National Security Adviser, Major General Babagana Monguno (retd.)
National Security Adviser, Major General Babagana Monguno (retd.)

Media and National Security
By Usman Zakari
Section 22 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria states that: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.” This makes the media the only non-state actor clearly and specifically assigned a constitutional role. It also underscores the crucial role the media is expected to play in governance and nation building.

One aspect of nationhood where the media is therefore expected to play a significant part in strengthening is national security. Although the concept of national security had assumed different definitions in the past, thereby leading to misconceptions about its components and actors, national security is now widely understood to cover the protection of citizens, livelihoods, critical infrastructure, the environment and cyberspace,  as well as ensuring food security and response to natural disasters. In the same vein, the concept of who takes what responsibility on matters of national security has evolved; from strictly government’s military affair to the involvement of non-state actors, including the media.

It is in acknowledgement of its critical role that the media features prominently in Nigeria’s national security policies and strategies. And over the past six years, the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) has been involving the media in the conceptualisation and implementation processes of national security activities. The National Security Strategy, National Counter-Terrorism Strategy (NACTEST), the Policy Framework and National Action Plan for Prevention and Countering Violent Extremism, and the National Cybersecurity Policy and Strategy are some of the policies and strategies which ONSA has developed in collaboration with and in designation of roles to key stakeholders, part of which is the media.

It is easy to see why the media has a key role in national security. Violent non-state armed groups – be it extremists, bandits and secessionists – often rely on media platforms to target national values and threaten national security. Terrorism and violent extremism have always been a battle for hearts and minds, and the side which controls the narrative and can efficiently counter the other’s narrative has the upper hand. This is why National Security Adviser Babagana Monguno said in his address to the United Nations High-Level Conference of Heads of Counter-Terrorism Agencies of Member States, in June, that ONSA had been identifying opportunities for government to partner with the media, civil society, private sector, research and academic institutions, bilateral and multilateral institutions and religious and cultural groups in the interest of national security.

However, one of the biggest challenges the media faces today is a deficit in public trust. Numerous polls have shown that the media is grappling with the fact that the public is expressing unprecedented levels of mistrust and even dismissal of media output. Admittedly, this phenomenon is not peculiar to the media. But a brutal combination of technological advancement, changing patterns of content consumption, anti-globalisation, changing society, business decisions and poor editorial judgment has led to a place where news consumers are starting to drift to ideological corners.

These days, social media has made it far easier for individuals to express their doubts about stories and disseminate their opinions. However, a large percentage of social media users declaim more than they listen. Hence, the need for the media to be more circumspect when reporting issues with ramifications on national security.
The media is also not without its own challenges. The mainstream media has an agenda-setting role to play in an emerging democracy like Nigeria. Thus, lack of access to information, among other hurdles the media has to face, hinders understanding the situation and reporting accurately becomes a challenge for the media in upholding national security.

These challenges have led ONSA under Monguno, in collaboration with development partners, to organise various capacity development forums for journalists and editors in various areas of conflict-sensitive reporting, countering violent extremism reporting, human rights reporting and providing technical assistance in developing a code of ethics for reporting terrorism.
A 2016 report by the International Media Support (IMS) group showed that the media is capable of becoming an amplifier or a disrupter of national security, depending on prevalent circumstances.

The report identified modern issues around national security as an indicator to the importance of the media and advised the media to encourage responsible debates that are key to good governance as part of its contribution to national security.
Indeed, the elephant in the room when it comes to the media playing its role in national security is the fine line that exists between commitment to professionalism and consideration of patriotism. The former relates to the media’s constitutional duty while the latter appeals to its sense of consequential responsibility as a stakeholder.

Either way, the control of messaging cannot be allowed to be hijacked by common adversaries. As pointedly said by Dr Haroro J. Ingram, at a 2017 workshop in Paris, “An independent, assertive, responsible and critically engaged media is the best weapon democracies have against violent extremist propaganda. But it is also a weapon that propagandists actively seek to turn against us.”

This is what should inform where the media should pitch its camp.

Usman Zakari writes from Abuja

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