Nexim

Town Hall Meetings: Can this innovation provide elusive solutions to troubled polity

2 months ago | 167


Mary Beth Leonard
NCC
ExxonMobil

There is no doubt how effective town hall meetings can be in tackling the numerous challenges confronting the nation, especially where there is poor quality representation and huge trust deficits between the government and the people. The editors have embraced it and other professional bodies should follow this example as the benefits are enormous.

By Goddy Ikeh

NOBLE Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, had on Monday, Nov. 22 warned that Nigeria has reached a stage “where a series of town hall meetings should be organised to ask ourselves retrospective questions about what has happened to us.” 

The Guardian newspaper report of Tuesday, November 23, 2021, quoted Soyinka as saying during the presentation and discussion of his book, ‘Chronicles From the Land of The Happiest People on Earth,’ inside the British Library Knowledge Centre, that the country has degenerated into a situation where human dignity has been devalued by vices such as the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls and the recent alleged ritual killing of Timothy Adegoke Oludare at Osogbo in Osun State

This call by Nobel Laureate has brought to the fore the unfortunate state of affairs the nation has found itself and until decisive actions are taken by every concerned sector of the Nigerian society, be it socio-cultural groups, political and economic groupings among others, we may not be able to rescue this nation from the slide into anarchy. We should stop playing the ostrich in the name of politics and that is why the media should assume its constitutional role of being the Watchdog and Agenda setter of the society.   

Perhaps, the Town Hall meeting of the Nigerian Guild of Editors held on December 2, 2021 in Lagos with the theme “Consolidating Nigeria's Democracy: Citizen's Verdict and Outlining an Agenda for the Future”, has apparently answered the call by Nobel Laureate for more Town Hall meetings to salvage what we can and check the rapid slide of the nation by politicians, who unfortunately, are one of the major drivers of the multiple crisis afflicting the nation today.

In Nigeria, the role of the mass media is central to the development of its democracy and this has been generally acknowledged to the extent that the media has often been described as the Fourth Estate of the Realm. But whether it has been empowered and supported to play the roles effectively is a different issue altogether.  

Emphasizing the role of the media, the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, described the mass media as a more important arm of the society than the government itself. “Were it left for me to choose whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I shall not hesitate to choose the latter,” he stated.

Nigeria, like other democracies, recognizes the role of the mass media and has gone to the extent of giving constitutional backing to it. The  1999 Constitution did not only guarantee every Nigerian freedom of expression and to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas, and opinions, but also gave obligations to the media to monitor governance and hold the government accountable to the people.

Speaking at that Town Hall meeting, the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, stated that the greatest strength of democracy is the ability to improve upon and reinvent itself.

In her keynote remarks at the opening of Town Hall meeting, the US envoy discussed the challenges faced by Nigeria and other democracies across the world and noted that “When the citizenry’s belief in democracy, good governance and elections are restored, invariably they will want to be a part of that system and will defend it.”

“Our hope is that in this forum today is that you will lead and serve as catalysts for further discussions on countering disinformation; increasing transparency; solution building; and encouraging media literacy and their contribution to a democracy that is accountable to its people,” she said.

According to her, in recognition of the vital importance of a free press and ‘the fourth Estate” to democracy and good governance, the U.S. Embassy and the Nigerian Guild of Editors co-launched in Lagos the first of six media-focused Town Halls and Workshops that will take place across Nigeria in the next several months.

The ambassador explained that the capacity-building programme will provide a forum for more than 200 participating Nigerian editors and leaders of the independent press to discuss and share best practices, and to also hear from U.S. experts on topics such as journalistic standards, identifying bias, and conducting fact-based investigative reporting to better inform the Nigerian public.

Earlier in his welcome address, the President of the NGE, Mustapha Isah, said that the Town Hall meetings would examine how well the media in Nigeria has been playing its role of holding the government and its officials accountable to the people and ensuring good governance.

He noted that good governance is facilitated by strong and independent media and stated: “Freedom of the media allows for the creation of a public space in which a wide range of debates and expression of variety of viewpoints can take place.

“A free and critical press is essential for the growth and development of any democracy. The media as a watchdog of society owes it as a duty to monitor governance and hold public office holders accountable to the people who elected them,” he said.

