When media men attack press freedom for politicians


I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” wrote Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her summary of Voltaire’s view on freedom of speech. This is the foundation upon which the right of the media stands.

Dictators and despots hate the right to free speech, because it is used to open their cupboards to expose the skeletons in them. This irritates dictators and makes them go after the media and all those who try to hold them accountable or expose any of their weaknesses.

That was what General Sani Abacha did to the media and all those who challenged his authority between 1993 and 1998 when his dictatorship lasted. Current Director of Media and Publicity, the Presidential Campaign Council of the ruling All Progressives Congress, Mr Bayo Onanuga, was a victim of the dictatorial tendencies of Abacha and General Ibrahim Babangida, who ruled Nigeria before Abacha.

In 1992, following Onanuga’s refusal to apologise to Babangida over the cover story published in the African Concord magazine titled, “Has Babangida given up?”, he resigned as the editor African Concord. Babangida had closed the Concord Group which was owned by Chief MKO Abiola because of that article.

Onanuga teamed up with some other journalists to found TheNews Magazine in 1993. Giving the hard-hitting stance of TheNEWS on the junta of Abacha, it was shut down. This was a period when journalists and activists were being eliminated or detained or framed up as coup plotters. Onanuga was not cowed by the threats. He simply went underground with his colleagues and founded TEMPO magazine and later P.M.News, both of which continued to publish in guerilla style against the military junta. He was eventually arrested and detained by the dreaded intelligence agency known then as State Security Service.

Similarly, Mr Dele Alake, who holds the post of PCC Special Adviser on Media and Strategic Communication, was a victim of military dictatorship as a journalist. While he was working as an editor in the Concord Group, Babangida shut down the entire media group because the African Concord published an article he did not like. Under the junta of Abacha, Alake also faced threats because of his column. He eventually went into exile and joined forces with other activists under the National Democratic Coalition to continue to demand the de-annulment of the June 12, 1993 election believed to have been won by Abiola.

These two men engaged in this fight against military dictatorship in their 30s. It is, therefore, incongruous and completely out of tune with character that such men who defended free speech in their 30s against powerful dictators would be fighting against media freedom in their 60s in defence of a politician.

Last week, the Boards of Editors of THISDAY Newspaper and The ARISE News Channel had alleged that the Presidential Campaign Council of the ruling All Progressives Congress of demanding the sack of its journalists, Rufai Oseni and Shaka Momodu, for what it tagged “unfavourable reportage.” The media group mentioned the names of Onanuga and Alake as the people directly involved in the attempt to have the journalists sacked.

The editorial said inter alia: “Imagine these insecure duo (sic) of Onanuga and Alake already threatening the free press when they are seeking our votes. What will they do if Tinubu was elected President? Kill independent media or take their markets over using the power of the state and replacing them with media platforms they control and which kowtow to them?”

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The duo of Alake and Onanuga issued a joint response, accusing THISDAY and Arise TV of bias against their principal, Senator Bola Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the APC, and alleging that the founder of both media houses, Mr Nduka Obaigbena, uses them to drive an agenda.

“Not only does THISDAY newspaper publish unfounded rumours masquerading as truth, many of its columnists substitute vile and vulgar abuse for sound logic and informed analyses while its television anchors heckle and harass their guests, particularly those of the APC in their jaundiced, flagrantly unprofessional programmes,” the joint statement said.

Arise TV presenters have repeatedly asked Tinubu to present himself for interviews and town hall meetings with the media. The media team of Tinubu sees this as an attack on their principal. Ordinarily, it is taken for granted that a presidential candidate will be eager to talk to the press and seize such an opportunity to sell his candidacy to the electorate. No serious candidate in a serious country will run a presidential campaign for over six months like Tinubu has done without a single media interview within the country. It sounds strange and even ridiculous.

In the past, presidential candidates like Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, and Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) had refused to attend televised debates. They had come up with different baseless excuses. The underlying reason was their arrogance, deficiency, and lack of respect for the masses. However, they still granted interviews to different news channels, ostensibly at their own terms. No presidential candidate has ever avoided interviews and public presentations like Tinubu has done in Nigeria.

He took that strange campaign style to Chatham House recently when he asked some people in his entourage to answer questions directed at him as the guest speaker. It was embarrassing watching that. His argument and that of his acolytes was that it showed teamwork. One wonders where in history a person being interviewed to be the chief executive officer of an organisation has attended with a team of people who helped to answer the questions from the panel or Board of Directors. Teamwork is a critical skill in management and leadership, but it only comes into play after one has proved one’s mettle and given the position. If candidates for employment or examination come with people who will help them answer questions, then there is no need for examinations and interviews, as everyone can assemble a team to provide the required answers.

Media houses and journalists are not saints. Nobody should expect them to be. It is not even a crime for a presenter or columnist to show preference for one candidate or the other. Even Tinubu’s own media outfits – The Nation newspaper and TV Continental – do not hide the fact that they are his campaign mouthpieces. No presenter or analyst can criticise him on both media houses. The two of them also display their clear bias against other presidential candidates. In the United States, United Kingdom and other democracies with robust media, there are media houses known to lean towards the conservatives or the liberals. It is not seen as a crime.

The beauty of democracy is that if one media house or columnist is critical of one presidential candidate, there will be another media house or columnist who will praise that candidate. Secondly, among all serious media houses in Nigeria, there is an emphasis on “right of reply.” If any report did not portray you well, there is always an opportunity for you to write your own side or be granted an interview for you to counter the wrong perspective.

Onanuga and Alake should support their principal as firmly as they can. They can disagree with any media house or journalist as hard as they want. But given what they went through in the hands of dictators in their heyday as journalists, it should never be whispered that they directly or indirectly made any attempt to gag or victimise any journalist for an opinion expressed.

– Twitter:@BrandAzuka ,

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