IDEAs 28th April 2023
MRA’s Edetaen Ojo on the National Media Complaints Commission
Chukwudi said that the show would be looking at the National Media Complaints Commission, with Edetaen Ojo, the Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda as Ayo Obe’s guest.
Ayo said that before turning to the National Media Complaints Commission, she would like to hear from Edet whether the Nigerian media had lived up to the standards of Integrity, Ethics and Accountability in its coverage of the Nigerian elections. In particular, she wanted Edet to comment on the question of whether the fact that a media outlet might have its political preference would prevent it from being able to uphold those standards.
Edet replied that the media sector was very diverse, with all kinds of tendencies. There were those who were acting in a manner consistent with very high professional standards in their operations, particularly in their editorial work, and in the coverage of the 2023 elections, but there were many actors within the sector who had demonstrated questionable Ethical standards, and this was apparent in their coverage of the elections. For this reason, it might not be possible to speak in general times about the media. Nonetheless, on the whole, he was of the view that the media had done a very good job in covering the elections despite the very challenging circumstances under which they were operating, because it was important to recognise that the enabling environment for the media to do its work optimally was not there. Asked by Ayo in what sense he meant this, he referred to matters like the high rate of attacks on journalists by party supporters and political thugs as well as law enforcement and security agencies that were recorded during the elections. In addition, there was a very harsh economic environment that must also be factored in to any assessment of the performance of the media.
On the whole however, the media had provided the electorate and members of the public with a lot of information for the elections – about the candidates and the process of the elections. Edet said that this view tallied with the assessment of some groups which had observed the elections in Nigeria, in particular the European Union’s election observation mission, which had carried out a detailed and comprehensive assessment of the performance of the media in relation to the elections.
With regard to the second aspect of Ayo’s question, Edet said that it is possible for a media outfit to have a political preference and nonetheless act with integrity and professionalism. He admitted that this was a difficult line to navigate, but a media outlet could have a political preference, support a particular candidate for reasons that it might state, and yet remain factual, balanced and objective in the way that it covered the election and the activities of various parties’ candidates. He said that ideally media organisations should be completely non-partisan, but where this was not possible, they should apply ethical standards in their coverage of elections and other issues of public interest.
Ayo observed that the broadcast media were covered by the Broadcasting Code of Conduct which frowned on taking a political position, while the print media were not so constrained. She said that at the end of the day, some would be satisfied and some would be dissatisfied, but that those feelings went well beyond the elections and issues arising from them.
Ayo continued that while the broadcasters were under the control of the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, which is a government agency, up till now, there has not been anything similar for the print media. She asked whether that was why the National Media Complaints Commission had been set up?
Edet said that Ayo had used a very accurate expression with regard to the nation’s broadcasters, because they were firmly under the control of the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (Ayo interjected that many would say that they were too much under its control), and that this was an anomaly which was contrary to the standards for media regulation both on the African continent which had adopted the Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, and to the global standard. He said that strictly speaking, the NBC is not playing the role of a regulator, but is exercising control over the media, and when its lack of independence is considered – its officials are appointed by the government and have no independence …
Ayo interrupted to point out that we have other persons and bodies appointed by government which are supposed to be independent – e.g. judges and bodies like the Independent National Electoral Commission. So was it that the NBC does not pretend to be independent of government, or is that something that is discerned from its activities?
Edet explained that the process of appointing its members (i.e. members of the authority) is simply between the Minister of Information and the government, so that could not be called an independent process. He referred again to the standards established both for Africa and globally.
Ayo then asked about the NMCC, and Edet corrected an earlier statement that she had made, saying that there had indeed been a print equivalent of the NBC, namely the Nigerian Press Council, which was established under different names during military governance, and has been under a legal framework since 1992. However, since 1999, it had been facing litigation, and the case over the NPC is now pending at the Supreme Court. Because of this litigation, the NPC had not been able to operate. Edet said that the NPC was a government body established by statute, but various stakeholders in the media were supposed to be part of it. However, the NMCC was established by professional bodies within the media, namely the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, the Nigerian Union of Journalists, working in concert with the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria and the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers, who have come together to publish – not a self-regulatory framework for the media – but what they call ‘a co=regulatory framework’, because it is not made up of only media professionals: its members include the Nigerian Bar Association, persons from academia, the Chair of the Information Committee of the House of Representatives and civil society actors as well. So these were brought together to provide the public with a mechanism to address complaints of misconduct or non-compliance with professional standards in Nigeria.
Ayo said that though this showed that the body covered the print, the online and broadcast media, she wondered whether it would be only the big men and public figures who have access to a battery of lawyers and resources who would be able to access the NMCC, or whether ordinary people would also find it approachable. Was the process going to be accessible to them as well?
Edet said that the mechanism itself served the interests of ordinary people quite well, because it was not very legalistic – a complaint could be made through a simple letter; one did not need to have a lawyer to complain. He added that because the NMCC included persons who were not media professionals, it would not be hampered with media jargon or legalistic framework that would be difficult to for an ordinary person to understand. While Ayo was claiming that lawyers talk in very plain language, Edet continued that people would not have to pay money to lodge a complaint to the NMCC. The NMCC should be able to deal with complaints quite expeditiously so that the other alternative of going to court didn’t look like a good alternative.
Ayo said that there had been complaints about the lack of diversity of the membership – as to spread, religion, ethnicity, and wondered how Edet felt this would affect the NMCC – or would it just be a matter of perception?
Edet said that he could not identify any critical stakeholder group that was not represented on the NMCC, saying that the only sector that is completely missing was the executive branch of government. He said that if political parties were to be brought in, it would affect the credibility of the body.
Ayo asked Edet to confirm that there was no slot on the NMCC for any particular political party, because there had been criticism that only one political party has a representative on the Board. Edet said that the person who chairs the House Committee on Information is a member, and that person would be a member of a party, but that was an ex officio position, and it did not matter what party that person belonged to, so far as they chaired that Committee.
Ayo regretted that the time was already up and that she wasn’t able to get to discuss the issue of the increasing criminalisation of free speech, and said that she hoped it would be possible to have him back to discuss this issue in one of the few remaining programmes in this run of IDEAs broadcasts.
As usual, we would love to hear from you. Are you confident that the NMCC will increase public trust in the media? Why not post your views, or join the discussion below?