The debate over whether the government and the media are friends or foes was rekindled at a recent interactive seminar on Responsibility to Report (R2R) organised by the Development Research and Project Centre with funding from the Dutch Government in Abuja.
The seminar was similar to the recently concluded Military-Civilian Dialogue, where the National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki sought the cooperation and understanding of Nigerians on the ongoing military’s intervention in fighting insurgency in the country.
Unlike the Military-Civilian where former Heads of States and top public functionaries were in attendance, participants at Responsibility to Report were mostly spokespersons from emergency response agencies like the military, police, NEMA and volunteers. The media too were adequately represented with editors, producers and bloggers in attendance.
I had the privilege to be one of the facilitators that included Abdul Raufu Mustapha of Oxford University, and Ms. Femke Van Zeiji from The Netherlands.
Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye the respected Mass Communication scholar, was the Keynote Speaker who dropped the bombshell that triggered a lively interaction throughout the programme. While attempting to be neutral in his assessment of the relationship between the government and the media, the academic dwelt on the power of the media, its influence in the society and the inherent loophole in the freedom of information law among others.
The Editor-in-Chief of Premium Times, Dapo Olorunyomi, who was also a facilitator agreed with most of the arguments raised by the Professor and further echoed non-transparent nature of government and the alleged shabbiness in the implementation of freedom of information law in Nigeria.
They both reinforced the general belief that the media is powerful as the Fourth Estate of the Realm, while I also responded that the government seems to be more powerful because all the other Estates: the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary are within its realm (government.)
While the two argued that government and the Media cannot be permanent Friends but LOYAL OPPONENTS, I advanced the view that the spokespersons in government can be friends with the media on behalf of their organisations through mutual respect and dignified reciprocal relationship.
Professor Akinfeleye emphatically supported the submission of former America President, Thomas Jefferson who said that if he was to choose between a Government without a Press, or a Press without a Government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter! This submission I argued, cannot hold if every person is investigating and probing into one another as a reporter, without a law by legislators to protect the people, and the existence of the judiciary to adjudicate over disputes and the executive arm to check excesses and unethical practices. Such a society, I pointed out can only exist in a jungle, where there are no rules of law but animalistic interpersonal relationship.
There is no problem with any government. Antics of some characters in government create the negative perceptions about public institutions. Added to the unbecoming and petty behaviours of some officials in government is the reality that public information management is very weak largely due to unskilled manpower, ill-equipped departments and political interference where a seeming straightforward and truthful information is deliberately distorted for egocentric ambitions of principals. In fact the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) could not have been a necessity if the public information officers have been allowed to discharge their roles responsibly and professionally.
A study and adherence to basic principles of Public Relations could be a clear guide for spokespersons rather than the fire brigade approach and combatant posture of such image managers to simple issue management.
Therefore spokespersons, as the intermediaries between the government and the media, should not only rely on prerequisite and relevant qualifications and experiences but should have humane temperaments and friendly dispositions while discharging their responsibilities.
While a well-trained and well-behaved public officer can easily court friendship of the media and earn the respect of the public, journalists too should imbibe the PR instinct and principle by initiating cordial relationships with officers in government to minimise mutual suspicions and misgivings.
At the end of the seminar, participants issued Guidelines for Communication in Times of Conflict for Government, Media and Civil Society in which they recommended that the media should always separate facts from opinion while urging journalists to be mindful of public and national interest in providing honest, factual and accurate information at all times.
While participants agreed that there are presently neither laws nor regulatory bodies to monitor and check online and Social Media in Nigeria, they strongly recommended capacity building and training on the use of latest technology for effective communication by those in government and the media.
Public officers and spokespersons were advised to establish and sustain a mutually respectful relationship with the media, which should be professional and transparent.
On the other hand, media owners were urged to improve the working conditions of their employees, while journalists were cautioned that “regardless of the circumstances, they should not expect, accept or offer inducements to publish reports.”
The interactive session was not only lively, the active participation of Director Defence Information, Brig-General Chris Olukolade and Police Force Public Relations Officer Frank E. Mba at the event created the enablement for frank and sincere talks between the spokespersons in government and the representatives of the media that included online bloggers.
One message is clear: whether in government or out of government we must protect and promote public and national interests for the economic growth not minding the misdemeanour of few individuals in the media or in public office.
The message in all these which was also conveyed at the military-civilian dialogue is the need for harmonious relationship where the citizens live peaceful without fear of misrepresentation which could lead to hatred and unwarranted attacks.