IT was a Chicago journalist and humourist by the name of Finley Peter Dunne who said more than a century ago that, “the job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In other words, the job of the news media is to hold the powerful in the society to account and to protect the weak and the vulnerable from the oppression of the powerful.
In a 2001 article in the Columbia Journalism Review, American journalists, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel pointed out that the essence of Dunne’s famous quip, which has now become a journalistic maxim in the West, is that it has helped to dramatise the role the press is expected to play in “watching over the powerful few in society on behalf of the many to guard against tyranny.”
Since at least 2018 when Buhari’s desperation to get a second term reached a feverish pitch, the media, including the previously critical online media of the Nigerian diaspora and the homeland, have basically caved in to tyranny. They went from being the watchdog of the society to being the lapdogs of the powerful, from being comforters of the afflicted and afflicters of the comfortable to being comforters of the comfortable and afflicters of the afflicted.
In sum, the media have become enablers of Buhari’s emergent fascist monocracy— about which I’ve been writing these past few weeks— and tormentors of people who are threats to his growing autocracy. To be clear, I don’t want to sentimentalise a pre-Buhari golden age of media freedom and activism. The vast swathe of the Nigerian media formation has always been in bed with people in power, but there had always been a few shrill, strident voices of dissent that sometimes drowned out the cacophony of disgracefully obsequious journalism that has become the mainstay of Nigerian media practice.
All that is gone now. The practitioners of the radical guerilla journalism of the 1990s are either now the new oppressors or intellectual enablers of oppression. The critical diasporan and homeland online media now read like the daily newsletters from Lai Mohammed’s Ministry of Information. Critical enterprise journalism that calls attention to corruption and abuse of office is either completely dead or so few and far between as to be irrelevant.
Yet the Buhari regime is growling and baring its dictatorial fangs like no civilian administration has ever done. Eye-watering corruption at the highest levels of government take place with unexampled impunity. Governmental incompetence exceeds the bounds of reason, and the nation is now a walking corpse.
Amid this reality, a previously critical online newspaper had no other use for its reportorial resources than to commission its reporter to write a tendentious news report to impugn the evidence that the Atiku campaign has presented to the election tribunal to overturn Buhari’s daylight electoral robbery. I have never seen that sort of journalism in any respectable news medium in my life. It’s a classic case of afflicting the afflicted.
Isolated voices of informed dissent in the media are either censored or squelched outright. My column in the Daily Trust, which I had written since 2005, was stopped in December 2018 because the “board” of the newspaper said I was too critical of the Buhari regime. I was equally critical of Obasanjo, Yar’adua, and Jonathan, but not once was I ever told that it was journalistic sacrilege to afflict the comfortable.
A senior, storied columnist for one of Nigeria’s most widely circulated newspapers whose identity I have chosen to conceal confided in me that his column was once bowdlerised by the paper’s editor; the editor expurgated sentences that were critical of Buhari but that weren’t libellous by any definition of the term. A column is an opinion, and opinions are by nature idiosyncratic. That’s why the notion of an “objective opinion” is such a silly oxymoron. If it’s objective, that is, undistorted by personal dispositions, then it’s not an opinion.
I can expend more energy lamenting the diminution or death of critical journalism in the face of the worst fascist strangulation of Nigeria, but that won’t be a good use of my energy. I think it’s more useful to ask why this lamentable state of affairs exists.
I’ve discussed this with many Nigerian patriots at home and abroad, and most of them point out that the Buhari regime controls the news media through unprecedentedly massive financial inducements of reporters and editors and threats of violence and withdrawal of advertising patronage. That’s largely true.
For instance, Daily Trust, which stopped my Saturday column to protect the Buhari regime from the critical searchlight I beam on it, was raided by military brutes in its offices in Abuja, Maiduguri, Lagos, and Kaduna on January 6, 2019. Its reporters and editors were arrested and detained, its computers seized, and its entire operation stopped for hours on end for merely publishing factual news reports that embarrassed the military honchos of the regime.
Once censorship begins and it’s emboldened, it brooks no limits. When you choose to coddle and feed an insatiable, monstrous beast, it will devour you, too, in a matter of time, and that was what happened to Daily Trust. But the consequences were that it had a chilling effect not just on the paper but also on all other media houses. And that was the intent of the action.
As we say in Nigeria, if a crocodile eats own egg, what would it do to the flesh of a frog? In other words, if Daily Trust, a pro-north paper that overprotects the Buhari regime can be so violently shaken for a mere critical news report, what chances do southern newspapers stand, especially in light of Buhari’s notoriety for unabashed ethnocentrism?
While it’s true that the Buhari regime has caged the media through vulgar monetary enticement, the self-censorship that comes from the fear of losing advertising patronage from government and its agents, and from the dread of being raided by the military, this isn’t really new. The media weathered similar or worse threats during past military regimes.
What is new, I think, is what I call the Tinubu factor in Nigeria’s media politics. I use “Tinubu” here mostly as a synecdoche to represent the mainstream cultural, political, and intellectual currents in Nigeria’s southwest which, for historical reasons, is the nation’s educational, media, and cultural capital. Although the symbolic power of the Tinubu political tendency is waning in the southwest, it is still, for now, the predominant one, and the southwest media, with the exception of the Nigerian Tribune in the last few years, goes wherever Tinubu goes.
In a sense, with a few exceptions, there is really no independent media in Nigeria. The media are critical of the power structure only when the dominant faction of the ruling elite in the southwest is kept outside the orbit of governance. It is customary to describe the news media as the fourth estate of the realm. In Nigeria’s southwest, which is the media capital of the nation, the media, at least at the moment, are the third estate of Tinubu’s realm, his first estate being the governments he helped to install and his second estate being his sprawling business empire.
Nevertheless, in the coming years, Buhari and Tinubu will fall out. When that happens, the southwest media will suddenly become “critical,” but it will be too late. Bertrand Russel once said, “Freedom of opinion can only exist when the government thinks itself secure.” The Buhari regime is insecure because it is acutely self-aware of its illegitimacy and its sustenance on rank fraud after barefacedly stealing an electoral mandate for a second term in March 2019. So, it can only get more vicious.