracy remains the best form of system of government available to humanity. It is, no doubt, a people-oriented process. It is a political process by the people and for the people. It is a unique concept, which we faithfully believe in, hoping that we will be best governed if all of us participate in the process. Elections are central to the functioning of modern day democracies and they constitute a mirror of the people’s understanding and appreciation of democratic norms. The democratic character of a government is greatly measured by the extent to which those who govern are chosen by free, fair and credible elections. Both the level of participation and sanctity of votes are strong measures of democracy.

When fewer people participate in the political process, the quality of representative democracy diminishes. This means that we can make an informed opinion about the health of Nigeria’s democracy from the level of participation by Nigerians. Unfortunately, the health of Nigeria’s democracy since 1999 has not been good, going by the number of people who participate in each election cycle. According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), as at April 2017, 84 million Nigerians registered to vote in the 2019 general elections. This represents42 percent of the nation’s 200,962,417 populationas at February 8, 2019. Note that this figure could still  be less when you consider the percentage of those who eventually turned out to vote. In fact statistics from INEC indicate that since 2007, there has been continuous low voter turnout at each general elections indicating that perhaps Nigerians are not civic-minded.  It is, therefore, very obvious that low citizen participation has been one persistent problem facing Nigeria’s political process.

Since independence, Nigeria has had eleven general elections with six of them held between 1999 and 2019. President Olusegun Obasanjo won the 1999 presidential elections with 18,738,154 votes and in 2003 he won re-election with 24,456,140 votes. In 2011, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan won with 22,495,187 votes. In 2015 President Muhammadu Buhari won with 15,424,921 votes and in 2019 he won a re-election with 15,191,847 votes. The combined total votes recorded in all the presidential elections between 1999 and 2019 is 96,306,249 votes. This is less than the 1.3 billion votes recorded by the 2021 edition of BBNaija. This tells an interesting story of the level of participation by the citizens in the electoral process.  We must realize that it is through quality engagement with the electoral process that transformational leadership emerges. Quality engagement with the electoral process is facilitated through a robust political communication in the media. 

Nigeria’s democratic experience in the 4th Republic has been marked by some developments such as the implementation of economic reforms, strengthening of legal and institutional framework to fight corruption, and marginal increase in the stock of infrastructure.  The return to democracy in 1999  has also faced many challenges, including the difficult relationship between some political chief executives and their deputies; intriguing intergovernmental relations; the rise and resurgence of sub-national groups that pose serious security threat to the hegemony of the state; precarious inter-ethnic/inter-sectional relations; electoral malfeasance; and lack of discipline in electoral politics and conflicts. All these challenges are played out in the media.


Nigeria has a robust media ecosystem with at least 187 radio stations and 109 television stations as at 2019. According to the Nigerian Press Council, there are hundreds of daily, weekly and monthly publications. Due to its unique features, radio has remained the most popular medium for information dissemination, especially in the rural communities. As at November 2021, the number of Internet subscribers in Nigeria stood at 140.4 million, indicating a shortfall of 10.9 million subscribers from the January 2021 figure of 151.3 million. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Nigerians prefer mobile data services than wire system. According to, as at January 2021, Nigeria had 33 million active social media users with WhatsApp as the most popular social media platform, followed by Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. Today, the digital landscape has changed how news-consumers access news and share news among communities. The digital landscape has also changed the way agenda is set and opinions are shaped. This dynamic landscape has occasioned massive shifts in the way news consumers see the world and the role of the media in it.This has resulted in a drastic decline in print media readership over time, with Facebook and YouTube now competing with television.Increasingly, there has been rising number of blogs in the cyberspace, some of which focus on political commentary. In fact, statistics show that there are over 20,100 bloggers in Nigeria and the number changes everyday as new ones emerge as others drop.

There is no doubt that the advent of new media has altered the process of political communication and expanded the frontiers of political discourse. After Obama Barack’s election in 2008, it became evident that social media can be decisive in political mobilization. Nigeria witnessed active social media campaigns for the first time in 2011 general elections and it was used again in 2015 in a more refined and sophisticated manner. It enabled the citizens to participate actively in the generation and dissemination of media content particularly on political issues. One scholar has aptly characterized this phenomenon  of citizen engagement with content production as “news of the people, by the people, and for the people”. It can be said that democracy, which entails mass participation, has benefited immensely from the liberalization of communication process through new media. Thus, one can conclude that the emergence of social media and citizen journalism, which engender participation and unlimited access by all, has become central to the sustenance of modern democracy. We should note that while social media has facilitated mass participation in the electioneering, it has not successfully increased voter turnout on election days as evidenced in the results of the general elections.  However, the mass use of social media has come at a cost. While social media has extended the frontier of political participation, it has also increased the prospect of misinformation and spread of hate speech. Studies have shown that in the build up to the 2015 general election there was “extensive evidence of an explosion of hate and dangerous speech in Nigeria through the social media”. New media platforms, the studies indicated, have accentuated the political and religious divide in Nigeria. 

