By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
I was distressed when I read that President-elect Muhammadu Buhari had “banned” the African Independent Television (AIT) from covering his personal activities because of the malicious propaganda the station ran against him in the last presidential election. I immediately communicated with people close to the president-elect and expressed my consternation that such an ill-advised decision was taken at all.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can justify the banning of a media organization from covering the “personal” activities of the president-elect of a country. Yes, AIT was condemnably coarse and primitive, even slanderous, in its anti-Buhari partisanship. I can’t bring myself to even watch the station again. But it is entirely indefensible to ban the station from covering Buhari. To do so would be childish, petty, vindictive, and anti-democratic.
Fortunately, it turned out that neither the All Progressives’ Congress (APC) nor Buhari himself was even aware of, much less endorsed, the misguided ban on AIT. It was an overenthusiastic aide who unilaterally blackballed the station from the press corps covering the president-elect. I was delighted that APC almost immediately repudiated the ban, and Buhari himself disclaimed any responsibility for it. “The time of change has come and we must avoid making the same mistakes that the outgoing government made,” he said in a statement.
The needless controversy over the ban conspired to lionize AIT and lend them undeserved public sympathy. Buhari is no longer the underdog that he was before his victory at the polls. He is now the top dog. News of the ban on AIT came across as the oppression of an underdog by the top dog. All over the world, across cultures and generations, whenever there is a fight between the top dog and the underdog, the underdog almost always wins in the court of public opinion, even if the underdog is in the wrong.
I am glad that Buhari has said in a public statement that he would henceforth keep a tight leash on his aides. That is the way it should be. As I wrote in my April 4, 2015 column titled, “After the Euphoria, what President-elect Buhari Needs to know,” Buhari’s “relationship with the media would be crucial. The media will get under his skin. Columnists like me will excoriate him, not because we hate him, but because we care, and because we know that to perform well and be in touch with the masses of people who elected him, we need to help hold his feet to the fire. When Thomas Jefferson famously said, ‘Were it left to 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,’ he was acknowledging the importance of the media to the sustenance of democracy.”
Incidentally, it was APC’s Director of Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, who introduced me to Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote when he taught me a course called “Critical Issues in Mass Communication” at Bayero University Kano almost two decades ago. Malam Garba, by far the most intellectually astute journalism teacher I’ve ever had in my whole life, also taught us that years after Jefferson’s lavish praise for the press, when he became the target of scurrilous, often mendacious, attacks by American newspapers, he was compelled to confess that, “People who never read newspapers are better informed than those who do, because ignorance is closer to the truth than the falsehoods spread by newspapers.”
That was the closest Jefferson came to fighting the media. The point of all this is to say that in a democracy, the president shouldn’t be seen to be muzzling unfriendly media. Caustic “opposition media” are an inextricable part of the architecture of all functioning democracies.
Now, people who know nothing about journalism rail against “bias” and “lack of objectivity” in the journalism of AIT and say because the organization betrays the “ethics” of the journalism profession, it should not only be sanctioned but should be deprived of the privilege of covering the president-elect. This thought-process betrays two strands of ignorance.
First journalism ethics, unlike ethics in law and medicine, are entirely voluntary. They have no force of authority and can be flouted without any legal consequences. Although it is great to abide by the ethics of journalism, disobeying them isn’t grounds for ostracism. Journalists and media organizations that violate the ethical codes of their profession, in time, lose relevance and risk professional death. It is not the place of government officials to sanction media organizations for ethical violations. Governments can only take legal action against media organizations and journalists if they commit legal violations, such as libel.
Second, objectivity in journalism is a relatively recent development. It was birthed in America in the 1800s. Before then, journalism had always been unapologetically partisan and wedded to political causes and political parties. Objectivity, fairness, balance, reportorial neutrality, etc. have not always been tenets in journalism. The emergence of these ethos in eighteenth-century American journalism, from where it was exported to other parts of the world, was not inspired by a moral or professional imperative; it was inspired by the need to appeal to all segments of the commercial and political elite in order to get advertising dollars from all of them. (If you want to know more about the history of objectivity in journalism, read my academic article in the Review of Communication titled, “News with Views: Postobjectivism and Emergent Alternative Journalistic Practices in America's Corporate News Media”).
So lack of objectivity isn’t a betrayal of journalism; it’s a return to its roots. That is what is happening in the American media today. Objectivity is receding in salience and professional prestige in American journalism. No media organization should be muzzled for lacking objectivity. It’s refreshing that Buhari realizes this. It’s even more refreshing that he has people like Garba Shehu at the helm of his media relations. But the AIT PR disaster must never be allowed to happen again.