Media in times of crisis: Resolving conflict, achieving consensus, By Dapo Olorunyomi
What Does the Theme Elicit From Us?
In the past decade, humanitarian agencies are telling us that in the Nigerian northeast, in the campaign against Boko Haram alone, no fewer than 10,000 of our compatriots have been killed while about 1.8 million are in internal displacement. A week after our just concluded Independence anniversary, Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State was visiting Dan Daji Makau and Garin Kaka, all in Maradi region of Niger Republic, where according to news accounts, no fewer than 50,000 Nigerians are seeking safety as refugees from Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina states. In the inner bowel of the country, Benue, Plateau, Taraba and the Southeastern states, we have daily reports of social convulsion such that the Chairman of the committee of the army in the National Assembly, Mr. AbdulRazaq Namdas, was recently forced to bemoan that Nigerian military personnel are on active deployment in about 34 states of the federation, tackling internal security threats that ordinarily should have been left to the police and paramilitary agencies to contain.
The implications of this for national security, the welfare of citizens, political integrity, economic development, and the sovereign status of the country are incalculable, and whatever claims the government may be making, the truth remains that the country is going through a major social crisis; some have characterised it as existential, for which all institutions in the country cannot pretend to be dispassionate. For the press, the profoundly logical question that follows is, what role have we played from both the problem and solutions ends of the matter?
It is a fair question. When we gather at settings like this, we owe it a responsibility to ourselves and our community to always clarify what it means to be a journalist. It is the basis of a lot of confusion and when people try to hold us to standards that are unrelated to our calling, it is partly our fault that this point has not been keenly discussed as it should. The first confusion is of course that of taxonomy. We are media actors in a broad sense but narrowly and specifically only journalists in an ontological sense. All journalists are media actors, but the reverse is not the case. Not all media actors are journalists. When politicians therefore see every person with a smartphone and a grudge, they call them media people. Interestingly they are right but since by media people they also assume they are journalists, that is why they are wrong.
Journalism is strictly an enterprise in verification, its DNA is accuracy, and its normative goal is truth. Any other thing from this is impossible in an ontological sense of being journalistic. Journalism can exist on diverse platforms – broadcast, podcast, filmic, print, online, newsletters, blogs, songs etc. It is the broad, iterative, content of those mutative forms that we call media. Whereas, therefore, journalism can exist as contents on diverse platforms stretching from documentary, graphic, broadcast, through print to online, it is not the platforms that make them journalistic.
This is not a pedantic exploration. As with every area of knowledge, we always need to understand the endogenous boundaries that separate the variables that give meaning and materiality to the subject under discussion. In other words, we need to understand the limits of the pure and applied expression of our subject so that we can draw up distinct geometries of identity and applications. So that we can confidently pronounce on what journalism can mean in itself as against what it can mean in relation to other things. Conventionally, we use the terms media and journalism interchangeably, and if we understand the boundaries philosophically, that should not be a problem. Indeed, my assumption is that this is the sense in which the NGE has asked us to interrogate the intersections of journalism and conflict this morning.
Journalism In a Humanitarian Context
Journalism, as both information and communication practice, presents unique challenges that compels a conversation on the philosophical foundation of representation, narratives, emotions of empathy, compassion and values of inclusion that are articulated within the broad framework of security, community, human rights, and patterns of freedom.
As Sharon Anyango Odhiambo of the Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholars asserted in a 2017 study of the role of the media, “Kenya witnessed post-election violence in both 1992 and 1997, but in the 2007 elections [it] saw unprecedented violence that left 1,100 people dead for which the Kenyan media was faulted for helping fuel the violence by offering a platform for tribal extremists to broadcast their agenda. She also remarked that “some journalists were polarized along ethnic lines, while others increased tensions by failing to report accurately, professionally, and neutrally.” Accepting the same thesis that media represents a powerful mechanism in the context of conflict, Valentina Bau, a UN field office communication officer, explained the tragic consequences of the eleven-year Sierra Leonean war between 1991 to 2002 in the 70,000 people were killed and 2.6 million displaced. However, nowhere has the narrative interface between conflict and the media acquired an elaborative response than in the 100-day Rwandan genocide [April to July 1994] where around 800,000 Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well as some moderate Hutu and Twa people were slaughtered by armed militias orchestrated by what has been characterised as hate radio.
