The Role of Communication in Building Democracy

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  • 1. THE ROLE OF COMMUNICATION IN BUILDING DEMOCRACYKeynote Address Delivered at the Opening of the 2nd NationalCommunication Summit of the Timex School of Communication, Kaduna,held on September 12, 2011.PROTOCOLSI bring you good tidings from the Executive Governor of Ekiti State, Dr. John Kayode Fayemiand the entire people of the Land of Honor, where we hold so dearly to integrity, sincerity ofpurpose as exemplified in the provision of accountable and transparent leadership.I am particularly pleased to be here this morning at this auspicious time of building Nigeria’sdemocracy and ensuring that the people as owners of political power get the best out of theirdemocratic experience, to speak on the press as a major stakeholder in making democracy worthits while.The sixth edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary says democracy is a system ofgovernment in which all the people of a country can vote to elect their representatives. It alsodefines communication as the activity of expressing ideas and feelings. Whichever meaning anyof us here would want to give to those two key words, it is important that we see democracy andcommunication as inseparable ingredients of any successful government of the people, by thepeople and for the people.The Media, which has often been described as the backbone of a democracy, plays a crucial rolein shaping such a healthy democracy. Fact is there can be no democracy without a viable media,which makes us aware of various social, political and economical activities happening around usand the larger world.The media operates like a mirror, which strives to show us the truth about our existence and therealities of life. The media reminds politicians about their promises at the time of elections andcoverage of campaigns helps people, especially illiterates, in electing the right person to thepower by explaining to them the manifestoes of the candidates. This reminder compelspoliticians to live up to their promises in order to remain in power.
  • 2. Communication is actually the live-wire of any society as it is the vehicle through which ideasand opinions are shared and understood. It serves as the bond between disparate parts of asociety and enhances people’s culture and profession.Today, we live in the exciting age of information technology, which has shrunk the world ontoour palms via smart phones and the internet. We are daily bombarded with information and canget the pulse of the world with just a click of a mouse. The blend of technology and humanresources (in the form of media practitioners) has brought rapid changes to societies inunearthing rampant corruption in politics and society and galvanizing pressure groups.We all are well aware of what new media has done in the overthrow on long dictatorships inNorth Africa and that Nigerian groups have also used it to organize protests against perceivedofficial laxity and high handedness.The media identifies loopholes in the democratic system, which ultimately helps government infilling the vacuum and making a system more accountable, responsive and citizen-friendly. Ademocracy without media is like a vehicle without wheels.In the 1700s, the French political philosopher Montesquieu, unhappy with the secret accusationsdelivered by palace courtiers to the French King, prescribed communication (publicity) as thecure for the abuse of power. Other western thinkers have also underscored the importance of thepress in making officials aware of the public’s discontents and allowing governments to rectifytheir errors.One of the founders of American democracy, Thomas Jefferson, for all his bitterness againstcriticism levelled against him by journalists, argued that only through the exchange ofinformation and opinion through the press would the truth emerge.He proclaimed the famous Jeffersonian declaration: “Were it left to me to decide whether weshould have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should nothesitate to prefer the latter.”Today, the notion of the media as watchdog and not merely a passive recorder of events iswidely accepted. It is understood that government cannot be held accountable if citizens are illinformed about the actions of officials and institutions. When legislatures, judiciaries and other
  • 3. oversight bodies are powerless against the mighty or are themselves corruptible, the media areoften left as the only check against the abuse of power.Eminent contemporary thinkers like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, in the seminal work,Development and Freedom, ascribe to the press the same cleansing powers. Sen outlined theneed for “transparency guarantees” such as a free press and the free flow of information.Information and critical public discussion, he said, are “an inescapably important requirement ofgood public policy.” These guarantees, he wrote, “have a clear instrumental role in preventingcorruption, financial irresponsibility and underhanded dealings.”Sen sees the media as a watchdog not just against corruption but also against disaster. “There hasnever been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy,” he said. “A free press and thepractice of democracy contribute greatly to bringing out information that can have an enormousimpact on policies for famine prevention… a free press and an active political oppositionconstitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famine could have.”In growing democracies such as ours, the media have been able to assert their role instrengthening democracy. They have been able to do this by a number of practices whichstudents of TIMEX will do well to understudy.There are: a) Investigative reporting, which unveils shady deals in high and low places and makes the media an effective and credible watchdog with credibility among the public. Investigative reporting also helps build a culture of openness and disclosure that has made democratically elected governments more accountable. There are various manuals that arm reporters with research tools and awards for investigative reporting have helped ginger a corps of investigative journalists. You should also be aware that Nigeria now has a freedom of information law that should help reporters to access official documents and make their work easier. Ekiti State is the first state in the country to domesticate the Freedom of Information Bill of its own, and even made it more robust than the one at the federal level.
  • 4. b) There can be no democracy without active participation of citizens. Ideally, the media works by keeping citizens engaged in governance by informing, educating and mobilising the public. The strongest medium is radio, which is less expensive and more accessible. The expected upsurge in community radio should also help to promote grassroots democracy by airing local issues and reflecting ethnic and linguistic diversity. Of course the Internet is also playing this mobilization role, because of its interactivity, relatively low costs of entry and freedom from official control. The press, wrote U.S. television journalist Bill Moyers in the early 1990s, should draw citizens to the public square and “provide a culture of community conversation by activating inquiry on serious public issues.” c) The media also helps to build peace and social consensus. The platform offered by the media provides the mechanisms for mediation, representation and voice so that various contending groups could settle their differences peacefully.Of course, it is also tragically true that the media have sometimes fanned the flames of discordby taking sides, reinforcing prejudices, muddling the facts and peddling half-truths. Excessivecoverage or hype of sensitive news has led to communal riots at times. The drive for profit hascreated stiff competition in media. In order to outdo each other, media organizations oftenstruggle to go one step further in publishing breathless articles on sex and crime. Some mediaexperts say although this might work to attract readers, it is at best a cheap form of journalism.Mercifully, Nigeria is an open society where the press is allowed to operate freely within the law.What had been lacking in some respects have been mechanisms to ensure they are heldaccountable to the public and that ethical and professional standards are upheld. The media donot always live up to the ideal because they are hobbled by stringent laws, monopolisticownership and, sometimes, the threat of brute force.Moreover, they are sometimes used as proxies in the battle between rival political and socialgroups and foster suspicion rather than social trust. As important as the media is, it can only playa positive role in democracy if there is an enabling environment that allows them to do so.But media operators also need the requisite skills for the kind of in-depth reporting that ademocracy requires. That is why I marvel at what is being done at Timex School of
  • 5. Communication towards building the right caliber of professionals and an enduring situation forfuture practitioners in this all important field of human endeavour. I am convinced that futurecommunicators can get such training at a Communications school such as this and learn the reston the job.Media independence is equally desirable, and this is guaranteed if media organizations arefinancially viable, free from intervention of media owners and the state, and operate in acompetitive environment. Our government is also keen to help the media to function optimallyand some of these efforts include: the protection of press rights, enhancing media accountability,building media capacity and democratizing media access.Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, participants at this conference, once again I thank you forlistening and wish you successful deliberations as you proceed in this conference. God bless.H.E. MRS. ‘FUNMI OLAYINKADEPUTY GOVERNOR OF EKITI STATE, NIGERIA.Kaduna,Kaduna State, NIGERIASeptember 2, 2011