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Azuka Onwuka and the illusion of press freedom under siege

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By Ayo Olasoji Peters

Mr. Azuka Onwuka, a usually not perceptive columnist with The Punch newspaper on Tuesday, December 20, weighed in in his column on the recent media exchanges between the Boards of Editors of the THIS DAY/ARISE media group and two key media strategists of the All Progressives Congress (APC) Presidential Campaign Council, Mr. Dele Alake, Special Adviser on Strategic Communication and Mr. Bayo Onanuga, Director of Media and Publicity. It is surely within his rights to interrogate an issue understandably of interest to journalists and other members of the public. However, any analyst who decides to dissect the issues in contention and wants to be taken seriously has a responsibility to be dispassionate and objective and refrain from writing from a partisan prism indicating patent bias and prejudice.

Luckily, the columnist rightly traces and affirms both Alake and Onanuga’s unblemished record of support for freedom of the speech and the press even at the cost of grave danger to their lives and livelihoods under vicious military dictatorships. They were key Actors in one of the most glorious hours of Nigerian journalism akin to the media’s role in the struggle against colonial rule that ushered in independence in 1960. It is thus astonishing that Onwuka would most cavalierly accuse the duo of now attacking press freedom, which they had earlier stoutly defended as practicing journalists, without the slightest shred of credible evidence to substantiate this grave allegation.

In the first place, any columnist that seeks to be taken seriously will not so casually conflate the period of vicious military dictatorship with the liberal democracy we have been practicing for over two decades now since 1999? What instances could Azuka cite of Alake or Onanuga endangering or ‘attacking’ the press freedom they fought for under the military since the commencement of this dispensation? How could an admittedly avoidable disagreement between one media group and a presidential candidate’s campaign organization be framed as an attack on press freedom? This is particularly ridiculous when we consider that there are at least 200 media organizations, both traditional and online platforms, in the country. Yet, only one medium has claimed that the questioning of their mode of operation and what is perceived as blatant bias by the media group in question against their candidate constitutes an attack on press freedom. The misleading narrative that press freedom is under siege that Onwuka wants to sustain is dubious and mischievous.

The only basis for Onwuka’s claim is the allegation by the THIS DAY/ARISE group management that some members of the APC PCC requested the sack of its journalists, Shaka Momodu and Rufai Oseni, for “unfavourable reportage” of Tinubu. Both Alake and Onanuga have vehemently denied this claim. They have requested the group to produce any evidence of such a demand. Such documentation has, to the best of my knowledge, not been presented for public scrutiny. It is therefore difficult to understand on what grounds Onwuka takes the claim of the THIS DAY/ARISE media group on Momodu and Oseni as gospel truth without critical scrutiny.

When the APC campaign organization had a grouse against the professional conduct of the media group, which broadcast a forged press statement purportedly emanating from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), a document disowned by the commission, Mr. Alake did not hesitate to petition the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which sanctioned the media group. The THIS DAY/ARISE group not only paid the imposed fine; it tendered a public apology to Tinubu. Why would the same campaign council then surreptitiously request for the sack of journalists in the organization and that without even a formal letter documenting their perceived infractions? This allegation is simply ridiculous.

A media outfit has the right to invite a candidate or any other individual for an interview or any other type of interaction. But that right does not extend to the candidate being forced to accept the invitation especially when the medium has been perceived rightly or wrongly as having taken a biased partisan position against the candidate or his party. If a media group insists that a candidate attend its event and resorts to what is difficult to differentiate from blackmail and harassment if such invitation is declined, it fuels suspicion that a hidden agenda is being pursued as the APC campaign has alleged. Each campaign organization has the right to choose its communications strategy and no media group can force a strategy on any candidate or party.

Tinubu has been active attending and participating in Town Hall meetings with selected stakeholders in the Nigerian society and economy. These events have been amply covered and reported in the media. If the APC campaign sees this as a more effective strategy to communicate with its desired publics and play on the strengths of its candidate, what has right anybody, be it an individual or group, to dictate or impose a different strategy on them? In the final analysis, it is the electorate who will determine the more effective strategy at the polls.

Onwuka joins the company of those who have sought to discredit Tinubu’s outing at the Chatham House lecture in London because he assigned four of the eleven questions he was asked to members of his team to respond to. He argues that “If candidates for employment or examination come with people who will help them answer questions, then there is no need for examinations and interviews, as everyone can assemble a team to provide the required answers”. The comparative context is patently dissimilar and the analogy unsuitable. None of the four major presidential candidates is an unknown quantity and thus seeking to write fresh interviews for a job. A political campaign is not the equivalent of a written examination for a job. The record of the key contestants in public life over the last two decades is already in the public domain. Moreover, the presidential campaign is not just a contest between individuals; it is also a competition between parties and opposing teams.

Onwuka is right that it is no crime for a presenter, columnist or medium to show preference for one candidate or the other. But in an atmosphere of rabid partisanship on the part of the media, many times with scant respect for the professional demands of adherence to factual accuracy and balance and the perpetration of outright ethical malpractices due to pervasive corruption, debates must be shielded from these ills by being more carefully and methodically organized with the involvement of all key stakeholders. This is the practice in the United States where one outfit does not just confer on itself the sole proprietorship of organizing debates or Town Hall events and railroading all others to play along with all the opportunity for racketeering and backroom deals the latter organizational mode presents.

Mr. Ayo Peters is an Abuja based public affairs analyst

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