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Published On: Wed, Apr 9th, 2014

Media and civil society: Seeking common ground for credible elections (I)

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Let me place on record my profound appreciation for being invited to speak on this most interesting topic. Coming hot on the heels of the release of the Time Table and Schedule of Activities for the 2015 General Elections by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), this topic is indeed apt and propitious. Permit me to cursorily look at the Media and Civil Society as separate entities and then proceed to show, crystal clearly, that indeed though they differ markedly, they are kindred spirits and handmaidens by virtue of some of their shared values and modus operandi.

Practically all democratic countries in the world have adopted the libertarian system and have embodied them either in their constitutions or fundamental laws. The basis for this libertarian system was developed by philosophers such as John Stuart Milton and John Locke in the 17th Century. The details were worked out and put into practice from the 18th Century. The rest, as the well worn saying goes, is history.

The Media as we know them today are: the traditional media of yore, radio, television, theatre, movies, newspapers, magazines, books and what is referred to as the New Social Media. They are platforms or vehicles through which we communicate to a mass audience – an audience differentiated by race, class, ethnicity, sex, socio-economic status, education, etc.

Unlike in pristine times, events which occur in distant lands and climes are now reported and learnt of instantaneously, thus shrinking the world into what the Media guru and prophet, Marshal Mc Luhan once said would be the Global Village. As if this were not enough, the new Kid on the block, called the New Social Media have made communication accessible to the uninitiated with grave consequences for ethical behaviour, journalistic cannons and social responsibility.

The Media play pivotal functions. Of course, they have their dysfunctions as well! But let me dwell on the savoury and salutary. Among others, the Media inform; they educate; they entertain; they confer statuse(s) on those who consume their fare; they surveil or police their environments by holding governments and institutions to account; they set agenda for discussion; and they advocate or crusade against injustice and societal ills. So vital is the press to liberal democracy that Thomas Jefferson once enthused that: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” Although Jefferson reportedly suffered great calumnies from the press as a political figure, he held strongly to his conviction that in spite of its shortcomings, the Media should be subject to a minimum of interferences.

The Media have played these roles with varying degrees of commitment, dedication, fidelity and aggression. We recall the famous Watergate scandal in which the investigative reportage of the Washington Post, through their intrepid staffers, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, forced the resignation of Richard Nixon. Gay Talese in his book, The Kingdom And The Power, reports how the New York Times, led by the legendary Carr Van Anda became the patron of several explorers, the most prominent being Commodore Robert E. Perry, discoverer of the North Pole in April 1909, and Roald Amundsen, discoverer of the South Pole in December 1911. We recall here how The News magazine exposed the certificate scandal of the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Salisu Buhari. The Nigerian Media, in spite of constraints, continue to be robust and vibrant. Donald Woods, an anti-apartheid activist, journalism teacher and author of Looking For Trouble has hailed the Nigerian Media as a role model for not suffering fools or humbug gladly.

The term “Civil Society” goes back to antiquity. It goes back to Aristotle who referred to it as a “community” in his Politics. It is said to be commensurate with the Greek city-state (polis) which was characterised by a shared set of norms and ethos in which free citizens, on an equal footing, lived under the rule of law.

The Dictionary.com’s 21st Century Lexicon defines civil society as “the aggregate of non-governmental organisations and institutions that manifest interests, will of citizens or individuals and organisations in a society which are independent of government”

 

Nick Dazang is Deputy Director, Voter Education and Publicity at INEC, Abuja

 

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