Democracy and Development: Community Newspapers in the Age of Fake News

Being a guest lecture by

By Dan Agbese

Former Editor-in-Chief, Newswatch magazine and Executive Director, MayFive Media

On the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Eggonnews

Lafia, Nasarawa State, November 21, 2019


I am pleased and privileged to share the high table at this occasion with a man I deeply respect and honestly hold in high esteem. Air Commodore Dan Suleiman is a quintessential officer and a great statesman. He is a quiet performer and a quiet mover in our national politics. He was my military governor in the old Plateau State. That he accepted to grace this occasion as chairman attests eloquently to his modesty and his commitment to the genuine struggles by our young people here and in other parts of the country to make their contributions to our national development.

I salute you, sir.

Let me take this opportunity to formally apologise to Air Commodore Dan Suleiman for what happened long ago. My general manager at The Nigeria Standard, the late Chief David Attah, once told me that the military governor was so displeased with something we published in the newspaper that he refused to eat his breakfast that morning. I do not recall what it was but the significance of his action is that he did not react like a typical military man. He treated us like errant men, not enemies. He could have ordered his men to shave our heads or even lock us up but instead he took out his anger on his breakfast. I hope, sir, that you are no longer hungry.

We happily join the management and staff of a vibrant community newspaper, Eggonnews, in celebrating its 20th anniversary. It is a matter of immense professional pride to all of us in the pen fraternity that despite the inhospitable business and political environment, this community newspaper is proudly celebrating its 20th anniversary. Mr Matthew Kuju and his men and women must be doing something right. I heartily salute them.

The success of this newspaper must be assessed against an important background in community newspapering in Nigeria. Community newspapers were not popular in our country. Indeed, our media history here is scrappy. Part of the reason owes to the political nature in the history of the Nigerian press.  Politicians and later regional governments set up newspapers to join forces, first to fight for our national independence and later to fight for ethnic and regional political interests. This impressed upon them the wisdom of the spread of their newspapers nation-wide so that wherever you were in the country, you would read what the redoubtable independence warriors from your region said and did. From that point on, every newspaper in the country chose to be national, circulated throughout the country.

This political wisdom did not match the economic imperatives of newspaper publishing. For instance, what was the economic wisdom in the government insisting that The Nigeria Standard must be circulated in Sokoto and other towns and cities so far away from Jos daily? At the time, it cost us an average of three Naira to take one copy of the newspaper to Sokoto. The cover price was less than one Naira. I am sure you would have no problems working out the maths and see that we were expending resources for which there were only losses as returns.

Happily, the tide has somewhat turned. The economic imperatives having trumped the political ambition of a national spread. Private newspaper proprietors, always watching the bottom line, have lowered their sights and imbibed the wisdom of community newspapers. Almost every state capital today has a good number of community newspapers serving some vested political and ethnic interests. The last time I visited Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, there were 15 community newspapers. We have certainly learnt some vital lessons from the Americans. Fully 87 per cent of their newspapers are community newspapers. It would be sheer madness for a newspaper proprietor in that country to aspire to circulate his newspaper nation-wide. The US is a continent, not your typical country.

I have made this slight detour in my presentation to commend the wisdom of proprietors of community newspapers in the country. A community newspaper is also called a rural newspaper. By definition, a community newspaper serves a particular community. It serves two fundamental purposes. Firstly, it becomes the eyes, the ears and the voice of the community. It concentrates its coverage on issues and events that affect the political, social and economic wellbeing of the community. One successful community newspaper in the country was the Oriwu Sun published in Ikorodu. It was successful because it did what a community newspaper could do profitably. It wisely exploited the traditional penchant of the Yoruba for celebrations. It did not pretend to publish hard news. It published soft news and lavish photographs of celebrations of births, deaths, promotions, marriages, chieftaincy titles and so on in that community. It is an important lesson. A community newspaper publisher cannot compete with the mainstream newspapers. He must find a niche for his newspaper and stick with it. Perhaps, this is Mr Kuju has done to make his newspaper so successful and remain this long in the business.

Secondly, a community newspaper is better placed than the national newspapers to interpret larger national issues to the community it serves from the perspective of the community. This helps to properly inform and educate its readers. It is not a small task.

Let me now turn to my topic, Democracy and Development: Community Newspapers in the Age of Fake News. It is a wide subject. We will try to narrow it within reason to ensure that you are not bored and, therefore, tempted to sleep and even snore. Democracy and development are recurring decimals in discussing the role of the news media in national development. Here, we are invited to examine the capacity of the community newspaper to aid democracy and development against the background of what is generally regarded as the new challenge to the media, namely fake news.

