General Buhari and Press Freedom: The AIT debacle and the need for effective communication

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VENTURES AFRICA – The All Progressives Congress recently overturned a prohibition order directed at correspondents of the Africa Independent Television by the security team of President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari citing security concerns and the broadcaster’s “unethical” documentary on the Buhari family in the run-up to the Presidential elections.  In a swift reaction to the banning, the People’s Democratic Party disseminated by its national publicity secretary, Mr Olisa Metuh, initially described the Buhari’s actions as not only unjustifiable but also unconstitutional and counter to the idea of a free press in a democracy. As of today, AIT is no longer barred from covering the daily activities of the President-elect, General Mohammadu Buhari but perhaps some damage has been done.

In addition to the PDP reaction, regular Nigerians were rightfully enraged. However while some of  the responses to the AIT fiasco in the newspapers, on the internet and on social media were perfectly legitimate, there were some that I believe reflected the very hateful censure that they were condemning. Some responses called the President-elect a ‘tyrant’. Others included opinions about the APC and its potential to be corrupt, tribalist and even Jihadist. Then there were others who reminded President Elect Buhari that it was the AIT documentary that led to the banning of the network that also swayed principled Nigerians to vote him into the highest office in the land. Many of the responses provoked their own tribalist responses, spinning a never-ending cycle of tribalism.

Such is the power of words.

A number of problems afflict Nigeria today and the media must continue to be critical of those in power if our democracy is to grow. The incoming government must understand that press freedom in Nigeria will not be negotiated, let alone in this age of information where citizen reporters and micro-bloggers hold sway. In addition, the incoming government must be hands on when it comes to managing crisis communication. The press release clarifying the facts about the AIT suspension came rather late, allowing confusion about of the ideals of the incoming government in the eyes of its employers, the people. If Buhari is to succeed his communications team will need to be lean and exceptional with a steady discipline to a clear and concise message. The era of glorified sycophants and multiple spokespersons to launder the government’s image and attack well-meaning citizens who offer constructive criticism needs to end.

President-elect Buhari must understand that his reforms are only as effective as they are communicated. He must ensure that his government feels the pulse of the nation, with regular nationwide town hall meetings and an open communication channel for citizens and whistleblowers to reach him or his ministers  with verifiable information on their welfare and security. In the Post-Apartheid era, The South African Presidency setup a call centre staffed by seasoned professionals to enable direct communication between the people and the President. After an election campaign characterized by and in many ways fought on various forms of social media, Nigerian citizens hope the President-elect’s Twitter account does not go dormant after his swearing in.

The AIT affair was needlessly disappointing because of the way the incoming President responded and because the noxious tribalist sentiments it exposed on both sides. We hope the incoming government has learned its lessons and will spend its days and nights building needed infrastructure and enacting institutional reform instead of making enemies of the national press – an absolutely essential part of our growing democracy. Furthermore, the media and the general public need to be wary of those who stoke tribalist sentiments to distract us from the numerous challenges that lie ahead.

By Ndiana-Abasi Matthew

Ndiana-Abasi Matthew is the former Regional Director, West Africa of IC Publications UK Ltd, and Director, Palm3 Strategic Communications Pty Ltd based in Lagos and Johannesburg. @ndiana on Twitter email: ndianau@gmail.com

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