Partial press freedom threatens democracy
By Odimegwu Onwumere
Freedom of the Press was exceedingly sought-after in Nigeria, leading to the passage of the Freedom of Information (FoI) into law. Yet, in many quarters, it is believed that there is continuous enslavement of press’s freedom by the authorities. And this is endangering the country's democracy, because it warps information about the political leaders.
A former governor of Abia State, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu presented an insight on this issue in April 2013, during a presentation at the Frankfurt Chamber of Commerce, which followed a remark by the United States of America’s Consular General Jeffery Hawkins, on media freedom in Nigeria.
It was believed by Dr. Kalu that the elementary freedom to the right-to-be-heard in Nigeria had not been ascertained, because there were cases of discrimination to individual’s opinion and the roasting of open distribution of ideas, which could not be obtainable in any democracies.
There are cases of suppression of truth by the authorities for self-serving purposes. Newsmen men are preyed upon when they go further to unravel any attempt made by the leaders to suppress the Freedom of Press. There is a report from a certain quarter that more than 25 attacks against journalists, were recorded in the event of the April 2011 presidential, legislative and gubernatorial elections in Nigeria.
Many newsmen have been detained in Nigeria by the authorities without trial, or any judicial or legal authorisation followed. This, perhaps, informs the report by The Street Journal of April 30 2013 with the caption: Despite FOI, Nigeria Is World’s 64th Worst Violator Of Press Freedom!
With this year’s World Press Freedom Day being the 20th, May 3 every year is set aside for the celebration, The Street Journal says that a report published earlier in the year by the Reporters Without Borders, which circulates an annual Press Freedom Index, ranks Nigeria in the 115th position among 179 countries, and Nigeria occupies the 30th position.
In Africa alone, Nigeria is rated very low among the keepers and respecters of press freedom. A recent detention and humiliation of four journalists over a purported report on the country’s presidency, is the most horrifying. They are editors of Leadership newspapers.
The authorities pay lip service to freedom of press, whereas journalists are differentiated. Another distressful in the report of The Street Journal is the story of November 8, 2008, where the same Leadership newspapers had a lead report concerning the then president, Umar Yar’Adua’s (now late) ill health and that the president was coerced to stay indoors for two days. The Leadership Newspapers was forced to tender an unreserved apology to the president, after the president’s media aides demystified the allegation that the president was indoors.
It is perceptibly that the authorities in Nigeria do not attach great importance to journalists, but to what they publish. This habit is betraying the individual's standing and his or her self-esteem, especially among the journalists.
While the world’s democracies attach more to protecting journalists’ dignity, the authorities in Nigeria do not see this as a basic fundamental human rights and liberties that must be protected by the due process clause of the Constitution.
Most times, there are no legal remedies for journalists upon the legal authorities in the democracy; hence the laws in the Constitution which guarantee Freedom of Press are mere conceit, occasioned by Achilles' heels in societal structures. These inefficiencies have affected odiously varieties of the sections in the Constitution.
It is in-name-only the Section 36 (1) of the country’s 1999 Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press in Nigeria that: (1) every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.
Section 39 (2): …every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.
Section 22: ...the press, radio, television and other agencies of 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.
Section 16: ... and control the national economy in such a manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity.
There are many individual media and outfit ensuring that Nigerians enjoy alternative information apart from the government’s owned; the later ensures the singing of praises of the government.
According to a passage by Umaru A. Pate – Press Freedom And Ethical Orientation in Nigeria – of May 15, 2012, journalists in Nigeria are still struggling to cover and balance freedom with responsibility in their duties to avoid the adult’s glove of the authorities therefore being selective in what they report, by merely responding to statements of politicians, ethnic champions, religious zealots and other interested party rather than set-off their own independent inquiries about specific social conflict, issue or disorder. Hence, the making of generalized statements not supported by concrete facts and figures is rife.
Pate says that the fear of being persecuted makes journalists to attribute statements by individuals to collectives, publishing of rumours as facts, publishing unfair and discriminating adverts, use of inflammatory language in news reporting, the problem of editors allowing the letters column and opinion pages to be used to make inflammatory statements against some people or groups, the use of inflammatory, misleading and sensational headlines to attract sales, demonisation of certain ethnic, religious or political groups in an already divided and tensed society, the use of cartoons to malign a community, group or individual, use of unrepresentative pictures, un-objective and clearly biased reporting against some groups, individuals or communities, inappropriate usage of language in reporting conflict stories, total blackout on some groups, individuals or community, expression of ill-informed opinions by columnists, writers, etc. on issues that affect certain groups of people in the country, shallow and episodic coverage.
Against that influence, some unsuspecting members of the public say that the media should function according to the laid down rules and at the same time say that the press should be able to express itself freely. How possible this is, is not yet certain. But Pate further says: Similarly, some of the Journalists, even where they appear competent, are often subdued by the attitudes and policies of their individual media houses to the detriment of their professional honour.
What many Nigerians did not understand was that there could not be the expected total freedom of press if journalists were asked to follow the ethical rules meant by the authorities strictly. Journalists cannot have the freedom to express themselves without trampling on the toes of those who are out to malign them at any slightest reports made of investigative journalism.
