To say that media owners have a compelling influence on media practice is an understatement. This is because media practice all over the world has been denied the needed freedom even though the journalist owes an unalloyed responsibility to his society, his country and his conscience. He has a decision to make between the interest and policies of his media proprietors and the demands of professionalism. Consequently, to serve the private interests of the proprietors means a subtle betrayal of the ethics of the profession. To draw a line of compromise between the policy objectives of media owner and the social responsibilities/obligations of the profession is never an easy decision.
Media practitioners all over the world, particularly Africa have tried to navigate through the ever contentious issue of policy objectives of media owner versus professionalism, in practice. For instance, Kofi Buenor Hadjor, a Ghanaian journalist once argued that there must be “Journalism of relevance” for Africa. According to Hadjor, the mass media which daily absorbs and disseminates information throughout the world, must be seen for what they are: an integral art of society which reflects and in turn affects existing social relations.
As a result of the overbearing influence of media owners on media practice, a policy of relevance was declared in July 22-31, 1980 in Yaoundé, Cameroon in an African Member States of the UNESCO of the Inter-Governmental Conference on Communication Policies. The conference communiqué said: “We need a new conception of freedom such as will truly enfranchise men and society instead of subjecting them to the conditioning of those who control the powerful communication media; such as will contribute to the democratization of communication and recognize the rights of individuals and peoples to inform and freely to express themselves”.
In many parts of the world, particularly in Nigeria, competing power bases have been at the head of the problem facing media practice due to its contributions to the lack of enforced freedom of press laws. Various cultural, religious, and tribal groups are also at odds on how the country should be governed, thereby hampering an agreed political philosophy, which forces media practitioners to take sides with diverse groups within the country.
According to Herbert Altschull, an independent press is impossible because “the news are agents of the people who exercise political and economic control”. That is to say that, no matter the benevolence of the government, or the democratic principles of the society; no matter the advancement of any society, the mass media are usually subjected to some form of control from those who hold and operate the apparatus of power.
The base of authoritarianism in Nigeria which gave government direct control and monopoly of the radio and television stations was however broken in 1992 when private broadcasting stations were licensed for the first time, marking a new era in the broadcast media ownership.
In the United States, according to Amy and David Goodman, concentration of media ownership is very frequently seen as a problem of contemporary media and society because most people are driven by so many things. Media ownership can be concentrated in one or more improper things that may later give way to a number of undesirable consequences which may include serving the interests of their sponsors (advertisers and government) rather than public interest, and the absence of a healthy, market-based competition. This has led the companies dominating a media market to suppress stories that do not serve their interests. As a result, the public suffers because they are not adequately informed of some crucial issues that may affect them.
Media censorship which has been a recurring problem all over the world, regardless of the supposed freedoms expressed in their constitutions, will continue to lay hold on media practice unless drastic measures are taken to checkmate it. Over the years, those who wield political power have in so many ways controlled the mass media in any society. They have often achieved this through the arsenals of authoritarian control such as repressive legislation, heavy taxation, direct or indirect control of essential production inputs, rough treatment of media workers, issuing of death threat and in some extreme cases, assassination of media workers, and closure of media houses.
There is also the indirect control measure that is taken against media workers which may include management structure where media workers determine the day-to-day activities of the organization; finance, production, structure and the distribution of broadcast signals, as in the case of broadcast media.
Apart from government’s control of the media, there is the presence of other agencies like the courts which exist and obstruct freedom of expression. Also, government’s attitude of preferential treatments to “buy” the most influential journalists or government critics, through appointments into top posts in the government, cannot be wished aside. When journalists are co-opted into governmental positions, that reduces them to mere stooges, as it influences the objectivity of their media outputs in handling issues that concern the government.
Private media proprietors, on the other hand, exert significant control on their media organizations. There are cases where proprietors demand self-censorship by their editors to suit their sponsors’ interests.
Noted that unethical practices and negative attitudinal tendencies in the workplace are capable of affecting productivity, profitability, growth and goodwill of an organization adversely, the environment where so many journalists work today have proved that the reverse is the case. Successes are now measured on the number of “who is who?” on the list of an organization’s sponsors. Imagine a situation where unemployment, poverty and deteriorating social values take center stage, and a journalist manages to secure a place where his daily needs are taken care of, no matter what goes on there, ethical issues notwithstanding? In some parts of the world, where money rules in everything, most journalists do not even bother about the ethics of their profession any more, but cave in to the antics of dubious media owners so as to have access to places and persons for information, receive high-paying advertisements from sponsors and dubiously labeling and distorting documents containing valuable information to suit the interests of their sponsors.
The question that demands for an answer is this: if those with the right information will refuse to give it, who else will? The whole thing lies on the journalist who has sworn an oath to say the truth at all times, which is the basis for sound journalism practice. However, the signing into law of the Freedom of Information Bill on the 22nd of May, 2011 by the President of Nigeria, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, is highly commended. The implication of the Act is that certain types of information that are exempted from the general right of access under the Law are listed in the Act. This is indeed, good news!