The unexpressed fear or concern inherent in the topic of our discussion is, can a community newspaper survive in the face of the avalanche of fake news? My answer is yes. There is nothing strange or unusual about fake news because it has been mankind’s undefeated challenge in its history going all the way back to Adam and Eve in the fabled Garden of Eden.

There is no biblical evidence, of course, that anyone published a community newspaper in the garden before it was disbanded. But remember that the serpent was said to have deceived the couple, thus firmly establishing the fact that deceit by whatever name it is called, is a human problem. The dark purpose of fake news is to deceive and becloud reasoning.

Fake news used to be known simply as falsehood or propaganda or disinformation or misinformation. All the four names are other names for lies. Falsehood is number nine in the Ten Commandments in which God decreed: “Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour.” A false witness is a lie intended to damage a person or a group of persons. There must be men and women languishing in our correctional centres today who are victims of false witnesses borne against them. We have been told time and again that fake news made Mrs Hillary Clinton lose the 2016 US presidential election. Since then fake news has become a big issue. Perhaps the jury is still out on that one but my own take is that she lost because her own country men were not yet ready for a female president.

In my long experience in the news media, I know that the single most critical challenge for an editor is to keep the gates locked against lies by whatever name they are called. It is a delicate professional responsibility. Every newspaper, no matter how small, is a medium of public record. What it publishes today would certainly be read and used by historians and researchers looking into our country at this point in its development. Distorted or false information would amount to a distorted history of our country. Some of us may not be here to read that verdict, but no editor would be without some blame.

The good thing is that human beings are fully aware of their weaknesses. They do not always play straight. The tendency to impugn other people’s integrity and reputation is an ever present danger in all countries. Governments take steps to minimise this by enacting legislations, such as the law of libel, the seditious act, law against slander, the Newspapers Act of 1964, Decree 11 of 1976 and Decree 4 of 1984, to mention a few, to protect honest and upright citizens from being maligned in the news media. There is no worse smear than the smear in the news media. That some crooked elements try to use the news media as a means of getting at their opponent is a fact hidden in plain sight.

The big irony here is that we all want our newspapers to be professionally committed to verifiable facts; to give accurate and reliable information to the people to enable them make informed judgements about issues confronting the society at any point in time; yet we have little or no qualms trying to influence them to call white black and black blue if it would serve our individual or collective purposes. We know that information is not just power. It is actually the power. The right of the people to know is fundamental to the success of democracy. If democracy must be duly respected as the government of the people, for the people by the people’s representatives in the executive and the legislative branches of government, then the people are entitled to know what the government is doing with its left hand and its right hand.

It was to prevent opacity in our governments that the framers of our constitution found it necessary to constitutionally empower the news media under section 22 to hold governments accountable to the people. This is the famous watch dog role of the media in a democracy. If the dogs are not there to watch over the conduct of governments, nearly all of them would do much worse than they do now and keep the people in the dark for tendentious security reasons and national interest. The people would be denied the opportunity to question and even protest ill-considered decisions and pure perfidy on the part of the governments. It would drive a wedge between the governors and the governed and impugn the integrity of democracy. And it would weaken the capacity of democracy to drive national development.

Long before the birth of Jesus Christ, the great Roman warrior, Julius Caesar, fully realised his obligation to keep the Republic informed of the wars he prosecuted against other nations. He published daily what passed for a community newspaper called Acta Diurnal. He knew that keeping the people in the dark would have engendered fear back home in the Republic. Those of you who were old enough during the Nigerian civil war would recall the resort by both sides to the conflict to keep the people informed of events, each from its own perspectives. In war, of course, the first casualty is truth. And of course, the truth suffered because telling the truth is not usually wise in such conflicts. But it was ok.

Those of who worked or work for state-owned media know that our governments too founded newspapers to inform and educate the people. The problem is that they saw or see them essentially as propaganda outfits rather than as a market place for robust interactions between the governments and the people. No one doubts that information is the greatest weapon available to men and women under all forms of government. And because the news media are primarily responsible for gathering, processing and disseminating information, they constitute the most powerful social institution in the world. We may love or hate the newspaper but none of us dares to ignore it.

Newspapers recognise their power and emphasise it by declaring their mission statements in what is called editorial policies, written or unwritten. It is the nearest to a newspaper constitution. These statements are necessarily high-minded because they are intended to re-assure the public that newspapers appreciate the enormity of their power and are sworn to exercising it responsibly by at least minimising the intrusion of falsehood or fake news in the sacred duty of informing and educating the people.

