Actually published in 2010, this book captures and responds to the theoretical and methodological tension that has gripped the media-conflict nexus in the post Cold War. How do we account for what journalism scholars such as Professor Berbie Zelizer conclude to be the case? According to her, “media power is one of the most outstanding conundrums of contemporary era public discourse in that we still cannot account for the media’s persistent presence as arbiters of events in the real world?” On this sort of question, there is still a stalemate between the two dominant meta-theoretical frameworks.
How this book grapples with the question gives us an idea of which of the two traditions is emerging hegemonic in the Ibadan Peace and Conflict Studies scholarship. It is valid to say so even as Dr. Sola Ishola, the author, is a meeting ground of two traditions: the University of Lagos approach to Mass Communications and the University of Ibadan’s media and conflict subset of the graduate programme in Peace and Conflict Studies of which he is a product.
Taking media coverage of the 1965 and the 1983 electoral violence in the South-Western part of Nigeria as his cases, he successfully puts the media at the centre of the electoral contests for power: which side which media supported either directly or in a subtle manner. The author makes the analysis very interesting by taking the reader through the media at work in terms of conflict reporting during the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial era before isolating the two cases of post-colonial electoral violence he focused on. In all, it is a book of eight chapters, with an elaborate bibliographical section, suggesting evidence of hard work.
Those who read the book carefully would find many interesting features to ponder upon along the line. One of such would be the tension between how the author ties the media to conflict on page 2, for example and much of chapter 8 where he put his theoretical foot down most sharply in summarizing the debate on what the media should do in conflict. He leaves no one in doubt that he is on the side of those who think the media must play the mediator. In other words, he can be listed as some card carrying member of the ‘peace journalism’ school, given his numerous examples of where the media has brought conflict parties to a conversation through balancing of reporting as well as his peace media thesis in Chapter Seven. There would have been no problem with that if he had not also said much earlier on page 2 that “as the ‘fourth estate of the realm’, the media provides the platform for narratives and discourses in the service of elections, political negotiations and other engagements among the political elites and civil involved in election administration in Nigeria”.
Critics of Zelizer’s idea of the media as a conundrum would say there is no conundrum at all. The media is powerful because it controls narratives and discourses, some of which produce consequences beyond what media owners, editors and reporters can imagine. For instance, the Danish cartoonists in 2005 would argue that they were exercising their fundamental right of free speech but that right produced a deadly consequence in Nigeria. This happened because the meaning of the cartoons was different for different readers. In some extreme cases, differential interpretation of media messages contributed to crimes against humanity although this is only possible within the context of a predisposing condition such as extreme political decay. None of these consequences would be possible if, in handling narratives and discourses, the media can do what Dr. Ishola set for it: …societal interests must override ownership considerations during the coverage of political contestations and elections because societal interest is superior to individual and group interest”, (p.102).
It is not as if the media contests the need to put societal interest higher than any other interests because there must be society before there can be journalism. In any case, any medium which wants to survive must cherish the conditions for peace. But as long as text producers can hardly see the world from where they stand and as long as the meaning of what they write or broadcast depends on the readers, the media would always be seen to be complicit in exacerbating violence. This is the tragedy of the media in conflict. It is also the tragedy of the journalist because s/he can end up in jail for the meaning of a headline that is not his/her own meaning but probably that of the police or a judge’s.
The tension between Dr. Ishola’s idea of what the media should do and what the media does is not a weakness of the book but a credit because a book which produces no such intellectual tension might not be worth it. But to point out one weakness at least, the next edition must be sure that there is no clash between page 17 and page 18 on which side Iwe Irohin supported between the Egbas and the colonial authorities. Right now, that account doesn’t seem to read well as p. 18 tends to clash with what p. 17 is saying. Or, is someone not reading it well?