Investigations reveal that there is partial freedom of the press in Nigeria. Even when journalists see it as their responsibility and report factually to the public, the authorities become pensive when what is being reported affects their ego; and this undermines press’s freedom to source for news, regardless the 1999 Nigerian Constitution of section 39 (1-3), which states that everybody has freedom to expression, to hold opinions, to seek, to impact information and ideas without any interference. Inter alia, the same Constitution in section 22 (1), also states that the press, the media and all media agencies are free to uphold opinions, seek, impact information and ideas without any interference.
A source however says that despite the Constitution that guides Freedom of Press, the persecutions of journalists and their agencies in the country can be deduced that the freedom of the press in the country is partial. Journalists are being deprived of their full media responsibilities by the authorities in a democracy.
An information in the Vanguard newspapers of September 10, 2010, in its Law & Human Rights section, a legal luminary, Bamidele Aturu in the commentary titled Freedom of the press in Nigeria: Some fundamental issues, says that what obtains in the country’s freedom of the press is Freedom of the Press without Freedom of Information: Freedom without content.
Aturu says as follows: ...All the laws, whether it was the colonial Seditious Offences Ordinance of 1909, the precursor of the notorious Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree No 4 of 1984 or even the Nigerian Press Council Act recently nullified by the Federal High Court, these laws were enacted to repress the press and prevent criticism of the government in power.
While Aturu thanks some of his colleagues in the law profession who had handed down spirited judgments in act-of-kindness of press freedom, says: The State (which held that sections 50 and 51 of the Criminal Code are unconstitutional), it must never be forgotten that the repressive laws are still being used by the state to harass and intimidate journalists. Under our so called democracy in the fourth republic, journalists were charged with criminal sedition for publishing story indicating that presidential jets were not new but refurbished. Media houses have been shut down by our democratic governments on account of publishing news that embarrassed governments. The closure of Channels Television and Insider Magazine recently demonstrated the fact that qualitatively there is little difference between the so called democratic governments and the undemocratic regimes.
An account by Ayodele Afolayan – A Critical Analysis of Freedom of Information Act in Nigeria – says: The denial of access to information and the attendant widespread ignorance in the society does more harm to the society than any harm that could possibly arise from granting access to members of the public.... Although the media deals in information more than any other segment of the society, the Freedom of Information Act is not a law for the Nigerian media alone. Rather, it is a law that guarantees a right of access to information to everyone in the country as such, places enormous responsibility on those who hold information. With the Information Act in practice, there will be openness, transparency and good governance thereby complementing government’s avowed commitment to stamping out corruption in Nigeria, and in particular, will assist various government agencies such as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Code of Conduct Bureau and Code of Conduct Tribunal, as well as security and other law enforcement agencies, in the performance of their duties.... But in all, Pate, Aturu and Afolayan believe that there is a way out of these anomalies against the press.
Pate suggests that there should be:
- Broad and continuous capacity building for media professionals
- Continuous advocacy to review the laws establishing state media houses and ensuring that private media uphold social responsibility
- Promotion and strengthening of relationships between the civil society and media personnel
- Promotion of diverse media environment that reflect in their structure and content the various social, economic and cultural realities of the society in which they operate, in a more or less proportional way
- Encourage the practice of real peace journalism which include “balance news coverage, positive education of people about what is going on in a divided society, controlling dangerous rumours and providing a trusted source of information for all parties in a conflict”
- Promotion and strengthening of Investigative Journalism at all levels in the media
- Continuous advocacy on the proper funding and equipping of the media
- A significant improvement of the salaries and security of job for journalists should be the first attempt to safeguard the editorial independence of the media.
- The fear of the unknown, as far as job security is concerned, and the effect of very poor salaries are two factors that combine to influence journalists in softening on their editorial independence.
Afolayan recommends thus: Having brought to perspective the challenges of the newly signed Freedom of Information Act in Nigeria, it is important to give the following recommendations:
- The Freedom of Information Act needs to be reviewed so that about 10 sections of the law which dwell on non-disclosure of information will be looked into.
- It is advised that the Federal Government (FG) and its agencies should take steps to ensure that necessary regulations or procedure are put in place for the effective implementation of the Act.
- For instance, the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) should ensure that regulations already produced for the smooth implementation of this Act are gazetted.
- More campaigns need to be done to increase the level of awareness of the public about Freedom of Information Act.
- The media as a core partner should increase public awareness and understanding of the Act.
- It must still be emphasized that it is the responsibility of all Nigerians to carry out the oversight function of ensuring compliance to the provisions of the Act and not that of the National Assembly alone.
- For there to be true press freedom in Nigeria, groups like the Nigerian lawyers in general but LIM in particular, would have to be proactive.
- It should come out with suggestions on law reforms aimed at guaranteeing access to information and Freedom of the Press.
- But it must be recognised that freedom of the press cannot exist in isolation of other rights.
- In a situation where other rights are trampled upon needlessly, we cannot press freedom to be enjoyed without the traditional hostility from the powers that be.
Odimegwu Onwumere, Poet/Author and Media/Writing Consultant contributed this piece from Rivers State