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Civil Society, Mass Media and the Defense of Democracy

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By Adamu Muhammad Hamid PhD

Democracy as a system hinges on such important articles as rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms including that of speech. Such ideals, if protected, make for the uplifting of the common man’s living conditions and standards and guarantee the protection of life and security that the rule of law is in place. This is why countries with high scores on these indicators appear to be better off in the quality of governance and human life. Other related important articles are the embracing of pluralistic systems and the integration of minorities at all levels of government and society, and the promotion of a wide scope of political participation. For articles of democracy to be deeply entrenched, someone must take up the challenge to pursue them. This is where the discussion tilts to the performance of civil society and the media in democratic contexts. Again, this is why Jo Leinen, a German member of the European Parliament in 2007 once said, “If you want to secure democracy, rule of law, human rights and peace you cannot rely only on governmental institutions or political parties. You need a citizen’s movement. You need a strong debate between state institutions and civil society.” In addition, the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force in December 2009, stated that “The institutions (of the EU) shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society.”

Similarly, all the articles of democracy, for example, rule of law, etc. cannot operate in opaque climes. Because of the natural human tendency to breach law and stifle on common man’s rights and freedoms, the media as public opinion institutions function to raise awareness on these issues, crystallize and climax public opinion against breach of law by whoever, thereby strengthening justice, which is the life-ware of peace and mutual coexistence. Any nation without active media and civil society cannot achieve virile democracy that produces the necessary leadership required for the country to develop. Before delving into the perplexing intricacies of the realities of Nigeria’s civil society against the ideals of what is expected of them, let’s briefly whizz through the essentials of what civil society is.  Els van Enckevort describes civil society as made up of especially different organizations, networks and associations ranging from football clubs to debate groups, from women’s networks to labour unions, from book clubs to political parties, and from environmental lobby groups to religious groups. While some organizations will have much more obvious sway on political processes and democratization than many others, all are seen as civil society, and all exert some influence on democratization.

 Further, Suchit Bunbongkarn expounds on the concept of civil society as now accepted in modern political science as simply the intermediary between the private sector or individuals and the state. Hence, civil society is not a state or an economic society, which involves profit-making enterprises. Nor is it the same thing as a family-life society. Civil society in the view of Larry Diamond is “the realm of organized social life that is open, voluntary, bound by a legal order or set of shared rules.”  It involves private citizens organizing collectively to put forward demands to the state or to articulate and express in the public sphere their preferences, interests, and ideas or to checkmate the authority of the state and make them accountable to the people. Having this in mind, civil society may cover a wide range of organizations truly concerned with public matters.

For example, in the democratization of Asian countries, remarkably in South Korea, Indonesia, The Philippines and Thailand, the role of elites’ was glaringly pre-eminent, but a real democracy would not have been attained without the active engagement and participation of civil society organizations. They gathered and prospered the required political pressure for reform, culminating in the liberalization of political systems and subsequently eventually pulling down dictatorial powers. In Thailand for example, the achievement of economic success in the 80s and the early 90s gave power to the middle class and culminated in demands for more transparency, democratization and political liberalization. Thailand had been known as a strong state ever since, as a result of the concerted efforts of civil society. Just as operated in Nigeria, state institutions, especially the military and bureaucracy, had played a renowned political role in slowing the development of societal organizations and interest groups. Nonetheless, as a result of swift economic growth, the business sector, the urban middle class and civil society organizations were strengthened. Many renowned issue-oriented mega organizations like the Confederation for Democracy and specialized groups sprang up to kindle democratic aspirations among the urban-based middle class to fight for democratization.

In the Nigerian context, unlike what has been highlighted in other climes, much of the activities of a civil society substantially focus on economic benefits to members. People register religious organizations or interreligious ones in order to receive grants from foreign donors to solve problems they themselves have deliberately created in some instances. Instead of NGOs really functioning as organized civil society, they mostly focus on applying for grants from USAID and other development donor agencies to focus on education and health in communities. These NGOs completely ignore issues of corruption and accountability as none of their business, while a careful observation would reveal, mainly, spheres addressed by those NGOs like in the health and education sectors are problems caused by bad governance. With leaders who have integrity and competence, Nigerian communities wouldn’t have been in such a mess, and Nigeria, given its natural and human resources, would have probably been part of the countries donating or providing grants to address under development in other parts of the world.

In other instances,  over-centralization of decision-making and scarce stakeholder involvement in Nigeria are significant problems which exacerbate patronage of special interests which are powerful and high-level corruption in governmental systems. This makes a big case for various civil society organizations to participate in the development process and particularly in the protection and promotion of democracy and good governance. And above all, they will help in contributing to greater transparency and accountability.

