Muffled Broadcast Drums and the Withering Voices of Dialogues in Nigeria
Catalogue Vol.26 No. 1 Muffled Broadcast Drums and the Withering Voices of Dialogues in... Nigeria



Nigeria’s broadcasting space has been enriched with lively and robust political discourse since 1993 when the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) rolled out the first set of broadcast licenses to private investors. Broadcasters have leveraged on the widened broadcast space and the media-friendly policies of the government, particularly since the return of civil rule in 1999, to enrich political dialogue on the airwaves – which ultimately affects discussions off the air. And with broadcast media’s potentials for social control, the dialogue on the air has affected the hearts and minds of the audience in one direction or another. However, recent actions and rhetoric by the broadcast regulator, NBC, have seemingly threatened the freedom of robust discussions on the airwaves.

Broadcast stations are being fined; some are queried while others are threatened with withdrawal of licenses and closure. This, in a way, is akin to muffling the drums of dialogue. This article examines the recent posture of the NBC towards political dialoguing on the airwaves, the possible effects of the new NBC attitude to political conversations and what it portends for the operations of the media in a Nigeria that is still grappling with the vestiges of a long military dictatorship. The article holds that for the broadcast media to truly serve the cause of democracy in Nigeria, they should be free from the systemic attempts by the government and its agents to whittle the broadcast stations as platforms for robust exchange of ideas. The article should also touch on what should be done to these broadcast stations who engaged in unethical broadcasting.

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Political communication is the pivot of democratic governance the world over. An important and near indispensable point in the chain of political communication is the mass media in all their forms – print, broadcasting and online channels. The news media report, aggregate and/or comment on political issues, while social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, allow Internet users to share information rapidly. The media, by their professional calling, are supposed to be neutral, impartial and objective in the handling of issues around them, particularly political issues loosely defined to include all matters that are related to governance in a polity. McNair (2015, p.11) aptly notes that:

“...In democratic political systems the media function both as transmitters of political communication which originates outside the media organization itself, and as senders of political messages con- structed by journalists and other producers such as bloggers”.

To achieve the above, the media’s account of political events may be laden with value judgments which manifest in subjectivities and biases which Kaid, Gerstle and Sanders (1991) describe as political reality and give three categories: objective political reality comprising political events as they unfold; subjective reality as perceived by actors and citizens, and constructed reality – events as covered by the media. In the process of functioning as transmitters of political communication and senders of political messages, the mass media, particularly the broadcast media, perform five functions in a democratic society. McNair (2015, pp.18-20) list these functions as follows:

  1. First, they must inform citizens of what is happening around them (what we may call the ‘surveillance’ or ‘monitoring’ functions of the media).
  2. Second, they must educate as to the meaning and significance of ‘facts’.
  3. Third, the media must provide a platform for public political discourse, ‘public opinion’ and feeding that opinion back to the public from whence it came. This must include the provision of space for the expression of dissent, without which the notion of democratic consensus would be meaningless.
  4. The media’s fourth function is to give publicity to governmental and political institutions – the ‘watchdog’ role of journalism.
  5. Finally, the media in democratic societies serve as a channel for the advocacy of political viewpoints. Parties require an outlet for the articulation of their policies and programmes to a mass audience, and thus the media must open to them.

In the course of informing and educating the citizens and providing publicity to governmental institutions, the broadcast media provide a veritable platform for public discourse and advocacy that may lead to the formation of public opinion – the aggregate of private opinions of individuals – in what German sociologist Jürgen Habermas calls the “public sphere”. The facilitators and sustainers of the public sphere, without doubt, are the mass media – and in the context of this article, the broadcast media. They function as a forum for the enlightened, rational, critical and unbiased public discussion of issues of common interest. It is in this discursive space that journalists, political actors and others who have something to say make their advocacies and canvas their opinions.

It is also in this discursive space that advocacies assume the level of a dialogue where there are vociferous exchanges among participants in the dialoguing process. Of truth, it is dialogue – arising from freedom of speech and of the press, that sustains the public sphere. Freedom of speech and of the press is a natural and inalienable right, and rests on the assumptions that men desire to know and be guided by the truth, and that men invariably differ in their opinion. Therefore, each man should be allowed to urge his own opinion freely and accord others the right to do so. This implies that for the public sphere to be open for dialogue, there must be mutual toleration of one another in the advocacy of opinions.

For the broadcast media in Nigeria, the platform for dialogue was highly restricted before 24th August, 1992, when the National Broadcasting Commission Act (1992, No. 38) came into existence. The Act had since been amended by Act No. 55 of 1999. The Act opened up the frontiers of broadcasting in Nigeria through the admission of private broadcasters into the broadcasting space. Private broad- cast stations, driven by creativity in content and diversity of ownership and voices on the air, expanded the platform for dialogues. This motivated the personalities on the air while the audience enjoyed to the fullest the robust and lively discussions that added value to their daily living, including meeting their information needs.

Although dialogues can still be located on the airwaves, participants in the dialogues appear stifled and, on the edge, apparently because of the utterances and actions of the regulator of broadcasting in Nigeria – the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). There seems to be a growing descent to the pre-1992 era when discussions on the broadcast stations were highly regimented because of (government) ownership of the stations. Increasingly, therefore, the broadcast drums, which alert and sensitize the audience to the day’s intelligence and help the audience to understand same, are being muffled such that the sounds from the broadcast drums are becoming faint, unconvincing, aloof and distant, more for the reason of filling the airwaves than in engaging in useful and functioning dialogues that provide perspectives to the issue(s) at hand. This mini-censorship is what William Hatchen called the Muffled Drums in his classic: Muffled Drums – the News Media in Africa, to describe the authoritarian approach to the mass media in Africa as a whole. As a muffled drum does not send out signals with utmost freedom, so are the broadcast stations that have been muffled. Discussions (dialogues) and even the report of the day’s intelligence are done with fear because of the possibility of crossing the limits imposed by the National Broadcasting Commission.

By muffled broadcast drums is meant the systematic attempts by the government and the National Broadcasting Commission to gag or restrain the free-flow of news, discussions and interactions on radio and television stations. Dialogue refers to the interactions and analyses on the broadcast stations while withering voices of dialogue refers to the reduced robust discussions on the airwaves.

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