According to him, good governance is simply an essential framework which serves as a means of achieving wider goals, including security of life and property (which is the primary goal of government, according to the 1999 constitution), prosperity and the general well-being of the citizenry.

In his remarks, the General Secretary NGE, Iyobosa Uwugiaren, said: “At the end of the project, we expect to see a pool of Nigerian editors, senior journalists and media managers, who will be galvanized and committed to the highest ethical standard and to take robust actions to “Editors who will be committed to the promotion and protection of the right to independent press, freedom of expression and deepening democratic space; and constantly projecting issue-based governance in defense of the mass of the Nigerian people.”

He explained that the Town Halls and editors workshops are supported through a grant from the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Section in Abuja to the Nigerian Guild of Editors and that the programmes would take place in Kano in January 2022, Yola, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Enugu.

Speaking on the theme of the Town Hall meeting, a Human Rights lawyer and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Femi Falana, frowned at the attempts by the Lagos State government to cover up the killings at the Lagos Tollgate during the #EndSARS protests in 2020 by issuing a White Paper on the report of the judicial panel set up by it.

Falana said that it was wrong to set up a committee to review the report of the judicial panel, arguing that the report of the panel was as good as the judgment of a High Court in Nigeria and that anybody, who is not satisfied with the report should approach the court.

He disclosed that he and some notable lawyers in Africa would soon set in motion the defence in both national and international courts of all the persons unjustly treated and many cases of extra-judicial killings by state and non-state actors as well as some African leaders, including the former Gambian leader, Yahya Jammeh.

While so much is expected from the Nigerian media in supporting and promoting democratic ideals, efforts should be made to address some of the challenges hindering the media from performing these roles effectively. For instance, Isah asked in his welcome address how free is the Nigerian media to perform this role since it is only when journalists are free to monitor, investigate and criticize public policies and actions can good governance take root.

According to him, freedom of the media allows for the creation of a public space in which a wide range of debates and expression of variety of viewpoints can take place. “A free and critical press is essential for the growth and development of any democracy. The media as a watchdog of society owes it as a duty to monitor governance and hold public office holders accountable to the people who elected them.

“Good governance is simply an essential framework which serves as a means of achieving wider goals, including security of life and property (which is the primary goal of government, according to the 1999 constitution), prosperity and the general well-being of the citizenry,” he said.

On the issue of the media setting agenda for sustainable democratic culture and deepening of the democratic space, Isah noted that one of the major roles of the media is agenda setting. The more stories the media do on a particular subject, the more importance the audience will attach to it. He recalled that Maxwell McCombs and Donaki Shaw in their research in 1972 on the US 1968 presidential election concluded that editors played an important role in shaping political reality. According to them, the mass media determine the importance issues for campaign.

On the capacity of the Nigerian media to shape the political reality in the country, Isah quoted another author, Stanley Baran, who wrote in 2002 that "The media may not tell us what to think, but the media certainly can tell us what to think about." Isah concluded that what is currently dominating headlines in the local media on the 2023 general elections is zoning or power rotation. “This is the agenda of the politicians. Must the media allow these politicians to set the agenda for us? I think it should be the opposite. As the politicians talk about zoning, we, I mean the media, should remind them that we are more interested in the issues of development, education, insecurity, youth unemployment and poverty ravaging the nation,” he said.

While much attention is paid to some these external challenges confronting the local media, we should not gloss over the issue of poor working conditions for the Nigerian journalists, who are often owed salaries for up to a year and absence of any form of insurance cover for the practitioners.

It is obvious that a poorly paid journalist may not be able to assist the government in tackling the huge trust deficits between it and the populace, monitoring government and its officials and revealing abuses of political power, effective coverage of elections, providing civic and voter education, crystallizing the main currents of public opinion, giving voice to wide a range of interest groups, especially the under-represented groups and providing the forum for public debates during elections without bias. These issues are critical and cannot be ignored if the nation is serious in ensuring the growth of its democracy and promoting good governance.  

- DEC. 06, 2021 @ 17:59 GMT |

Readers Comments

0 comment

No comments yet. Be the first to post comment.

Related stories

Recommended for you...

From Twitter