Media, Military Relations In Nigeria: Which Way Forward?

Media-military relationship has always dominated pubic and academic discourse since the evolution of the mass media. Part of the reasons for this discourse is because both the media and the military are powerful; the former in shaping public opinion and the later in stamping the authority of the state.

One of the famous mass media theories, the agenda- setting theory propounded by McCombs and Shaw, is regarded as a media impact theory. The theorists said agenda-setting is “the ability to effect cognitive change among individuals, and to structure their thinking.  Here may lie the most important effect of mass communication, its ability to mentally order and organize our world for us. In short, the mass media may not be successful in telling us what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about slet.

Granted, it could be argued that the main objective of the media is to sell their product to the largest public possible, while military is focused on fighting for political, strategic or military objectives, these objectives could be mutually exclusive as each could affect the operation of the others.

As desirable as a cordial media-military seem, evidence suggests that it has been fraught with hostilities globally and locally.

For example, in an article: Media/Military Relations in the United States, Douglas Porch said that poor media/military relations have been a constant feature of U.S. history and are not just a short-term product of the Vietnam War.  And the reasons for this strained relationship are not far-fetched.

First, the institutional cultures of the two groups are practically antithetical. The press is fragmented into many sub-groups that are competitive, self-regulating, and lacking a firm code of professional standard.

Today, with the advent of the new media, almost anyone can become a reporter. This guarantees many different perspectives. Journalism is a highly individualistic, and highly subjective enterprise. The journalist’s job is to collect information, and package it in a form that will sell to the general public, in the process out- performing the competition and getting his or her by-line on an article. Journalists see it as their role to expose abuses of power by large institutions, and to publicize instances where democratic and “military values” clash.

While the journalist is an entrepreneur, the requirement to manage violence imposes on the soldier an organization, and an attitude, that is hierarchical, disciplined, and professional. The soldier is a team player in an institution that has strict professional and ethical standard, and rigorous, even ritualized, sets of procedures.

The natural tendency of the military (is) to keep things under control,” insists Lt. Charles Hoskinson, a Public Affairs Officer (PAO) in the Gulf War. The soldier who values loyalty is deeply suspicious, even offended, by a “publish and be damned” journalistic ethic.

Secondly, the goals of the two institutions are different: the journalist seeks to tell a story of such interest to the public that it will pay to access it. The role of the military, however, is to pursue national objectives, to fulfill the specific mission assigned by political leaders. These two aims need not be incompatible and may often be mutually supporting. However, the mix of deeply antithetical cultures, one competitive, the other cooperative, combined with sometimes antagonistic objectives creates the raw material for  media/military conflict.

Soldiers fear that in wartime the media may tilt the balance between victory and defeat by publishing stories or images that may breach security and cost lives or worse, undermine public support for the war effort. From a military perspective, many journalists nurture a bias against military values, which are untutored in the fundamentals of the military profession, and are psychologically unprepared to deal with the realities of combat. One widely held stereotype of the press is that ambition and a quest  for sensationalism, rather than a search for truth, drives the journalistic “ethic.” For their part, reporters insist that they have a professional obligation and constitutional duty to report the news. They argue that the military’s closed culture, exaggerated insistence on operational secrecy, and adherence to a “command climate” hostile to outside scrutiny bars their effort to get “the story.”

It was Lt Col Sagir Musa in an online newspaper article which said that the military’s involvement in politics and governance of Nigeria and its draconian decrees intended to mute and control the press can also not be ignored in any serious attempt at understanding the friction between media and military in Nigeria.

For instance, the military through various decrees proscribed newspaper houses, harassed, victimized and in some cases jailed some journalists expectedly to check, restrict or silence the press.

Musa cited two examples of such obnoxious decrees which include: Decree No 4 of 1984- Public Officers Protection against False Accusation. Section 1(1) of the decree provided that; “Any person who publishes in any form whether written or otherwise, any message, rumor, report or statement being….(is) calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of the state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offence under this decree”. It was under this section that Mr Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor both of the Guardian Newspaper then were charged for reporting and publishing that some of Nigeria’s foreign missions were to be closed, Maj Gen IBM Haruna was to replace Maj Gen Hananiya as new envoy to the United Kingdom and that eight senior military officers have been tipped as ambassadors then.

