Tuesday, April 8, 2003

The Press versus Buhari

It is common practice in much of the democratic world for newspaper and other media to endorse candidates for elective offices. In America, for example, it has become a tradition for major newspapers to endorse presidential candidates. Given the liberal inclination of most of these newspapers, most of them have tended to endorse Democratic Party candidates as against Republican.

However, even though the American public has since taken this Democratic partisanship of American newspapers for granted, the papers have always avoided insulting the intelligence of their readers through distorting facts or peddling deliberate falsehood about a candidate simply because they are not for him.

It is apparent from the coverage of at least the next presidential elections by much of the Nigeria press that this is hardly the case in Nigeria. From day one much of its press has demonstrated an almost instinctive hostility towards the presidential candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, who is generally regarded as the main rival of the incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo.

This hostility is apparently based less on principles, if at all, than on where Buhari comes from and what he believes in. Generally, the press has portrayed him as anti-press on account of the infamous Decree 4 he enacted back in 1984, a decree which criminalised the embarrassment of public officials or causing public disaffection, even if a publication is true. The press has also portrayed him as a religious bigot on account of his stout defence of the implementation of Sharia criminal code by states that have chosen to do so.

These portrayals of the former head of state are as unfair as they are discriminatory. First, Decree 4 maybe notorious for criminalising legitimate news reporting, but all military regimes have always had it in one form or the other. Second, Buhari’s regime would not be the first to detain journalists and certainly Buhari himself, unlike one former head of state, is not famously notorious for equating journalists with dogs as undesirable creatures.

Third, as for being a religious bigot, it is a very strange use of the word to equate it with defending one’s faith as opposed to trying to impose it on others. Buhari, it must be stated, has never advocated forcing Sharia on non Muslims.

That the hostility towards Buhari is based less on principle than on sentiments can be seen clearly from several editorial comments about his purported rejection of the recently concluded National Identity Card project. The ANPP presidential candidate was reported by the Voice of America to have urged Northerners to reject the exercise even as he himself decided to register. It turned out that the interview was a piece of mischief by VOA, the station did not tell its listeners that the interview was an old one conducted long before the North withdrew its stiff opposition to linking the exercise with voter registration. In apparent attempt to forestall any mischief, the Buhari Campaign Organisation quickly put out a statement explaining that it was illogical for anyone to accuse Buhari of urging Northerners to boycott the exercise when he himself had gone ahead to register.

However, still bent on exploiting the interview for mischief, several Nigerian newspapers simply ignored these explanations even when they were carried by the VOA itself. Far from acknowledging these explanations, the newspapers decided to go to town on their editorial pages to execute their open ethnic agenda of demonising Buhari. For example, the Nigerian Tribune and The Comet, writing one after the other on March 13 and 14, deliberately ignored Buhari’s explanation about the context of his VOA interview, in order to portray him as unfit for the office of president. Yet these – and of course, other Nigerians returned a Yoruba – meaning himself, of course – as the president, the Yorubas may plunge Nigeria into a civil war.

Such brazen partisanship by the press is totally unbecoming of an institution which is expected to be fair to all parties even as its members exercise their right to take sides on any issue. If our fledgling democracy comes to grief, the press should know that it would, in no small measure, be thanks, but no thanks, to such brazen partisanship.