By Jerome-Mario Utomi.
It is no longer news that media practitioners in Nigeria recently joined their colleagues the world over to celebrate the annual world Press freedom day. However, what made the celebration remarkable was President Muhammadu Buhari’s choice of the event to render in both simple and eloquent language words of admonition to the practitioners.
On that day, at that time, and in that place, speaking through his special Adviser Media and Publicity Femi Adesina, Mr. President among other things urged the media practitioners to rededicate themselves to the role of being watchdogs of society. Promising that the government would continue to ensure that the media was not muzzled in any way since democracy and freedom of expression were kindred spirit.
Indeed, an appealing statement but not without scrutiny and further analysis. The need for scrutiny stems from a time-honored believe that when one admires his leader, he should be frank with him, telling him about his mistakes and faults, and advise him about the right way.
Globally, aside from the fact that the viability of democracy depends upon openness, reliability, appropriateness, responsiveness, and a two-way nature of the communication process, ‘a free press is not a privilege but an organic necessity in a society for without their intelligent reporting, the government cannot govern as there is no adequate way in which it can keep itself informed about what the people of the country are thinking or doing.
Likewise, citizens of every nation whether democratic or otherwise hunger for ‘public forum or sphere where the issues of the public interests are viewed as central, and openly considered, discussed or debated. On their part, the politicians and public office holders also have a great interest in how the media covers their behavior. They depend on the media to provide the information they need about the people and the society. The media practitioners, in turn, depend much on the authorities (public office holders) for their information.
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, a number of issues daily emanate from this mutual dependency. While some media practitioners have argued that it is important to maintain enough distance from politicians to cover them both critically and objectively, others are of the opinion that good relationship with politicians is necessary to get the type of information the media needs. On their parts, the vast majority of public office holders in their bid to cover past/mistakes or have their political future discussed inject into the society ordinances/codes that never squares up or in harmony with the moral laws.
Such state of affairs noted the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had globally led to the murder of about 1340 Journalists between 1992 and 2019- and visited others with different levels of harassment and imprisonment.
Back at home, the situation may not be different as countless evidence of deliberate attempts made in the past four years by the government to gird media practice and free speech precisely puts Mr. President’s claim that ‘the government would continue to ensure that the media was not muzzled in any way, as a partial truth.
Essentially, this is not to suggest that abuse of press freedom or free speech is limited to the present administration, as previous administrations cannot also boast of clean hands.
After all, fresh in our memories were the excruciating ordeal of two journalists with the Guardian Newspapers -Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson jailed by a military tribunal on the 4th of July,1984 for reports that were not lacking in merit but asymmetrically viewed to have contravened the infamous decree 4.
But a glance at the litany of recent attempts to cage the media and free speech will reveal that if what happened then looks ugly and frightening, the record of what is happening currently may be worse.
These are the evidence.
In 2017, the present administration introduced before the Nigerian Senate the Non Governmental Organizations regulatory bill. A bill according to the content targeted at regulating the activities of the non governmental organizations in Nigeria.
This was conceived by the government without recourse to the existence of Freedom of Information Act 2011- an Act which in Section 1(1) stated thus, “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other Act, law or regulation, the right of any person to access or request information, whether or not contained in any written form, which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution howsoever described, is established.
This was followed by another toxic bill – the Hate Speech bill of March 2018.
The bill among other things proposed, that any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person shall die by hanging upon conviction. This is in addition to its call for the establishment of an ‘Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches’, which shall enforce hate speech laws across the country.
But there has been no more bizarre or troubling manifestation of attempt to muzzle press freedom in recent time than the ill-fated June 2018 attempted introduction of social media regulations bill.
Lamentably, this move by the government came despite mountain of warnings by different studies that ‘the internet/social media is not just another platform for disseminating the truth but a platform for pursuing the truth, and decentralized creation and distribution of ideas, in the same way that markets are a decentralized mechanism for the creation and distribution of goods and services.
Strangely but anticipated, before the dust raised by the above bill could settle down, the Nigeria Press Council Bill 2018 was up- a bill that the industry watchers as draconian and another attempts to take the media industry back to the dark days.
Among other defects, the bill was plagued by non-compliance with the provisions of section 22 of the nation’s constitution which states thus;
“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.”
Accordingly, if the bill was passed into law, from what Nigerians with critical interests are saying, the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, to which all Nigerians are entitled under section 39 of the constitution, would have existed only in the frames.
Within that space and time also, the sad narrative of attempt to gird free speech was further heightened by the sudden acrimony between the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and some radio and television stations over their purported inability to settle sundry debts/charges to the commission; a claim which most of the embattled stations have denied.
Correspondingly, it will be grossly unfair to omit the recognition of Oyo state Government/Fresh FM saga and the recent closure in the name of security the Daily Trust Newspapers Offices by the men of the Nigerian Army- two separate but similar incidents that has become to media owners/ practitioners a rocky episode of frustration and bewilderment.
Working under this condition, two set of questions naturally come flooding; is the existence of press freedom in Nigeria a fact or a fiction? How can a leader learn from his mistakes if the people keep telling him was right all the time, whereas deep in their hearts they have different opinion?
Jerome-Mario writes (email@example.com) is a Lagos Based Journalist.