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Nigerian Media as Comforters of the Comfortable, Afflicters of the Afflicted

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi It was a Chicago journalist and humorist by the name of Finley Peter Dunne who sa...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

It was a Chicago journalist and humorist 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 dramatize 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 sentimentalize a pre-Buhari golden age of media freedom and activism. A 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. Even previously 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 bowdlerized by the paper’s editor; the editor expurgated sentences that were critical of Buhari but that weren’t libelous 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 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.


  1. Hello prof, this is a fantastic read. As always eye opening, refreshing and critically appealing. I thank God that there are still people like you who are independent minded. One only feels sad for what the nation has become. For a long time in this nation the media was vibrant and the most independent institution even during the military era. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Thanks for being different. Hopefully there will be a critical mass of dissenters. Regards

  2. Fine read...but, like the issue you raised on how the power that be clamps down on dissenting reporting, who would take this your expose seriously?

  3. I feel appalled by your sweeping statements,unfair condemnation of the Nigeria news media and President Buhari's government. The Nigerian press is one of the freest on the African continent, if not in the world. But even in America, from where you securely hurl salvos, there are surely limits to press freedom. We all know back here in Nigeria that Fox News, for example, is blatantly pro-Trump while the CNN is subtly anti-Trump. It's almost the same kind of orientation we have in the Nigerian press in relation to those in power. Buhari is not tyrannical; I'd even say he is more benign and tolerant as a leader than Obasanjo was as president. Americans, if they happened to read your weekly articles on Nigeria, would have a very distorted impression of our country. There's constructive criticism and there's destructive criticism; your opinions about Nigeria in this column are of the latter type.

  4. So educative. Thank you prof. God bless you

  5. I think you were fair for a commentary. For most journalists and opinion writers, circumstances and situations has forced people to adopt the Baldwin dictum - Whose bread I eat, his song I sing. Of course when people depend on their 'handiwork' to survive, in or out of a land without options, they simply align. While I continue to write for the Trust, I do know that a particular news outlet which used to call me for comments stopped doing so as soon as Buhari stabilized on his seat. Businesses, which the news media is classified as, can never survive as opponent of a diktat like Muhammadu Buhari's regime. They would be starved of the lifeline and simply throw their employees into the oversaturated labour market. The other reason of course is that for some people, who mix religion with ethnicity, it is basically sacrilege to criticise someone that shares the same religion and region with them. They'll prefer to keep quiet even if they are being slaughtered - as could be seen from the bogus results that came from areas that naturally would have voted Buhari at the last elections. My own father's house was attacked and damaged on February 16. My kid brother who lives there is a pastor with no political leaning. Knowing the kind of government in my home state of Kogi, it is suicidal to try to tackle them headlong especially if you have siblings there. It's a Catch 22 situation. The big question is - with this deafening silence from the North that bears the brunt of Buhari's electoral dictatorship, what would be expected of freedom of expression, if and when power shifts to other regions? I pray we live long enough to find the answers.
    Good job as usual prof!


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