Let me give you three examples of mission statements by our newspapers to underline this point. The mission statement of The West African Pilot owned by the late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was: “Show the light and the people will find the way.” It was its way of saying that it was committed to properly informing and educating the people so they would be free of ignorance.

The Daily Times began publication on June 1, 1926. Part of its mission statement reads: “One of our chief aims will be to develop in all Nigerians, white or black, a strong sense of sane nationalism and a desire to work with hearty co-operation and singleness of purpose to bring this young, promising country to its proper place in imperial brotherhood.” The newspaper that made that grand and noble mission statement was only four pages big. Dynamite indeed comes in small packages.

And from the New Nigerian comes this mission statement: “The main purpose of the New Nigerian Newspapers is to promote public good and welfare. Truth must be their guiding light. Hence their reporting and editorial comments must be as honest and fair as possible.”

In each and every case, the mission of each newspaper was made abundantly clear. Each imposed on itself the sacred duty to be truthful to the journalism profession and serve the people with a sense of responsibility and integrity. Each swore that the information it gave would not be tainted with falsehood or biased against anyone or a group of persons. Each promised to be fair to all concerned. Each was committed to building rather than destroying the community. These were noble sentiments.

In my experience, all editors know their duty to the people and the society at large. The problem is that there are so many intervening variables that confront an editor with a tough dilemma. An editor does not make news unless he is arrested or his head is shaved with a blunt razor on the orders of a military or civilian governor. The editor must depend on others who make the news. The editor’s problem is that news-makers are not always very truthful.Their objective in giving out information is to either expose the alleged bad behaviour of someone with whom they have issues or even impugn their integrity outright. Because an editor is not the news maker and because he must get his information from other people, he is vulnerable to the manipulations and the shenanigans of news makers. If he is misled; he misleads his readers; if he is misinformed, he misinforms his readers and if the news is, to use the current popular word, fake, he publishes fake news.

I do not seek here to hold the editor blameless for his poor professional decisions that may seep through in his newspaper from unreliable news sources. I seek to suggest that editorial decisions are combined products of social expectations and the role of the players on our national stage, be they politicians, businessmen and women or local ethnic and religious champions.

Politicians are the loudest voices in condemning fake news but I tell you this: politicians are the greatest sources of fake news. Their capacity to manufacture and purvey fake news is legendary. They are always out there, fishing for an opportunity to pile it on opponents to sink them in the choppy waters of primitive politics, here and elsewhere. No news medium is immune to the virus of manipulations by governments, institutions and individuals to serve their particular needs in the public space.

Community newspapers, such as Eggon News, thus face peculiar and even existential threats to their survival. If a community newspaper is the only medium in town open to the people, the threat is complicated. It is easily vulnerable to the manipulation of those pursuing political, ethnic and religious interests. Politicians have the intolerable habit of insisting that they are more entitled than others to be heard and to be heard say, in the community newspaper. They are prepared to persuade or purchase an editor to give them special treatment. The brown envelope is a cruel reminder that the sight of money can force and editor to compromise himself. If all that fails, they resort to punish the editor by way of undue pressure and blackmail. It is a tough world.

If a community newspaper is not allowed to do its job professionally by being fair to all, it takes something away from the people’s right to know and, it narrows the frontiers of democratic pluralism. Intolerance is the worst weapon in the hands of politicians in all climes and under all forms of government.

It is easy to tell the editor to soldier on because he is sure to be protected by the gods of honesty. But that is easier said than done. Still, an editor must learn to navigate the treacherous waters of fake news and those who are in the bad habit of purveying it in order to survive.

The media in developed countries now employ professionals called fact checkers. Their duty is to check every major piece of information available to media to establish its veracity. This is important because one big lie carelessly allowed into the media could destroy its long and cherished integrity in one fell swoop. The battle to keep liars out of the news media is on. It would be unrealistic to expect an easy win. But we should be encouraged by this: if the current howling at fake news is sincere, then the news media could expect to enter a new era in which news makers are motivated more by the desire to serve public needs and interests than by maligning and burying their political opponents and business rivals in the sludge of putrid fake news.

I think it is right and proper to say to Eggon News: keep doing what you have done in the last twenty years to grow and survive the hostile economic, social and political weather. I leave you with this journalism creed from two US newspaper men, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel:

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
  2. Its first loyalty is to the citizens
  3. It must serve as an independent monitor of power
  4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
  5. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

And if I may add, it must defend its honour and integrity.

Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, you have been a wonderful audience. I take it that you did not sleep because I did not hear anyone snoring.

Thank you.

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