The performance of civil society in Nigeria is abysmally shocking. With such unpleasant situations as students of public universities remaining for close-to five months at home as a result of ASUU strike, and it looks as though everything were normal, one must ask whether civil society exists at all in the country. Everything is left to be negotiated by the government and ASUU to sort out, while their disagreement is close to thirty years now.  No one else talks…all civil society is reticent. The pervasiveness of insecurity is also there; life and property are not secure, people are burnt alive in buses in broad daylight; whole communities in the Northwest are wiped out or displaced. Rising against these ugly trends and putting pressure on the government, you only hear the voices of individuals mostly on international media. In our civil society, everything seems normal, business as usual.

Even if civil society were to function optimally, there arises the issue of sectional, ethnic, religious or tribal sentiments to deal with. When in some instances a civil society or two rises against a misdeed in governance, another one would engage it in polemical combativeness of provocative reaction on account that the president or the minister involved is from their region, section or religion, therefore they deem it a duty to ‘protect’ him even when he/she is wrong. The only thing right about the deed is that the doer is from them, their religion or tribe.

 The task of civil society and that of the media in modern-day democratic governance is of extreme importance since they ensure the proper functioning of government while respecting the main pillars of democracy. In ensuring a democratic ideal, civil society must be seen as the vanguard for the defence of the sanctity of human rights. Human rights are referred to as those basic rights and freedoms to which every human being is entitled. Often, it is left in the hands of the organs of the state to guarantee the safeguarding of such rights. However, civil society and mass media, too, play a role in showing the significance of the protection of these rights. The latter is sometimes considered to be ‘watchdogs’ who struggle to ensure the adherence to and enforcement of these rights. The constant violation of human rights can be blamed on the fact that such actions remain undisclosed. This is where the media come in. Their role is to expose such violations and make the public aware of the malfeasance. It is only after the public is shown the outcome of such violations that awareness can be created. Further, civil society must emphasize that education about human rights is amplified as much as required. In Malta, for example, an NGO, the People for Change Foundation, works towards the achievement of a just, fair and inclusive society, all members of which may attain their full potential unimpeded by factors such as race, religion, and age, sex, etc.  Furthermore, the NGO promotes social cohesion, and respect for Human Rights.

One of the reasons civil society is of great importance is it upholds some values which reinforce the civil society sphere, and therefore democratic governance. Thus, it should work towards the upholding of standards of human rights, and this value would permeate all levels of society. Since civil society organizations tend to focus on particular minority groups and voice their interests, thereby working towards the dispelling of misconceptions, and subduing mistrust and fear, they are to support governments promote, as much as required, dialogue among people coming from diverse ethnicities and backgrounds.

According to a comprehensive study on civil society in Turkey, CIVICUS Civil Society Index (CSI) project, it could be argued that they are important agents for positive social change. Civil society groups in Turkey are not only rendering services to disadvantaged and minority groups; they also take active positions on a range of issues, most remarkable among them on civil liberties.

It is generally understood that when a particular government shuts a geographical region to journalists, there is always an imminent violation of human rights and other atrocities in that region. In the past, for example, Chechnya, North Korea and Eritrea, amongst others, have all been closed in different instances. Human Rights Watch, in 2007 for example, issued a report pointing out that the Indonesian province of Papua and West Papua were also closed to foreign human rights observers, and snippets of reports show there were violations of human rights. The Human Rights Watch revealed that there was a petite understanding of what was taking place in those regions because there was not much free reporting on the areas. The NGO further went ahead to draw the attention of the Indonesian government to ‘open’ the region for access to independent reporters and observers in order to raise the quantity and quality of information about the conditions of the people there and to also allow transparent reporting. In addition, Memorial, winner of the 2009 Sakharov Prize, a Russian NGO representing civil society also strives to promote truthful reporting about human rights violations in Russia so as to ensure the country’s democratic future.

In Western Europe, Spain, Section 2 of the constitution among others provides for freedom of speech and that of the press.  The Spanish press, their judiciary (upholding rule of law), and a functioning political system which is democratic, together, stood for freedom of speech and of the press. People are allowed to publically criticize the government without fear of molestation, and the government does not encumber criticism. The independent media in that country are active and generally express a multitude of views devoid of restriction.

On the flip side, independent media in Eritrea was almost nonexistent in the early 2000, and all forms of media are just Government sources. Eritrea had among the highest number of jailed journalists in the world then. In 2001 for example, in an effort to stifle rising opposition about the future of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, the government banned eight independent newspapers and jailed scores of journalists. Eritrea’s press freedom was and is believed to be one of the lowest in the world.