We gain nothing to deny the clear evidence and insight that contemporary behavioural sciences are offering us that news significantly impacts us, channels how we think, how we feel and how we view the world. In essence, news does affect our choices and actions. For that reason alone, it is appropriate to give attention to the complaints of conflict experts that reporting of conflict can and do make matters worse. That, if nothing, news people should eschew tunnel vision and binary mindsets in the mental frames they bring to reporting. In that regard, decision making in reporting and writing about conflict should incorporate the consequences of conflict by understanding the dynamics, adaptability, impact, and transformative conditions in conflict.
What this means therefore is that for journalism to be helpful and enable positive outcomes from realities of conflict, news people must acquire the skills to keenly discern the realms of conflict triggers and their effects in a conflict situation. Triggers are the root causes of conflicts, and if we focus on them as against the effects, we can do a better job at it. Unfortunately, addressing core triggers of conflict are not what policy makers and politicians are trained to do, or are patient to embrace as pathways to solutions in moments of crisis. Indeed, any granular analysis of the main conflicts in Nigeria today will invariably locate the triggers in issues of poverty, politics, land, the economic shocks, climate change, religion, and social Justice issues. The question then is why these are not the goals and preferences of policy makers when it comes to solutions. The news media is partly culpable for this but allow me to come back to why this is the case shortly.
The Conflict -Journalism Interface
Accepting to resolve conflicts must first admit, however, that conflicts are enduring components of every human community where the fault lines of interest[s] and the need to build institutional hedges around those interests invariably leads to tension. This tension manifests in either muted or explosive outbursts. Scholarship is growing around the belief that strategies to prevent, manage or resolve violent conflicts are ingrained in the best reporting and writing we do in journalism, and that they are anchored on capturing a clear analysis of the causes and potential trajectory of such conflicts. A lot of this is what the expanding specializations of conflict reporting in journalism have been dedicated to. While psychology and literature help us to understand the possibility of conflicts within the self, within a persona, by their very nature, conflicts primarily assume the availability of independent and externalized actors. Persons against persons, communities against communities, class against class, gendered differences, disability schisms, religious and political parties, ethnic groups, or intergenerational divides. The list is endless. Why journalism and news media are called into the debate is on account of their form and their content, a duality which presents in one capsule, the tools and transmission valves for the potential articulation and determination of the claims, and ratios of contention, in a conflict terrain.
Professor Robert Manoff of Boston University’s journalism programme in the United States is one of the most attentive advocates for such a robust role for the news media in conflict areas, resting his more than four decades of work in this area on six grounds, that, inherently, journalism can potentially counter misconceptions and rumours; help build consensus; facilitate communication between conflicting parties; analyse the conflict and educate on the process of resolution; and propose options and solutions to the conflict.
Manoff’s model privileges enabling communication in contrast to simply providing information as the role of the news media in conflict situations. Information does not necessarily lead to improved knowledge and can be just stark erroneous. This reliance on the promises of the news media to promote genuine communication introduces the exogenous factors, implicit within the structure of journalism, that news media brings to the table in resolving conflict and enabling consensus.
This education quotient that the news media introduces, through communicative processes, to challenge the dynamics in conflict situations is a framework that recommends a centralising normative role which places ethics at the heart of all editorial engagement. In this way, the professional ethical demand for initiating reporting roles around the community and limiting harm as underlying editorial considerations incentivizes the acquisition of knowledge and the use of such knowledge wisely. In addition, this demand returns us to the primary ethical paradigms of truthful and accurate reporting that can serve as an early warning mechanism, help table the contents of dispute and invariably help ease a path to reconciliation.
This knowledge of the triggers of conflict, of their dynamics, and indeed of their transformative potentials, is what facilitates the news media to play purposive roles in resolving conflict and helping to achieve consensus around agreeable issues. This is, in a narrow sense, how to understand the claims of media and communication theorists who advance the agenda-setting role of news media – that they can play constructive social and political roles without becoming vulgar mouthpieces of ideological and cliquish causes.ⓘ
Why Is the Nigerian News Media Handicapped To Play This Role?
