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What Yar’adua is learning and NOT learning from America

By Farooq A. Kperogi Twitter: @farooqkperogi There is no question that President Umaru Yar’adua has been paying close attention to what i...

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

There is no question that President Umaru Yar’adua has been paying close attention to what is happening in the United States. The first time he visited here, he was so overawed by the grandeur of the White House—and the “honor” of shaking the hands of President Bush— that he declared the visit “a rare opportunity” and a “moment that I will never forget in my life.”

Such child-like ebullition of gratitude and awe may be considered a little too self-deprecatory, even humiliating, for a country’s leader to express openly, but in a country where elementary honor and integrity in leaders is a scarce commodity, such dewy-eyed candor should not be dismissed with a snigger.

But I digress. Each time a major event occurs here our president almost always has a response—and an interpretive domestication to boot. For instance, when Obama was elected president, Yar’adua was quoted as saying that the historic momentousness of the event had inspired him to turn a new leaf in inter-ethnic relations in Nigeria.

“Prejudices arising from various differences in tribe, zones and regions— actually we should examine ourselves in the light of this experience and conduct ourselves purely as Nigerians to serve Nigeria and to serve humanity,” he said.

He warned that ministers who were still wedded to the primordial insularity of a pre-Obama era “will have no place in this executive council,” but that those who have embraced the post-racial or, if you like, post-ethnic era that Obama’s election has inaugurated “are mostly and greatly welcome.”

Again these are decidedly unsophisticated, almost infantile, presidential thought-processes that make one’s flesh crawl in embarrassment. Why would it take the election of Obama for our president to experience this post-ethnic “epiphany”? Well, it is at least commendable that he learned the right lesson—if he indeed only just learned that lesson— and made the right noise.

Then there was news of the arrest of Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, on allegation that he was trying to sell to the highest bidder the senate seat just vacated by Obama. Yar’adua response to this was to advocate that the immunity clause in our constitution be expunged so that governors found to have violated the laws of the land can also be prosecuted.

This is all fine and dandy, except that it doesn’t seem Yar’adua is learning other lessons in democratic governance from America. A prime example is his appallingly poor government-media relation. His current war against critical sections of the media will probably go down in the records as one of the worst, if not the worst, in a Nigerian civilian administration.

First, his government unilaterally and heedlessly withdrew the license of Channels TV, one of Nigeria’s finest independent television stations, on account of an innocuous, if grave, professional misjudgment.

Then State Security Service agents invaded the office of the Leadership newspaper, forcefully seized the paper’s computers and arrested some its reporters and editors. Thereafter, the government sued the paper for libel—or is it sedition? This is, to say the least, gratuitously high-handed. Not even Obasanjo, as terrible a leader as he was, violently harassed any newspaper that maligned him.

But let’s get back to America, which our president is evidently enamored of. In America’s over 200 years’ existence as a nation, no public official has ever won a case against the media. In fact, no president has ever sued the media.

And the press here has historically been a tormenting thorn on the flesh of presidents. This is encapsulated in the creed of the American press: “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

President Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, once famously declared that were he confronted with the dilemma of choosing between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government he would not hesitate to choose the latter. But this lavish praise for the press did not immunize him from the caustic, often mendacious, attacks of newspapers.

He was later forced 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 he came to fighting the media.

It is also noteworthy that the term “muckraker,” which we now use approvingly to refer to investigative journalists, was initially a derogatory term for journalists coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest president in American history. (He was only 42 when he assumed office as president).

Roosevelt was the object of scurrilous attacks by the press, some of it ill-motivated, most of it scandalously mendacious. But he never went to court, nor commanded his security forces to invade the newsrooms of newspapers that calumniated him.

The worst that he did was to deride journalists as “muckrakers,” a label that American journalists accepted with pride.

Again, during a speech in 1906, he said, “There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful." And this was a president who was under unremitting press attacks.

Of course, most recently, we have seen what Bill Clinton and Bush have been suffering from their national press. There have been outright libelous attacks on their persons almost daily in the American media. But they have never sued any media organization.

Well, that’s because the U.S. constitution prohibits government officials, whether elected or appointed, from recovering damages from the press for a defamatory falsehood relating to their official conduct, unless the government officials can prove that the press had shown a “reckless disregard for the truth.” Since America’s founding over 200 years ago, no government official has been able to prove this.

For me, the most dangerous terrain Yar’adua appears to be treading now is his newfound, misguided war on online citizen journalists. For an example, a certain Jonathan Elendu, a U.S.-based citizen journalist, was recently arrested when he traveled to Nigeria. His working tools and passport were seized, reportedly because of censorious stories that either he or people the authorities believe he is associated with have authored in the past.

And now Yar’adua’s agents are suing, a popular, hard-hitting, muckraking online citizen media outlet. The president’s agents are also writing to a slew of web hosting sites to demand that be shut down because of its virulent anti-Yar’adua content.

With the way things are going, it’s only a matter of time before government blocks certain web sites from being viewed in Nigeria. Nigeria would then be on the same list as China, Iran and other totalitarian regimes that muzzle the free flow of information.

I don’t know the people advising Yar’adua on public communication and information management. But his government’s relationship with the media has been at best primitive and at worst downright brainless. Yet, his spokesperson, Segun Adeniyi, spent state resources to visit the U.S. the other time under the pretext of learning public communication from the White House Press Office. Is it this unmitigated crudeness and unimaginativeness he learned from here?

Our ranking in the press freedom index, which had improved dramatically over the last eight years, is up for another diminution. I know this because I teach journalism and monitor news related to journalism practice worldwide. The news from Nigeria these days with regard to government-media relations is always agonizingly dispiriting.

For a man who stakes his entire presidency on his adherence to the “rule of law,” and who has demonstrated such praiseworthy sensitivity to what is happening in the outside world, Yar’adua’s government’s crude arm-twisting of the media is disturbing. It all looks like a throwback to the era of military absolutism.

Yar’adua needs to learn lessons in tolerance for a vibrant media culture.

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