With the advent of technology, the media space has experienced a dramatic shift over the years. This is not surprising, considering the noticeable increase in the reach of journalism, social media, and public engagement.
Now, more than ever before, enthusiasts can access information instantaneously through popular search engines, news platforms, local media websites, and blogs. In addition, smartphone alerts and app notifications have made it easy for people to be in the know with regards to the latest developments across the world.
In theory, free and independent media can be a powerful catalyst for change in both developed and developing countries. Among other things, the media has the potential to provide a critical check on state abuse of power or corruption, facilitate informed and inclusive public debate on topical issues, and draw attention to the perspectives of marginalised citizens, not to mention that it’s being a means of employment.
While the power of the media can be used for good, like other humanistic endeavours, it could be subject to misuse. Globally, journalism is in a state of topsy-turvy. Why did I describe it thus?
In recent times, new digital platforms have birthed innovative journalistic practices, enabling novel forms of communication with remarkable global reach unlike any other period in human history. Yet, the profession is bedeviled by disinformation and hoaxes, also tagged “fake news”, which promote distorted information that affects the way individuals interpret daily developments.
This ominous development has brought the heavy hand of governments on journalists in many parts of the world. According to David Kaye, the United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur, “all too many leaders see journalism as the enemy, reporters as rogue actors, tweeps as terrorists, and bloggers as blasphemers.”
Move to make journalism “exclusive” raises more questions
It is no longer news that journalists have often been accused of generating fake news, and there have been various cases of some being arrested or their work being subject to official scrutiny. In Nigeria, the government has also embarked on a quest to “sanitise media practices” in the country.
The House of Representatives – the lower chamber of Nigeria’s National Assembly – is working on a bill titled ‘The Nigerian Press Council Amendment Bill, 2019’. The bill seeks to raise the qualification for journalism practice in Nigeria, compelling practitioners to have degrees or diplomas in media-related courses.
The proposed bill – an updated version contained in the Nigerian Press Council Amendment Bill 2019 endorsed by Mr Francis Agbo, a representative of Ado/Ogbadigbo/Okpokwu constituency of Benue State – has passed second reading in February 2021.
In sum, when revised, the new law will (a) allow only persons with a first degree, Higher National Diploma in Journalism, Media Art or Communication, or postgraduate certificate to practise as journalists.
In the case of a person who has their first degree in an unrelated course, within five years, they should obtain a postgraduate degree in Journalism, Media Art, Communication, or related fields.
The new law will increase the punishment and fine for untrained and fake journalists.
In a statement, Andrew Agbese, media aide to Agbo, argued that the bill will redefine journalism practice and reduce quackery in the vocation.
“The bill has aroused interest in the media, given the extent quacks and fakes have infiltrated the industry, bringing the image of journalists to an all-time low in Nigeria,” he said.
He added, “The bill, when passed into law, will address these challenges by redefining and refining the media industry and by extension, strengthening democracy and hence the need to define who a journalist is, what qualification qualifies him to be a journalist and stipulates punishment for defaulters and quacks.”
From the above, it need not be mentioned that Nigeria’s legislative arm believes that journalism is Nigeria’s biggest problem, not to mention that journalistic woes would disappear if practitioners had degrees in media-related courses.
When it comes to media regulation, the Ethical Journalism Network raised pertinent questions of who should be regulated. Is it only major newspapers and broadcasters that reach millions of people? Does it cover radio stations in remote areas or bloggers with thousands of followers?
What will become of tech media firms, including popular ones, which neither have founders with media degrees nor make the attainment of one a requirement before recruiting? Does their lack of degree invalidate countless hours of research and work they put in showcasing remarkable feats of African startups to the world? I think not!
The amendment bill approved by Nigerian lawmakers will weaken the very foundation of freedom of expression. It could imbue fear, making people hesitant to share their opinions on controversial issues for fear they could be misconstrued as fake news.
Rather than outright criminalising journalists without a degree in media-related courses, Nigerian lawmakers may emphasise the need for media houses to increase their capacity by carrying out training and retraining programmes for their media practitioners.
Also, the government should promote news literacy, educating individuals on how to distinguish false from real news and what should be done to evaluate news sources. This information can, to an extent, curb the negative impact of fake news or misinformation in the minds of the populace.
Innovative tech companies can also be of great help; through algorithms and crowdsourcing, they can deploy solutions to help find fake news and identify it for consumers.
I wonder how our dear lawmakers would classify robot journalists, or are they not aware that robot journalism is on the rise? It feels sad that we take delight in chasing shadows, for a country with so much potential yet very few results to show. Sad indeed!
Still on NIN-SIM registration and COVID-19 surge
The dissatisfaction of Nigerian citizens over the ongoing NIN-SIM registration is no news.
In fact, the government’s resolute determination in carrying out its scheme can, at best, be described as misdirected and misguided as there are far more pressing matters begging for attention – the most being the insecurities afflicting Nigeria.
In a show of “solidarity”, the Federal Government of Nigeria expressed its satisfaction with the recent level of participation of citizens in the ongoing process to obtain and register their National Identification Numbers with their SIM cards.
Also, the National Identity Management Commission, in a statement on February 2, 2021, said that during a recent task force meeting, it was noted that a total of 56.18 million NINs had so far been obtained by mobile network operators, marking a significant increase from the 47.8 million figure of NIN registrations reported on January 18. Good for them, but at what cost?
Following the commencement of the registration on December 15, 2020, the number of COVID-19 infection cases was 14,959. Fast forward to 71 days later, with 153,187 confirmed cases of infection, concluding that the NIN registration is the cause of this upsurge is a no-brainer.
Whatever happened to all the supposed measures that were put in place to curb the spread? Or has the government been stringing its citizens on all along knowing the consequences of the NIN registration?
The government has been criticised, appealed to, and even given practical recommendations with respect to this policy, all to no avail. Perhaps what is needed is some divine intervention.
ICT Clinic by CFA is published weekly in the Sunday Punch