In summary, we can confidently say that social media platforms have become formidable forces in the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria. However, the abuses of the platforms are equally worrisome, given the threats and damage they portend for the nation’s fledgling democracy.


How should the media help to build sustainable democratic culture in Nigeria? Certain rights and obligations have been given to the media. These are clearly spelt out in the 1999 Constitution as amended. Section 22 gives the media the responsibility to hold government accountable, and also to uphold national objectives. To successfully discharge this responsibility, Section 39 guarantees freedom of expression, as well as the right of any Nigerian to set up a media outfit.This freedom is, however,moderated by other laws such as law of libel and defamation, sedition, Official Secrets Act; Cybercrime Act and the Broadcast Code issued periodically by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). There is also the Freedom of Information Act (2011), which is aimed at strengthening good governance by making public records more freely available and accessible.

We cannot sufficiently discuss the role of the media in building a sustainable democratic without examining the Social Responsibility and Agenda Setting Theories.  These two theories are fundamental to the functions of the media. Let’s briefly look at these theories.

Social Responsibility Theory:

Social Responsibility Theory of the media is a child of necessity. Research literature shows that the theory was developed because of the glaring inadequacies of the libertarian theory that then governed journalism practice. It was observed that the libertarian theory gave excessive freedom to the media to publish whatever it liked. Over time, the media abused this freedom; leading to negative practices, which were dubbed ‘yellow journalism’. This era was characterized by sensationalism, irresponsibility and character assassination. This situation raised so much concerns that a group of scholars led by Robert Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, was commissioned to look into the issue of irresponsible journalism pervading the media landscape then. In 1947, the Hutchins Commission submitted its report setting out guidelines for a socially responsible media. The Social Responsibility Theory, therefore, rose from the report of the Hutchins Commission. The basic tenet of the theory is that the media “has the right to criticize government and institutions but also has certain responsibilities to maintain the stability of society”. In fact, one scholar, Dominick (2009) clarifies this further thus:

This theory “holds that the press has a right to criticize government and other institutions, but it also has a responsibility to preserve democracy by properly informing the public and by responding to society’s needs and interests. The press does not have the freedom to do as it pleases; it is obligated to respond to society’s requirements…”.

Relating the Social Responsibility Theory to media ethics, another scholar, Bittner (1989) affirms that “within the framework of open and free press criticism, codes of ethics or government regulation, and guidelines for responsible action on the part of members of the press, lies the Social Responsibility Theory”.

In summary, Social Responsibility Theory admonishes the media to “be self-regulated, practice responsibly or government will control you”. This admonition has given rise to journalism professional associations such as the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Nigerian Guild of Editors, and Nigerian Union of Journalists among many others. The question is: how have the media practitioners lived up to the expectations of this theory? How socially responsible have they proven to be? Unfortunately, studies have shown that more than a century later, the media today seem to have relapsed to the days of irresponsible practice. The current practice is what some scholars have termed ‘market-driven media’ (Yadav, 2011; Omenugha& Oji, 2008; Kleemans& Hendricks, 2009). This commercial journalism has once again given rise to sensationalism to the detriment of provision of useful information. Both print and electronic media are complicit. This has been complicated by the disruptions caused by social media. A socially responsible media is needed to sustain a democratic culture; a media that knows that public information is very important not only for citizens to make rational decisions but that it is needed also to spur economic and social development. In the words of Uzuegbunam (2013):

“the norm should never be the right to ‘sell’ the media itself, the owners themselves, the ideologies they favour, or the people they ‘market’. It rather should be the right to ‘tell’ – telling the public the truth of every event, issue and situation and not allowing any flowering to come in the way. This is social responsibility to the core”.

If the media is truly the watchdogs of the society, then such dogs should not be allowed free rein. Some form of a leash must be put on the dogs.

A Re-think of the Agenda-setting Theory of the Media:

Agenda-setting theory is one of the most influential theories on the media’s political influence. It was developed by McCombs and Shaw (1972) when they studied the 1968 U.S presidential election. Their study found strong evidence that media played an important role in setting the agenda for the election; the issues media reported most were the same as what voters considered to be most important.They, therefore, concluded that the media play a central role in setting and shaping the public agenda. This theory is premised on the notion that “media do not necessarily tell us what to think, but they do tell us what to think about”.

However, the ways in which we get our news has changed drastically since 1968 when McCombs and Shaw did their study. Social media platforms have dramatically reduced the gatekeeping power of traditional media and have increased the capacity of ordinary citizens to shape the agenda. This has led some scholars (Gilardi et al., 2022) to submit that there are now three agendas – the traditional media agenda, the social media agenda of citizens, and the social media agenda of politicians. Again, we ask: who’s setting the political agenda in the Nigerian media landscape? Is it the traditional media, social media or the politicians?

