By Bola Bolawole
Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders, and later president, of the United States of America, was quoted as writing in 1802: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without governments, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”. Put differently, Jefferson thinks a nation or people can do more without a government than it can without newspapers. This statement is instructive considering the fact that Jefferson, the moving spirit behind the stirring United States of America’s Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) reportedly received so much “ill treatment” from the American media of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Yet; he rose above the fray to still uphold the sanctity of a free press in a democratic society and the indispensability of the media in the struggle to enthrone as well as perpetuate the ideals of the American Revolution. We have records of Nigerian leaders who stopped reading Nigerian newspapers simply because the media were critical of them!
Another of the American greats, James Madison, who is regarded as the “Father of the U.S. Constitution” and its fourth president, said: “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both” Little wonder, then, that the First Amendment to the American Constitution stated quite emphatically, “Congress 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”. From Madison’s statement, it is not only the Legislature that can, through legislative action, tamper with freedom of speech and press freedom; or the Executive through executive fiat that can muzzle the press; market forces and ownership structures-cum-managerial shenanigans are, in our own experience, perhaps more “destructive” of the ends of the media, driving us inexorably in the direction of “a popular government (a democracy) without popular information, or the means of acquiring it (a robust and financially-viable media)”
Yet, even the best form of government cannot thrive without a free press. This must be the reason why, after all the checks and balances and the separation of powers enshrined in most Constitutions and the processes of governance, it became imperative still to institute a fourth “organ”, so to say, which is the media, to serve as “watchdog”. Little wonder, then, that the media is called “the Fourth Estate of the Realm”. Democratic societies assign the onerous responsibilities of a watchdog to the media. The Nigerian Constitution, for example, charges the media to hold the government “accountable to the people”. To assist in the performance of this task, Freedom of Information acts have been enacted in many countries, Nigeria inclusive. The aim is to remove encumbrances in the way of the media as they strive to perform assigned responsibilities. Notwithstanding, there is real danger to the existence and vibrancy of the nation’s media from the economic point of view. Many Nigerian media – print as well as electronic – are in bad shape. They are not paying salaries to their workers and cannot even guarantee regular outing on the newsstand. A senior editor in one of the outfits volunteered that he last received a salary in October 2013. This is worse than the situation with state governments who could not pay workers’ salaries and which compelled the Muhammadu Buhari administration to order a bail out for the affected states.
A Federal Government-inspired bail out is needed for distressed media houses in Nigeria. We have already established the case for the media as a “must have” in a democracy. Only a few of the media houses, print and electronic, are paying good “take-home” wages that can take their workers home and bring them back to work every month; the wages paid by many are grossly inadequate while a growing number have been unable (unwilling?) to pay their workers anything. Yet, such workers are expected to – and, miraculously, they still – report to work! This abnormality is an open secret; yet, we keep sealed lips about it. It is not in our collective national interest to continue to gloss it over or condone it. One by one, the media houses may die out – or relocate to the internet – if nothing concrete is done. Jobs are lost while destitution and despondency are on the rise. Consider, also, the plight of workers in distressed media houses who must cut corners to make ends meet. A corrective administration such as Buhari’s, which has declared anti-graft war its mantra, cannot close its eyes to the unabashed debasement of such a critical organ of a democratic and open society as the media. There is no way a distraught, disheveled, and prostrate media can be in the best position to help push the agenda of a corrective regime.
Subsidies and bail outs are effective weapons applied by governments all over to achieve critical national objectives. In the United States, for instance, farmers are subsidised by the government. After the 9\11 terrorist attack threatened to cripple the aviation industry, the U.S. government rushed grants to the industry to stabilise it as well as secure its share of the world aviation market. In Nigeria, the banking industry has been bailed out by successive governments times without number. The President Goodluck Jonathan administration gave a whopping US$200m as grant to Nollywood. Looked at dispassionately, this, at least, was one good thing that came out of Jonathan’s Nazareth, so to speak. If, as Marxists postulate, Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism and cultural imperialism is the worst form of Imperialism, then, the strengthening of Nollywood, which has saved this very important segment of the economy and our cultural life from mindless subservience to Bollywood and Hollywood, is great national service. A similar intervention is needed in other critical sectors such as Sports (especially football) where the craze now is to identify with foreign football clubs to the chagrin of the local league; as well as in the educational and health sectors where billions of dollars is lost yearly to what has euphemistically come to be known as “education” or “health” tourism. We should not allow the media join the growing list of debased national institutions.
– Bolawole, former editor of The PUNCH, is a Lagos-based media specialist and publisher