The print, television and radio once maintained a three-way stranglehold on the Nigerian reading public. The print typically appealed to elitist audiences — the literates, politicians, power movers, leaders of the corporate world and the rest of the educated class with distinctive affinity for pretty English. In contrast, the radio drew its largest audiences from the opposite group — illiterates who, with a small, battery-powered transistor, could catch up with happenings usually in their locality but sometimes in the rest of the world. The radio-oriented elites tuned in mostly in the mornings at home and while driving to the office.
TV, like radio, drew its viewership from all ends; but because of its reliance on electricity — and electricity has always been big problem in Nigeria — regular access to TV is a function of social status, of the ability to self-supply power. So, print, online and TV had their fair share of dominance on the Nigerian media landscape. Until the turn of the current millennium when the advent of Internet began to have real impact on journalism practice.
Although it was in 1996 that the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) licensed 38 internet service providers to sell internet services in Nigeria, it wasn’t until the year 2000 that an Internet-using population began to emerge: just a shocking 0.3 percent. Between 2002 and 2004, it rose to 1.5 percent. By 2007, it had risen to 7 percent. By that time also, the Internet was already redefining the practice of journalism. For example, Sahara Reporters, one of the oldest online news providers, had been founded. News would soon become available in virtual format and on the go — accessible via mobile phones, tablets, and laptop and desktop computers. A 24-hour news cycle was springing, and social media became a major tool for sourcing, presenting, and disseminating news. Not only had journalism practice been altered, the entire media dynamics had been disrupted.
Over the decade that would follow, print newspapering, once the cornerstone of Nigerian journalism, dwindled considerably in patronage. As the newsprint became less important in news presentation and newspapers began to experience a plummeting in numbers, newsrooms started to shrink as it became clear to newspaper proprietors that operation models had to be rejigged.
To compete with emerging digital news providers, print newspapers began to relocate their resources online. But this wasn’t just a print phenomenon. As legacy papers opened online versions, the electronic media followed suit. Radio and TV stations would soon discover that they couldn’t exist without an online version. And that holds true till today: digital has become the centerpiece of Nigerian journalism, with all of print, radio and TV feeding off the massive powers and rallying numbers of the Internet.
From the pre-independence era till date, partisanship has always been a core component of Nigerian media, print particularly. West African Pilot, the first Nigerian-owned English-Language newspaper, was founded in 1937 by Nnamdi Azikiwe (who would later become the first President of Nigeria) strictly to fight for independence from British colonial rule. Offshoots of that title, all catering to state or regional interests, include: Eastern Nigerian Guardian (launched in Port Harcourt), the Southern Defender (in Warri), the Sentinel (in Enugu) and the Northern Advocate (in Jos). While Azikiwe’s paper defended the eastern agenda, Obafemi Awolowo launched the Nigerian Tribune in Ibadan in 1949 — five years before he became the first Premier of the Western Region — with a leaning for south-western interests.
Today, politics remains a dominant theme in Nigerian media establishments. The Nation, one of the top newspapers, was founded in 2006 by Bola Tinubu, then opposition politician who, in the following years, helped to build the All Progressives Congress (APC) to rival the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and eventually overthrow it in 2015. The Sun, another leading daily, was founded by Orji Uzor Kalu in 2001, two years after he became Governor of Abia State. One year before the 2015 presidential election, Kalu launched a sister daily, New Telegraph.
The chief consequence of this intertwining of journalism and politics is that the media sometimes shirks in its obligation to be objective in its coverage of politics in particular and the society in general. A corollary to this is how the public now views media content with scepticism, often sieving the news to separate the story from the interest of the paper. Therefore, the media — the watchdog — sometimes becomes the ‘watched dog’. The politics-journalism alliance has also limited the capacity of journalists to build professional careers independent of political influence. It has increased the diffusion of journalism with politics, to such extent that the journalist today is a politician tomorrow and is back to journalism the next minute.
Still, journalism has been one of the undisputed bastions of democracy in Nigeria. The media played an important role in the agitations for an end to years of military rule in the 1980s and 1990s, often finding itself at the receiving end of military might. Concord and The Guardian, two of the leading papers of the time, were the subject of frequent military crackdown, many of their senior editors spending lengthy times in jail. The media continued on this path upon return to civilian rule in 1999, with a newsmagazine, The News, exposing age and certificate falsifications by Salisu Buhari, the first Speaker of the lower chamber in the Fourth Republic who, after a few denials, had little choice but to admit to the crime, weeping on national TV before throwing in the towel.
State intervention in the media has always been overbearing. Back in the military era, it was in nauseating proportions. Media houses were shut down at the whims and caprices of the state; numerous journalists were arrested and jailed indiscriminately. One, Dele Giwa, was even assassinated. Though unresolved, his death is believed to have been masterminded by the military regime of the time. Return to democracy has lessened the scale of government intervention in the media, but arrests of journalists and invasion of media rights continue. Most recently, for two consecutive days in 2014, the Army, acting under the authority of then President Goodluck Jonathan, seized, and in some cases destroyed, thousands of copies of several newspapers, including Daily Trust, Leadership, The Nation and Punch, claiming to have received information that materials with grave security implications were to be distributed alongside the newspapers.