So far, we have been able to explore the trends in Nigeria’s media landscape, highlighted the roles of the media in sustaining democratic culture, and examined in details the two theories that underpin media’s power of affecting democracy. Let’s us now specifically examine various ways the media in Nigeria can build sustainable democratic culture as we inch towards 2023 general elections.


As reporters and editors, there are specific things we can do in the course of our practice to entrench democratic culture in the country. Here are ten of such things:

  1. Be Socially Responsible: While Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution as amended guarantees the media the freedom to operate, we must not forget that Section 22 enjoins us to act responsibly particularly on issues that border on security and national cohesion. In whatever we do or write; how does it promote the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy as encapsulated in Chapter Two of the constitution.
  2. Strive to Set the Agenda: As editors who make editorial decisions on what to cover, how the stories are written and presented, we should strive to change the narratives of national discourse to issues that promote socio-economic development of the nation. The media should compel the political parties and politicians to discuss their workplan for the nation instead of current politics of personalities.
  3. Hold Government truly Accountable: One of the surest ways of holding government accountable is through scrutiny of her appropriations. What was appropriated and what was disbursed? Good example is what BudgITis doing through budget appropriations and project tracking.
  4. Leverage the Freedom of Information Act: The overriding objective of the Freedom of Information Act is to strengthen governance. Therefore, the media should leverage the Act to investigate government activities. It may be frustrating but yielding if all hands are on deck.
  5. Educate, Educate & Educate More: One of the most important function of the media is to educate or enlighten the citizens. We can do more of this education. The Electoral Act, 2022 which was recently signed into law is the compass that will guide the 2023 general elections. I am sure very few Nigerians and politicians are aware of the contents of this Act. For instance, how many Nigerians or politicians are aware that no court can stop the holding of primaries or general elections pending the determination of a suit (Section 84, subsection 15). Again, what is so special about Section 85, subsection 12 of the Electoral Act that made President Muhammed Buhari reluctant to sign the bill.
  6. Deliberately Promotion Inclusion: Inclusive growth is a broad-based growth, which concerns itself with quality of growth. Elements of inclusive growth include gender equity, youth empowerment, persons living with disability, and poverty reduction. The media should consciously promote policies in these areas because it is  right and just to do so.
  7. Fight Fake News: The media has a duty to fight the menace of fake news by showing integrity and credibility in their content offerings. Discuss the examples of Osibajo’s purported declaration speech, Voters’ Card revalidation and branded vehicles purportedly meant for Mr. Emefiele’s presidential campaign.
  8. Promote national unity & cohesion: April 7, 2022 will mark the 28th anniversary of the senseless Rwanda genocide. Studies have shown that the media,notably RTLM radio and Kangura newspaper, set the stage for the genocide by spreading hate against the Tusti community. The massacre that started on April 7, 1994, killed one million people belonging to mainly Tusti community and moderate Hutus in a span of 100 days. Given the diverse nature of this Nigeria, editors should not allow their mediums be used to spread hate.
  9. Mobilize the People: We had earlier established that participation in the political process is a strong measure of democracy and that there has been low citizens’ participation in all the general elections since 1999 as against the nation’s population. The media, therefore, have a sacred duty to mobilize the people to participate so as to enhance the quality of our democracy.
  10. Fully Go Digital: There’s no doubt that the new media platforms have become formidable forces in the consolidation of democracy. The platforms have also extended the frontiers of political participation and interaction between the citizens and the government. The traditional media should therefore fully run a digital news business so as to make to meaningful contribution to the consolidation of democracy.


We will conclude by going back to the beginning. We have examined Nigeria’s democratic experience since 1999; reviewed the state of Nigerian media landscape and established a nexus between the media and democracy. Our thesis echoes the words of Bill Moyers, a notable American journalist who intoned that “the quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined”. As rightly noted elsewhere: “journalism is what maintains democracy. It’s the force for progressive social change”. We, therefore, seriously needs the media to make democracy work. But we must first make journalism work optimally. As editors, let’s go and make the media work better. Thank you for your kind attention.


Tony Onyima, Ph.D. is a public policy and media consultant with many years of diverse experience in private and public sector administration, media management, supply chain management, marketing and business strategy. He was the Managing Director/Editor-in-chief of The Sun, and the former Commissioner for Information, Culture and Tourism in Anambra State. He has served on the Governing Council of Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria (2013-2017). He is a Fellow of Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), and has a doctorate degree in Mass Communication with specialization in media management, development communication, gender and media studies. He has written andedited some books and has many scholarly works to his credit.


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Author: Imoh Robert

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