There was also the Newspapers Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation Decree No 48 of 1993. It was this decree that was used to proscribe the Concord, Punch and the Nigerian Observer Newspapers.

Therefore, it is obvious from the above, that the basic explanation for the contemptible media– military relationship in Nigeria is that the history, natures and cultures of the two institutions are antagonistic. Historically, the media in Nigeria was an instrument of colonial liberation, the weapon used by nationalists to expose colonial injustices, fight for freedom, equal rights activism and subsequently political independence.

On the other hand, the military particularly the army was allegedly used by the colonialists against the people as an instrument of oppression and repression. There is also a feeling that at independence, the army was used to further serve and defend the interest of colonial power and later to serve the interest of military regimes or domineering political parties.

Again, modern media technological evolution has brought new challenges to media – military relation. The media are so influential in modern times. They have expanded in every sector,  from their presence on the battlefield to their very fast information transfer directly from that battlefield. The impact of modernisation has resulted that there is no absolute control of media access in the war zone. Using computers, mobile phones and other technologies gives opportunity for ordinary people to take a video or picture as events unfold.

However, by way of recommendation, Douglas Porch, an expert security analyst identified the following guidelines to structure media/military relationship. They are hardly exhaustive, nor are they all under the control either of the media or the military. They are based on the premise that the media and the military have no intrinsic reason to distrust each other, and can establish a perfectly workable, professional relationship if each respects some fundamental ground rules.

  1. Policy goals in a deployment should be clearly articulated by the political leaders. If the policy has support, and the strategy is sound, then the media will have little scope to influence policy.
  2. The size, structure and rules of engagement should be clearly stated, and the mission of those forces clearly articulated.
  3. If possible, a core pool of reporters trained and informed in military doctrine, operations and equipment should be available to deploy to cover the early stages of an operation. The Ministry of Defence can establish guidelines for qualifications for media representatives. News media should not dispatch the entertainment correspondent to cover a military deployment.
  4. All commanders must understand that dealing with the media is part of their responsibility, a high priority, and not something that remainse exclusive to the force PRO.. In large-scale deployments, a flag officer should be placed in charge of the media. There should be clear media policy and top-down direction.
  5. Dealing with the media should become part of training in war colleges. Public Affairs Officer should become a more attractive career option.
  6. Get reporters involved in the planning stage so that they will understand the overall concept of an operation and the strategy to be employed. Most will understand the security concerns. In any case, the risks are minimal and the potential payoff great. Keeping the media in the dark will lead to skepticism, and encourage them to second-guess decisions, especially when the military encounters a setback.
  7. Press briefings should offer solid, truthful and timely information from the military. “Spinning” a story does more harm than good, because it encourages the press to seek out less reliable sources to verify an account. Make your case, but say only what you believe to be true.
  8. State the sources of your information. If you cannot verify a story, do not present it as the truth, only as something reported.
  9. The tempo of press conferences and the nature of the press releases should not be driven by the constant pressure for “new news.” The assumption is often that mega stories, like wars, require a constant, round-the-clock stream of dramatic news. If it’s “All Quite on the Western Front”, say so.
  10. When there is an unflattering story or a setback, face the story and get it out. Never try to cover up. If the press has been taken into your confidence and is convinced that the strategy is robust, then it will be less inclined to jump to the conclusion that the situation is unraveling.
  11. The military should get out of the censorship business. In any case, its ability to apply “security reviews” is rapidly being outpaced by technology. “Security at the source” is a much better policy.
  12. Allow the media maximum access to the battlefield consistent with the security. “Embed” journalists in units. The practice of nominating “Pet” reporters should be discouraged as far as possible.
  13. In humanitarian operations, take advantage of the local media, and of reporters on the ground before the deployment of the military. They may know the area well and have useful information and contacts.
  14. The media should make an effort finally, to approach each operation with an open mind, and not shape its expectations in the light of a previous operation.

Nkwocha is the editorial director MDAs Monthly and presented this paper at a Civil society/military relations parley in Abuja recently.

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