In responding to what it described as a disturbing decline of global freedom and a parallel rise in political authoritarianism, the United States embassy is partnering with Nigeria media stakeholders, in view of the upcoming 2023 general elections, to strengthen the nation's democracy and elections.
This was Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard's position during the Nigeria Guild of Editors' Town Hall meeting organized in partnership with the embassy to strengthen the media capacity to promote inclusion and preserve Nigeria's electoral democracy.
Leonard urged stakeholders at the town hall to share in the role and responsibility of promoting "transparency and accountability, inclusivity and equity, [the] rule of law and fundamental freedoms", with renewed vigour and optimism at every turn.
"When you write, publish and broadcast thoughtfully, impartially, and with accuracy, your contribution to democracy is profound. When you uncover evidence that unscrupulous individuals have tried to hide or deny, you empower law enforcement and the judicial system," Leonard explained in her remarks.
"When you hold politicians to account with well-researched, non-partisan facts, you directly serve the interests of the voting public and play a vital role in shaping public perceptions about not only those who currently govern but also about those who wish to govern in the future."
She said that the town hall, which also featured cross-boundary idea-sharing with media practitioners in the U.S., sought to address the growing public distrust of the media and diminishing confidence in democratic governance in Africa, citing recent crises in Sudan, Mali, and other places.
While commending Nigeria political leaders' commitment to democracy, however, she reminded stakeholders to use the training opportunity to "delve deeper into underlying factors that erode faith in democracy."
Patronage politics, corruption, inequality, and the failure of many democratic governments to deliver good governance to their citizens fuel public and media doubts about the democratic model, causing them to lose hope and cynically accept the status quo as inevitable and normal, she observed.
"One way to restore public confidence in democracy is through free and fair elections. The eyes of the world will, therefore, be on Nigeria this year and early next year as you prepare to choose a new president and transition to a new government. We were pleased that last week President Buhari signed Nigeria's long-awaited Electoral Act Amendment Bill into law, ensuring adoption of a number of long-sought-after reforms to the electoral process, including the electronic transmission of election results from polling places," she said.
"Editors like yourselves are, in fact, critical gatekeepers. Your actions and decisions level the playing field. You determine whose voices are heard and what news topics receive in-depth coverage. In a digital age when the 24/7 news cycle is unrelenting and often bewildering, you help weed out the trivial to focus on the essential. You oblige candidates to respond to uncomfortable or pointed questions. You interview citizens and potential voters whose voices are not always amplified or heard. You may not always realize it, but your giving voice to the governed and the under-represented helps reduce voter apathy", Leonard said, reiterating that the public's access to accurate, unbiased information is critical to any democracy in the world.
She advised media practitioners and organizations to resist the pressure to play favourites, as such actions diminish trust.