The relevance of media in strengthening and defending democracy can be seen from the perspective of enhancing and giving access to a wide range of views and discussions. The media set the agenda for what the public should be discussing at moments. In the public opinion process, the media play a central agency. As soon as a political issue is introduced interpersonal discussion ignites, and then the issue gains strength if an opinion leader buys it and advocates it. But the issue cannot crystallize into issue-interest and public opinion stage without media coverage and accentuation. As governmental ‘watchdogs’, the press and civil society organizations must also keep citizens informed of governmental events and actions. 

One of the important functions of democratic governance is that at all levels, decision-making is preceded by discussion and tabling of a range of views. A decision arrived at after adequate consultation is likely to be robust and better than one taken after little or no consultation and evaluation by many others, since the former mirrors the opinions, needs and interests of substantially those concerned. Expression of opinions here can be represented in the form of freedom of speech, which is important at all levels of society. Resistance to injustice or oppression is only possible through free speech, and without it, elections would have no meaning at all.  The public becomes aware of the manifestos of political contestants and becomes responsive to them through the expression of public opinion only if such is transmitted by the media through free speech. Moreover, by the virtue of Article 119 of the Constitution of Malta as an example, the Broadcasting Authority is mandated to ensure broadcasting preserves due neutrality in matters of political controversy or regarding public policy, and that individuals belonging to different political parties are allotted a fair proportion of broadcasting time and prime belt. Thus, freedom of speech has been deemed a prerequisite for a democratic society. I believe that freedom of expression is designed and primarily pursued to develop personal self-fulfilment. It is also an indispensable process for the progression of knowledge and discovery of truth and can be seen to be a strategy for achieving social change devoid of violence. So peace is a major function of freedom of speech.

In the same vein, the Constitution of Jordan also expressly guarantees freedom of speech and opinion. This is in addition to press freedom and that of the media. But these must all operate within the boundaries of the law. In that the Jordanian clime, however, in practice, there are noteworthy restrictions in place restraining the free operation of media. Any criticism of the king of Jordan or the royal family is forbidden, as well, as anything believed to injure “the state’s reputation and dignity”. The Jordanian government had deployed tactics many times such as fines, prosecution, and detention to intimidate and harass journalists. Jordanian radio and television are deemed to be more controlled in their freedoms than the press. Generally, people enjoyed more freedom to access the internet, and such access is unrestricted; though, there were reports that the government investigated some websites which appeared to be highly critical.

Generally, the press must be free for any society or nation to lay claim to democracy. But this is just a means. The end is, if given the required freedom, how active are the mass media in showing the light to people. The slogan of Zik’s The African Pilot reads “Show the Light, and People will Follow.” So it is not enough for mass media to enjoy relative freedom, then at the long run, waste it. To function well and defend democracy, mass media must be courageous and possess the muscle to expose corruption at high places, expose injustice at all places, carry out comprehensive profiling of both corrupt people and those of integrity and competence, to guide the public to base their political opinion and voting right on credible information. Anything short, then freedom of the press is useless.

Civil Society, Mass media, Political Participation and Elections

The quality of democratic practices in the world depends on political participation by the electorate in the processes. Anything which restrains the compass of public participation does not only weaken the democratic foundations of a country but also portends the immediate effect of curtailing debate on the country’s development priorities. More important, political participation is necessary for achieving the basic values and rights of minorities. The election is the most basic feature of democratic governance; people choose their representatives through elections. Building on this, political parties take up a central place in political processes in present-day democracies, since the parties have now become intermediaries between, literally the society and state. Therefore, in order to guarantee the involvement of minorities in political processes and political parties, it becomes essential to establish that freedom of association, a basic human right, is wholly respected.

The UN-INSTRAW/CAWTAR project “Women’s Political Participation in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco,” illustrates how mass media can play a central role in the encouragement of political participation of women in that region (North Africa). The experience of those countries has shown women’s political participation increased around the 2010s, for the most part, due to improved access to education and the integration of women into the labour market. Nevertheless, women are still very much underrepresented in political circles. Even during the elections in Morocco and Algeria in the late 2000s, female candidates were only given limited coverage and opportunity. This scenario can be distinguished from the situation in Spain for example, when in 2004 precisely, there were 125 women out of the 350-seat Congress of Deputies, and there were 61 women in the 259-seat Senate.  In Norway at the same time, there were 64 women out of the 169-member parliament, and their 19-member Supreme Court consists of 7 women.

To sum up, it is manifest that the basic roles of civil society and the media in evolving democratic systems like Nigeria are of extreme significance, and it is upheld that their main function and scope are to limit and put the power of the state under constant check by raising public awareness and concern against excesses and misdeed in governance, and by promoting adequate political participation across gender and minority integration. They are to develop values that could enhance democratic life and promote and express diverse interests in our nation. Only then shall we be able to reactivate our pretentious moribund and waning democracy.

Adamu Muhammad Hamid can be contacted via hamidadam00@gmail.com

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect WikkiTimes’ editorial stance.

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