On January 19, Nigerians woke up to a shocking newspaper advert. Splashed across the front pages of two national dailies, The Sun and The Punch, were texts and images suggesting that Muhammadu Buhari, then presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress will die in office if elected president.
Although Mr. Buhari, 72, went ahead to win the election, the advert, sponsored by Ayo Fayose, the controversial governor of Ekiti State, is widely regarded as one of the lowest moments in the run-up to the recently concluded general election.
Hate speeches and campaigns were a major feature of the 2015 election, but the morbid advert sparked outrage across Nigeria with many individuals and groups condemning the governor’s action.
Even the Peoples’ Democratic Party, PDP, Presidential Campaign Organisation distanced itself from the governor stating that the advert did not represent the campaign or Mr. Jonathan’s position.
On Thursday, Adamu Mu’azu, PDP’s National Chairman, attributed the party’s dismal performance at the polls partly to the hate campaigns by its members.
The newspapers which published the advert also came under intense criticism from Nigerians who questioned their judgment and professionalism.
But speaking during this year’s World Press Freedom Day in Lagos, Femi Adesina, The Sun’s Editor-in-Chief, attributed the publication of the morbid advert to the influence of media owners.
An ‘outrageous’ advert
It was the first attempt by any of the newspapers that ran the advert four months ago to provide a justification for their action.
“The Sun and The Punch that ran the infamous Ayo Fayose hate advert, what motivated the newspapers?” said Mr. Adesina, who was recently re-elected President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. “Was it just mere pecuniary gains? I cannot speak for The Punch, but I know why The Sun ran it. Money was secondary consideration. It was a decision I took consciously as Managing Director and Editor in Chief.”
The advert, which had the pictures of Murtala Muhammed, Sani Abacha, and Umaru Yar’Adua – past Nigerian presidents who died in office – was accompanied by excerpts from the Bible book of Deuteronomy 30 verse 19.
“Nigerians be warned! Nigeria…I have set before thee Life and death. Therefore, choose life that both thee and thy seed may live,” it said, suggesting that Mr. Buhari represents death while his rival, President Goodluck Jonathan represents life.
The advert went ahead to put a huge question mark over the picture of Mr. Buhari, which was placed beside the pictures of the late leaders.
The advert asked its readers: “Will you allow history to repeat itself? Enough of State burials.”
It then attempted to spur ethnic controversy by saying, “Northern presidency should wait till 2019.”
At the time, Mr. Fayose had defended his decision to place the advert, saying it was all about politics.
“The governor is a Nigerian,” his spokesperson, Lere Olyainka, told PREMIUM TIMES. “He has expressed his opinion. Other people are also free to express theirs
“It is politics. You market your own product and you also try to pull the opposing product down. That is how it is done. It is politics. Let everybody play his own game. What I don’t support in politics is violence.”
Mr. Fayose’s excuse did little to assuage public anger, with political analysts describing the advert as one of the lowest moments in the run-up to the 2015 general election.
Mr. Adesina defended his organisation, stating that what the public saw on the newspapers’ covers on January 19 was a “heavily watered down” version of the advert.
“That hate advert, two newspapers published it, The Sun and The Punch,” Mr. Adesina began, speaking on the topic ‘Influence of Media Owners on Fair and Balanced Reporting and Commentaries in 2015 Election.’
“Now you can ask me: why did we publish? That advert came on a Sunday, January 18th, and we published it on January 19th. The advert that was eventually published had been watered down considerably. I came back from church, I opened my system and when I saw it I screamed.
“It had been sent to me from the office to clear for publication. When I saw it I screamed. I then called Bolaji Tunji, our Executive Director, Special Services, ‘Can we publish this and Nigeria will not burn?’ Then we began to discuss and we began to tone it down. We removed so many things from that advert. And what eventually appeared on January 19th was the toned-down version.
“So if we had published the original…. So it was the toned-down version that I approved that they eventually sent to The Punch that appeared the next day.”
Mr. Adesina said that he is widely regarded as an “APC man” although he does not belong to the party, and that rejecting the advert would have meant trouble from Orji Uzor Kalu, the newspaper’s proprietor and a founding member of the PDP.
“Now but if you ask me, why did I approve that advert?” he said. “I knew that the toned-down version was still bad enough. But don’t forget the ownership of my newspaper. A PDP chieftain owns the newspaper.
“If I had rejected that advert, they would have told my publisher that this APC man has denied your paper revenue. He has rejected this advert because he doesn’t like Jonathan.
“So, after we watered it down, we decided to take it. Punch also took it. But we know the uproar that still came after it. But I tell you, if you see the original of that advert, you would still then have to commend the media.
“So ownership will always matter where press freedom is concerned. There is no freedom without boundaries and the owners will always constitute the boundary.”
According to the Electoral Act 2010, Section 95 (1), ‘A political campaign or slogan shall not be tainted with abusive language directly or indirectly likely to injure religious, ethnic, tribal or sectional feelings.’
Section 95 (2) states that ‘Abusive, intemperate, slanderous or base language or insinuations or innuendoes designed or likely to provoke violent reaction or emotions shall not be employed or used in political campaigns.’
In her presentation, Abigail Ogwezzy-Idisika of the University of Lagos stated that the 2015 presidential campaigns were much about hate speeches and devoid of concrete agenda beyond the promises of water, roads, free education and security.
“On ethical grounds, it is the responsibility of media organisations to reject any material intended for publication or airing by parties, candidates and other interests that contains hateful or inciting words and messages; refrain from publishing or airing abusive editorial comments or opinions that denigrate individuals or groups,” said Mrs. Ogwezzy-Idisika, the Head of Mass Communication Department at the university.
“Journalists being the holders of public trust, parties and their supporters should be ethical, discreet and more edifying. Parties and candidates should be tolerant of opposing political views as guaranteed by the constitution and be issue-based in their political campaigns.”