There is a noticeable frustration when policy makers and news media actors dialogue about the power of the media and the apparent unwillingness to put that power to the purpose of helping resolve the multiple points of conflict in the country or in helping to convene platforms of consensus around agreements that advance a peaceful and harmonious community. Anyone in doubt about this can book a meeting with our affable minister of information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, or any good number of the government spokesmen and women to hear how they rate the news media community.
I have myself exchanged endless debates with many state officials on what they consider to be the unhelpful attitude of the country’s news media in the important task of building or rebuilding the country to strength and purpose. Why is this such an impossible dialogue to execute? In part it is because policy makers have not come to understand the legal basis, the statutory demands on the media, the challenges the industry faces, and the shifting context of ecology.
One can argue that, like the country, the Nigerian news media industry is going through its worst experience in the 16 decades since its founding in 1859. This year, Nigeria transitioned into its second decade of democratic consolidation after over three decades of a ruinous military dictatorship. Still, the country wavers between a more hopeful democratic future and a devastating decline into wholesale violence. The impending fault lines of conflict – ethnic, religious, regional – profits from the country’s recurrent history of abysmal governance, corruption, and the now billowing influence of theocratic forces hindering a national identity formation process.
If it contemplates into history, the Nigerian news media has earned a chest full of badges on account of its vigorous case for independence and democracy, its redoubtable stance against three decades of ruinous military dictatorship, its consensus for national unity after the civil war, its historical anti-corruption posture particularly through the fourth Republic, its strong public health campaigns through the Ebola, HIV, to the current COVID pandemic are all report cards of excellence for the media. So, what then is the problem?
Journalism On the Cusp of an Historical Shift
I believe that if we are seeking a profound insight and enduring resolution to the current crisis of our industry, such crisis that makes it seem that we are unable to respond effectively to the structure of conflict engulfing the country, we must pay attention to three critical factors: the devastating legacy of military dictatorship; the upending revolution of a digital economy; and the dated state of journalism education in the country.
I will not delve much on the legacy of the military. We are all living through that experience today, through its totalitarian but hollow logic in management of the polity. Besides, literature is rich on this topic, and suffice it to say that the history of military-news media interlock in Nigeria introduced the most crippling conditions of practice, the most obnoxious legislations, an entrenched culture of fear in the industry, massive exile of talents to less hazardous professions, as well as the destruction of the best market brands of the industry – look no further than the old Daily Times, to mention just one example.
The transition to a digital economy introduced, by far, the most systemic change in the geometry of our business since the mid-nineties. Whereas this development affected the way products and services would henceforth be produced, that awareness did not catch on quickly in the local media industry, leading to a sudden but total disruption of the received business model of news business. This total overturning of the economics of news media introduced seismic outcomes in the way we eventually produced journalism, the way we distribute our products and above all, the way we would finance the enterprise of journalism. This was an absolute revolutionary development, a development that turned news consumers of yester years into producers. Where the level of decentralisation of access created a major democratization of content and of platforms that offered the new practitioners no obligation of ethical demands but allowed everyone to be now called a “journalist.” The impact of this development which many are still grappling with, and which has sent even many more to total oblivion, is the most devastating change in communication practice in the post-industrial society.
Just as the industry was slow to perceive and adjust to this shift, the educational segment of the profession was even slower to transition to the new digital ecology. It is not to speak ill of our media educational institutions, but the truth is that a major restructuring of curriculum to place the digital precepts at the heart of all the learning outcomes of journalism training today. It is this absence that has made it difficult to respond adequately to the critical challenges that are currently bedeviling the industry.
This is where the NGE can play a major and transformative role in renewing the industry, and reposition it for value, to play its democratic roles, and become a welcoming destination for talents who are currently snatched off by rival institutions that can offer decent wages and conditions of service that the economic conditions of our industry do not prepare us to offer today.ⓘ
Conflict, Democracy and an Information Disorder Ecosystem
I spoke earlier of the digital revolution and how it has devastated the economic fortunes of the news industry – the pay cuts, the job losses, the absence of adequate operational bottom line, the abysmal collapse of editorial standards and, painfully, of ethical integrity. Yet this collapse of the media’s business model, and the surfacing of what is now generally dubbed as a challenge of sustainability in the industry, is just one arm of the crisis. The digital revolution also triggered an information crisis of a massive proportion leading to what is represented as misinformation and disinformation today. To be sure, misinformation has always existed prior to the digital revolution, but no time in the history of the world have we encountered the phenomenon on the scale, the speed and the virality that we are dealing with today.
