By Joy Jaiyesimi
The 2023 election fever has gripped many Nigerians, politicians and political parties alike. So also, the society, mainstream media, online blogs, and social media platforms have been so polarized in Nigeria.
“You’re either in my camp or against me”; that was the story of a Nigerian gender activist and journalist, Udeme Edoamaowo, who had an altercation with her friend of more than fifteen years on social media. The friend is a staunch supporter of one of the presidential candidates in Nigeria.
Recently, Udeme’s friend posted a statement that she considered to be too extreme and boom, the attack on her person.
According to Udeme, “I think all journalists should be politically neutral in order not to be biased during reportage, but I am surprised that some Nigerian journalists have clearly projected their candidates, even going extra mile to discredit other candidates and bully whoever has a contrary opinion”.
She narrated her encounter, “a colleague and friend whom I have known for over 15 years in journalism not only bullied but blocked me on Facebook because I condemned her post saying derogatory things and discrediting another candidate that was not hers. My advice was simple; there is life after the 2023 elections. Mind the way you discredit someone. She took it so personally; we argued for a while, and she ended up blocking me”.
“l was so amused because I am still wondering why the masses have never seen beyond their noses how fake these politicians are,” Udeme added.
She laid the blame on antagonistic conduct. “The masses are fooled into fighting and killing each other, but the politicians always have a common ground of meeting. None of them wants to lose out on money they spent before elections, so they always find a way to tag along the winner while we are here fighting and killing each other,” Udeme said.
In the last couple of months, caustic online political conversations have found their way to the mainstream media, thereby amplifying online narratives that are often divisive, ethnoreligious and full of hate speech.
The mindset of “if you’re not on my side or support my preferred candidate, you’re my enemy” amongst some journalists calls to question adherence to the ethics of the journalism profession.
The back page column published by the Nation newspaper with the title, “Obi-tuary”, a below-the-belt play on the surname of the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Obi, by a senior journalist, Sam Omatseye, is an example of online hate speech finding its way into mainstream media.
If journalists, under the guise of liberty to write, cannot tolerate the opinions of others, then the Nigerian media landscape will be more polarised before the general elections. This can trigger pre, D-day, and post-election violence.
Tolerance and the ability to allow people with opposing views to express their opinions are golden.
Dr Olunifesi Suraj, Associate Professor, Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, said the media is also not spared or immune from the stings of online hate.
According to him, “I have experienced online hate. I must tell you, it is devastating with some of us who preached about media and information literacy, and we are digital and media literate; the way I personally handle it I build resilience towards it. I know people who spread hate online have particular reasons for doing it.”
Dr Suraj added: “As a lecturer and somebody who criticizes government to put them on their toes, a public analyst and one who has a voice in the society, definitely some people are not going to like you for that and will not like what you stand for.
“They will do everything to run you down; use common things that people believe to run a smear campaign and blackmail you, and make you feel so bad in society. When such things come up, the majority of people are not media literate, and they believe whatever they read online.
“Another way is not to speak at all… you trying to defend yourself is like putting more petrol on the fire to burn. Online hate speakers want to provoke you to respond and make you react to their narratives. It is advisable to keep quiet sometimes. Defending yourself will not solve the problem, and it will not justify you because people have already made up their minds about what they want to believe, trend and say, because of economic reasons and the aims behind it, and just allow time to justify you.”
Ben Adoga is another Nigerian journalist that couldn’t withstand what he tagged ‘the poison of online hate speech.’ He had recently stayed off social media for years to regain his mental health, according to him.
He narrated his ordeal: “I experienced hate speech; it was massive just after the 2015 general elections as I was in the [Goodluck] Jonathan Campaign team. I only expressed my opinions on Facebook and other social media platforms during the campaign. But when Presidential Goodluck Jonathan lost, they swooped on me; they called me thief, rogue etc. So, if I post or respond to anything, they bullied me on Facebook. I decided to leave social media for two years.
“It affected my mental health; I felt humiliated, dejected, and lonely because I wasn’t interacting with the outside world as I left social media. Even now, I rarely post on Facebook due to the trauma and fear of online trolls,” Adoga said.
Online hate speech has been further exacerbated by Nigerian journalists who run such narratives on the mainstream media.
Dr Suraj counselled that as Nigeria heads to the 2023 general election, journalists should not heat the polity.
He insists that patriotic reporting in a way that puts Nigeria on the bigger picture, rather than serving the interest of any politician, must be their guiding principle.
The media scholar noted that Nigerian journalists should not allow “their economic interest” to sabotage the national interest and urged them to be fair and balanced in their reportage.
“We have some wrong people in journalism. People who do not abide by the ethics and principles of journalism. When those principles are compromised, we have a lopsided society. The society is a reflection of the journalism being practised.
“Journalists should know that we must first have a country before they can practice journalism. If there is no country, there’s nowhere you can practice,” Dr Suraj opined.
He insisted that journalists should ensure that society is well informed. He also lamented that some journalists in Nigeria act irresponsibly for pecuniary gain, emphasising that fact-checking information obtained from social media must be intensified.
This, he said, is to ensure that hate speech is curtailed, content is balanced, and objectivity is upheld in their reportage of the build-up to the general elections.
Online hate speech has affected and ruined the lives of not a few people.
And as Adoga, who has been a journalist for over 25 years, said, the freedom of speech and expression is being replaced with the fear of online trolling and hate speech.
He said when this is coming from professional colleagues, then it leaves a lot to be desired.
The campaign season gets underway in a few days, and the media landscape will get busier.
Dr Suraj said some factors such as media ownership and political affiliation would play a huge part in media programme content and reportage.
“The Nigerian media is not politically neutral. There is political affiliation by the media. The political news often carries political inclination. The polarization is also tilted towards religious affiliation and geographical affiliation.
“The media also pushes the candidacy (based on) from those areas of ethnic colouration, sentiments they agitate and advocate for. Generally, the media either online, social and mainstream are polarised along ethnicity, geographical distribution, religious sentiments and along ownership influences,” he noted.
Free speech devoid of hate speech towards colleagues and friends who hold opposing views and perspectives, either online or offline, is key to peaceful, rancour-free election.
* Joy Jaiyesimi can be reached via email: [email protected]