Press freedom in Nigeria must be defended
Punch Editorial Board
An uninspiring ranking of 115 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index 2020 highlights the precarious state of liberty in Nigeria, 21 years into the Fourth Republic. The conclusion by international non-profit, Medicines sans Frontiers that journalists in the country operate under a “climate of permanent violence” where they “are often spied upon, attacked, arbitrarily arrested or even killed,” is an indictment of the government. It demonstrates how very little progress has been made in entrenching respect for human rights as a major prop of democracy.
Attempts to weaken the media identified by MSF include arrests of journalists, killings, disinformation and state-sponsored violence at public events, including rallies and elections. It cited harassment by police and the “all-powerful” state governors, “often the most determined persecutors and act with complete impunity.” Though the latest is an improvement on the 2019 rank of 120, for Nigerians, who have had to endure the atrocious behaviour of politicians and security personnel since 1999 and military juntas before then, even this damning account sounds tame.
A free press has been recognised as the lifeblood of democracy. Thomas Macaulay, the 19th century British statesman and historian, declared, “The Fourth Estate ranks in importance equally with the three estates of the realm, the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Lords Common.” As the French writer, Benjamin Constant, noted, “With newspapers, there is sometimes disorder; without them, there is always slavery.”
Nevertheless, Nigeria has been unfortunate to have mediocre politicians, who lack the basic understanding of democracy and its capacity to unleash a people’s boundless productive and creative energy, occupying leadership positions. The country thereby struggles vainly to build “democracy without democrats.” Not surprisingly, countries at the top of the table – the Scandinavian countries – have the highest standards of living.
But freedom of the press has come under attack here despite clear provisions of the 1999 Constitution in Section 39. The two journalists shot dead in July 2019 and January respectively, while covering protests by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria are just two extremes. Police, military and other security personnel regularly harass journalists and media outfits. Armed soldiers and agents of the State Security Service in January 2019 simultaneously raided the offices of Daily Trust in Maiduguri, Borno State and in Lagos; they detained two journalists, claiming that the newspaper had “divulged classified military information and undermined national security.” Police in Ebonyi State, following threats by Governor David Umahi to “ban” the duo for alleged unfavourable reports, separately arrested the correspondents of The Sun and The Vanguard newspapers in Abakaliki, the state capital.
This is not all. Journalists have also tasted the ire of Governor Ben Ayade in Cross River State, where one, Agba Jalingo, has been arraigned in court on treason charges. In February, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported how police and the SSS had been abusing the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 to tap into phones to track and lure journalists into detention. The law mandates network service providers to assist security agencies in crime prevention and national security, but it has often been deployed to harass the mass media. Such behaviour made smaller African countries like Ghana at No. 30, Burkina Faso 38 and Togo 71 to be rated better on the index. The country is shamefully, not too far from Afghanistan 122, Zimbabwe 126 and South Sudan 138.This is surely unfortunate.
Following serial onslaughts on journalists after Jones Abiri, Jalingo and Omoyele Sowore, an online publisher, were detained, The Guardian of London warned that under the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), a “climate of fear” appeared imminent as continued attempts to muzzle the press “could herald a return to the dark days of military rule.” We agree. These may be familiar fare in dictatorships, but they are the very antithesis of democracies.
To be sure, Buhari’s regime is following the playbook of its predecessors. For instance, the Goodluck Jonathan administration, according to the CPJ “used legal tools as well as brutal means to clamp down on media coverage deemed critical of the government.” In April 2013, after strong-arm treatment of journalists, film censorship, arrest and arraignment of two journalists of Leadership newspaper, the US Consul-General reminded the government that “freedom of the press is crucial,” though this did not stop the military from seizing and destroying thousands of copies of newspapers, including The PUNCH, in June 2014.
But a free press is a major foundation of a free, democratic society where the rule of law reigns. According to the American Newspapers Publishers Association, “A free press was born when America was born. It was not handed down or inherited. The concept of press freedom was deliberately constructed by the framers of our Constitution to instil the spirit of independence as an absolute, crucial ingredient in the creation, existence and survival of a free society.”
The assault has to stop. Harassment should be resisted through regular recourse to the law. Like the famed human rights lawyer, the late Gani Fawehinmi, took up the case of Minere Amakiri, a journalist who was abducted, beaten and forcibly shaved on the orders of the then military governor of old Rivers State, Alfred Diete-Spiff, public spirited lawyers should provide services to oppressed journalists, especially smaller ones, and online outlets.
Media organisations should be more willing to back court action of their victimised employees. The CNN went to court to defend the right of its correspondent to cover the White House after he was thrown out by the intolerant Donald Trump administration. This paper fought up to the Supreme Court that, last year, affirmed the N25 million in damages awarded to it by the lower court for the military invasion and closure of its premises in 1994. Civil society should rise to the occasion as it heroically did during the era of military rule.
On Buhari’s watch, citizens are arrested and detained for some bizarre reasons, especially on the flimsy allegation of insulting the president or ridiculing a governor. Describing any unpleasant report as fake news has become a new normal with the Buhari regime. A former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court once asked: “Since when have we Americans been expected to bow submissively to authority and speak with awe and reverence to those who represent us?” Then he added, “the constitutional theory is that we the people are the sovereigns, the state and federal officials only our agents. We who have the final word can speak softly or angrily. We can seek to challenge and annoy, as we need not stay docile and quiet.” By this, any public official who cannot take the heat by accepting people’s sovereignty should stay out of public office. This is the hard truth about a democratic and republican system of government, which Nigeria is. And this democracy is achieved at huge costs to the citizens, including the blood of many compatriots.
A mass media whose owners and industry associations perpetually seek favours from the government is however weakened. Positioning media outlets for advertisement can be professionally done without supine compromises and unethical dalliance with officialdom. Arrests and prosecution for offences such as blasphemy as are playing out in Kano, or “insulting” the president or a governor, should have no place in a vibrant democracy.
The government and legislators should stop their obsession with passing restrictive laws to gag the press and suppress the social media. The governors, who behave like medieval emperors, intolerant of criticism and tend towards megalomania, should be resisted.
Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Liberty is not a gift to be bestowed by unenlightened politicians and bullying security men; it is a right earned at great cost, which should be stoutly defended by all who care about democracy and free society. The derisive concept of “African Big Man” should have no place in 21st century Nigeria. As Thomas Jefferson famously wrote to a friend in 1787, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Every Nigerian owes it a duty to defend the rights to free speech and of the press.
This is where we stand.