The information crisis also heightened the professional anxiety in the industry. Since everyone who had the time, the means, and the indulgence to set up a blog, a newsletter, or a website was now a journalist, the already rough image of the journalist simply got further thrashing. Besides distorting the identity of the journalist, misinformation created a promotional industry of falsehood and distortion around the nature of political engagement, public health predicament and the climate crisis. It is in this context that conflicts secured fuel and propellant that simply got out of hand. The news media needs to move quickly to join the ongoing effort to stem the tide of misinformation through newsroom investment in fact-checking and dutiful media/visual literacy. Thankfully, the technical knowledge to implement this process is available and growing day by day. I am also happy to announce that Dubawa.org a Premium Times platform for this purpose, is ready and willing to partner with the NGE in such an important endeavour. It is helpful to stress the point at this stage that the problem of disinformation and misinformation is not a problem of the news media much as public officials erroneously believe so. Misinformation is a public crisis fueled by technological companies. It follows that while public education and media literacy can help, ultimately it is how we bring technological platforms to regulation that matters.
Regulating the media
Regulating the Nigerian media became a new currency in the environment the June Twitter ban. What was interesting this time around however was the full-throated push back from the Nigerian Press organisation, with many NPAN members flooding the reading canvas with an impressive campaign against the move. Two things deserve comment about the whole debate which could also serve as a lesson for the NGE as it envisions its institutional response to threats against freedom of expression in the future.
If we conduct a snap poll today among our policy leaders on their perception on the role of the press in the governance process, it is a good guess that many will put down our profession in the red zone. Sticking strictly to the corridors of the current administration, look no further for evidence than the number of intending laws and the administrative directives churned out from 2019, the benchmark year when the political behaviour of the current APC government came to definition.
In his National Day address that year, President Muhammadu Buhari hinted citizens of this country that: “Our attention is increasingly being focused on cyber-crimes and the abuse of technology through hate speech and other divisive materials being propagated on social media. Whilst we uphold the constitutional rights of our people to freedom of expression and association, where the purported exercise of these rights infringes on the rights of other citizens or threatens to undermine our National Security, we will take firm and decisive action.”
Not surprising therefore, the country became hosts to the re-emergence of a censoring Nigeria Press Council Amendment Act of 2019, and the National Assembly became the epicentre of the administration’s constraining vision towards the press. Three additional bills [the social media Bill; and two Hate Speech Bills] joined more than a dozen obnoxious laws already in existence all targeted at stemming an effective freedom of expression regime in the country.
That was just 2019. For those that then found the whole fuse around a 2021 Twitter ban and the subsequent regulatory overreach at the NBC puzzling, this simple geometry of elongating lines of sight should provide better insight. What became clear was that the four 2019 bills aligned perfectly in the construction of a “democratic ecology” that annuls the autonomy of the professional journalism in the context of already existing laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Act, the Cyber Crimes Act; the National Broadcasting Commission [NBC] Act; and remnants of criminal defamation clauses in the Criminal Code Act and the Penal Code Act; the Official Secrets Act; as well as the Obscene Publications Act.
Here then is a point of opportunity to discuss the problematic regulation issues in the media which are not new. They have ranged from outright bans to curtailing freedom through draconian legislations and statutes. Then states have set up agencies like the Nigerian Press Council to which the independent media organisations have robustly pushed back, saying peer regulation is a better option. Government and its agents have suggested that the absence of enforcement mechanisms makes peer regulation sound like a do-nothing option.
However, as many countries today are seeing, media organisations can draft their own regulatory instrument and seek the backing of parliament to make them statutory. Such statutory regulation can help remove the scare on both sides. So that brings us to the essential argument why we need regulation today?
Invariably it boils down to how we plan to bail the media out of its current economic crisis so that it can serve its important constitutional role. For if the media is currently underperforming, what is necessary is to understand the reasons for this and try to address them.
