Compliance to electoral act and 2023 elections: How has the media fared?

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The role of the media at every election, especially the 2023 general elections, as an agenda-setting organ in the society, is hereby explored in this piece by ELEOJO IDACHABA.

In the run up to the 2023 Presidential and National Assembly elections held on February 25 and the governorship/state assembly elections to be held today, the media had no doubt played a significant role so far not only in the area of awareness creation and education, but also in shaping the agenda for the political class.

Bearing this in mind, the media of information in the country, especially conventional print and electronic media houses, stuck to the ethics of their calling by being apolitical while at the same time spearheading the call for the enthronement of good governance in the country.

IPC, NBC’s charges

While reminding the media about its crucial role in the election, the International Press Centre as at October 2022 noted that, “The overall goal of the media component is to support the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria with the media (broadcast, print and online media) helping to facilitate the key ingredient of credible elections through engagement and professionalism in coverage and reportage of the electoral processes.”

It noted further that the specific objective is to ensure that the media, including New and Social Media, provides fair, accurate, ethical and inclusive coverage of the electoral process.

On its part, the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) also charged the media on compliance to the Electoral Act. Its president, Isah Mustapha, said, “We should ensure that political leaders have the capacity and would not divide us with religion and ethnicity. The media should strive to set the agenda rather than allow politicians to set the agenda,” he noted.

At this point, it became crucial about the role of the media as the fourth estate of the realm and watchdog of the society.

Isah said further that, “The media, therefore, needs to recommit itself to upholding the tenets of democracy by following all laid down rules and regulations guiding the conduct of the media on electoral process in their reportage of the elections.”

According to him, this caution is important because immediately after the conduct of the general elections, the entire processes would be taken over by the information sector as Nigerians and the rest of the world would recede to the background to await the outcome of their efforts at the polls.

Regulatory authorities

The two regulatory authorities in charge of the media: the Nigeria Press Council (NPC), and the National Broadcasting Commission (BON), had outlined guidelines for election reportage that would ensure the defence of the rights of every citizen and discourage the assumption of fighting for the rights of other people without recourse to the rule of law and constitutional provisions.

A joint statement by the two bodies noted that, “The media must play the game by the rules. Before and after the 2023 elections, just like other previous elections in the country, the media are in the spotlight to exhibit their professionalism and skills in national development through dispassionate reporting of events, actions, reactions and activities of Nigerians in order to safeguard our commonwealth.

“The media must not allow itself to fall into the categories of those that work against the rule of law, since this is the first step towards sanity and continuous development of any nation. It must be seen at this critical time in the life of the nation as a sole holder of public peace and stability.

“The profession does not allow the media to play to the gallery or fall into the manipulation of some unscrupulous elements in the society who are known for fomenting trouble when their selfish interests are not pampered during elections.

“This is the time for the Nigerian media to rise up to their calling and show that it is truly the watchdog of the society in whom every citizen irrespective of political, religious or ethnic affiliation can depend on for credible, balanced and objective news.”

The chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, while speaking at a Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) stakeholders’ conference in Lagos, said media houses are not just the cornerstone of democracy; they also play an indispensable role in the proper functioning of a democracy.

He had said, “The vital role of the media as a watchdog of the democratic process and in influencing political discourse, especially during elections, is essential to democratic consolidation.

“Universally, the role of the media in information dissemination and public enlightenment through the provision of platforms for electoral campaigns, public debate and voter education is a pre-condition for free and fair elections. Without the media, safeguarding the credibility and transparency of the electoral process would be a difficult task.

“While a free and objective media can foster transparency by disseminating important electoral information, a stifled or compromised media is capable of undermining the electoral process, ultimately weakening democracy.”

Media compliance

Investigation has therefore shown that all over the country, media houses were not found to have gone foul of the law regarding the Electoral Act.

Lois Eteme, the station manager of a private radio station in Abuja, said, “For us, it is not just about upholding the ethics of the profession, but largely about ensuring that we promote democratic ideals by educating the public about the political calendar.

“Our station designed different programmes that are geared towards educating the masses about what role they need to play, their rights and responsibilities while at the same time mindful of a likely sanction from NBC. For the presidential election, we gave our best. No election in the FCT on March 18, but we still remain apolitical in the coverage of state elections without being biased.”

El Effizy, the head of Corporate Affairs Unit, Nigeria Info, said compliance to electoral act is something that is spelt out in black and white for everyone to follow in their station as the management, he said, frowns seriously upon any infringement of the act.

“In Nigeria Info Abuja, we follow the rule to the letter. That is why in all our programmes, there are strict guidelines regarding what should be allowed to go on air and otherwise in order not to fall foul of BBC act.”

So far, investigations have revealed that the election which was held across the country on February 25 witnessed massive preparations and advocacies by media organisations. Not only were the media houses professional in the way they handled pre-election and ongoing post election brouhaha, they also upheld the rules governing the conduct of the election.

It would be recalled that days to the epic election, many electronic media houses in particular dedicated a proportionable air time to election issues in which they educate the voters and remind everyone about the dos and don’ts of the election.

“So far, there are no allegation of conspiracy levelled against any media organisation either by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), political parties and (or) their candidates. Though there are few hitches here and there for which INEC magnanimously extended voting in some locations, the results of those areas with fewer hitches are being counted at the moment. No media houses have conducted itself foul against the law.

SERAP’s admonition

In the meantime, the Social Economic Right and Accountability Project (SERAP) has cautioned the federal government against its plan to shut down some broadcast stations over what the government considers a breach of electoral acts.

The government through the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) had threatened to shut down broadcast stations found culpable of using their platforms to undermine the peaceful coexistence of Nigeria towards the presidential election. This followed a meeting between NBC’s director-general, Balarabe Ilelah, and broadcast stations.

In a statement, SERAP urged President Muhammadu Buhari to direct information minister, Lai Mohammed, and NBC to withdraw the threat to revoke the licences of broadcast stations and shut them down over their coverage of elections and post-election matters.

SERAP noted, through its deputy director, Kolawole Oluwadare, that, “The ‘last warning’ and threat by the NBC if not immediately withdrawn would limit freedom of expression and the ability of broadcast stations to cover important issues around the 2023 general elections.

“Political expression is a fundamental right. The threat by the NBC creates a significant risk that legitimate expression may be prohibited. Such unlawful prohibition may prevent transparency and dissemination of information on legitimate issues of public interest around the 2023 general elections.”

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