Australian government to the rescue
The Australian government has taken a sensible step with the initiative on News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code and my wise counsel to Mr. Lai Mohammed is to borrow a leaf here.
This official initiative announced its case this way: “The News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code will address concerns identified by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in its July 2019 report on digital platforms. This report found that a substantial loss of advertising revenue over the past 15 years has left many Australian news businesses struggling to survive. Spending on print advertising fell from $7.9 billion in 2005 to just under $1.9 billion in 2018 according to the ACCC. At the same time, digital platforms are thriving. Expenditure on online advertising in Australia rose from around $1 billion in 2005 to $8.8 billion in 2018 according to the ACCC. “
President Mustapha Isah, PTCIJ will be happy and willing to work with you on this initiative and related mechanism on how we address the sustainability challenge of the media in the country.
Should the government fund the media?
Journalism has expanded beyond the received notions of the pre-digital age. We have bloggers and citizens practicing journalism today. Some do far better work than established institutions because they stay faithful to the ethical imperatives of journalism. They are defined by principles of truth and accuracy in their reporting, and they subject all claims in their reporting to the most withering verification. They understand the public good goals of the media and assert the independence of their platforms. What else do we demand of them?
If the footprints of journalism have spread so wide, responding to the reality of the new times, to be sure, the ethical contexts demand an expanded meaning and implication. The central principle in ethics theory has always been a concern to make whole again, that which has been blemished. The next port of call therefore is a simple, easy walk to freedom! We ask the question: why is the media behaving poorly? And ask again how we can fix the problem so that we can mitigate the possible harm.
The problem can be anticipated, and a strategy of containment put in place to address it before things get worse. The point to constantly have in mind is that good journalism makes the whole ramification of society and unquestionably democracy do well. The French and the Scandinavians have a system of obligatory subsidy to the media annually and that does not make their media a groveling institution. Last year France handed over €1 billion in direct and indirect financial assistance from the State to national and local newspapers and publications.
State subsidy for media
According to the government figures, some 326 newspapers and publications were given direct financial support in 2015 totaling €77 million. Does anyone think this has muted the French Press? But it comes as a model that deserves attention and scrutiny.
The Australian model is yet another and it certainly appears well reasoned. Yet other models contend. Economics professor Julia Cagé writes in her book “Saving the Media: Capitalism, Crowdfunding, and Democracy, argues that “There have never been as many information producers as there are today. Paradoxically, the media have never been in worse shape,” she then proposes a new business model for news organizations, inspired by a central idea: that news, like education, is a public good. Her model is inspired in part by major universities that combine commercial and nonprofit activities.
Professor Cagé’s proposal is yet different from the nonprofit newsroom model because it is rooted in an advocacy for a change in tax rules and the stable provision of capital through long-term investments to give news organizations more flexibility while also decentralizing control.
Fixing a broken business model
The simple argument I have made here is that media is central to democracy and that for the fructification of the values of democracy that can enhance good governance, promote freedom and democracy, we need to focus more attention on what is broken in our journalism that makes it inoperable to deliver the best values for democratic development. My contention is that it is a business model that has gone atrophy. I also argue that it can be fixed, and that the government insofar as it believes in democracy and development, has a major role to play as indeed the Australian government has shown by blazing a trail.
Seen from this perspective therefore, the rash of laws poured into the National Assembly in 2019 to “regulate” the poor behaviour of the press will be needless if there is an honest purpose that what is wrong in our journalism is what they intend to fix. We know better that this is not the case but if you engage public officials particularly those who are genuine about the matter, you see a genuine ignorance and probably a true desire to help with things.
To be sure, no one will see the exponential information crisis of our age and not feel a sense of bother with the mindlessly raging incidents of misinformation as indeed disinformation. The preference for policy unnourished by knowledge is one key blemish of the current government’s view that draconian legislation is the best cure for misinformation. Regulation is not necessarily a call to punitive legislation. A keen study using the resources of our best communication minds in the universities can lead to solid outcomes in ideas and policy directions that can help rebuild our media and make them serve the purpose of national progress, national security, and national development.
Dapo Olorunyomi is the Publisher of Premium Times.
This is the text of the Keynote Remarks delivered at the 17th Annual Nigerian Guild of Editors Conference, Abuja, on October 21.