Of Press Freedom And Democracy

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Gentlemen of the Forth Estate have of recent become the most endangered specie in Nigeria. Many have been killed and some are now placed on death roll with death threat letters already delivered to them by unknown persons.

A journalist in Bayelsa State, Mr Oyins Egrenbido was bundled into a waiting police van on Sunday, May 16, 2010 by officers of the Nigeria Police. The police was said to have acted on the instruction of a local government chairman over alleged report on the chairman aired on Rhythm FM. Recently a journalist was handcuffed and led out of an Abuja Magistrate Court on the instruction of the magistrate.

The journalist was in the court simply to perform his constitutional duty when the magistrate identified him and said if you are a journalist leave my court. Intimidation of journalists by those in control of top government offices sends a signal that the future of Nigeria media is still unpredictable.

The fact that journalist are poorly remunerated is not an excuse by those in “juicy jobs” to reason that they are stupid. They are rather men and women who have dedicated their life, mind and eloquent pen to ensure that our democracy is not sterilised. In modern society, it is the citizens right to ventilate his views without the fear of fellow men who regard themselves as small gods on earth.

A successful news story requires a journalist, subject matter, sources, audience and if fortunate enough feed back. A positive interplay between the four subjects yields a better story and credibility.

Providing false information to the media will not help fight graft, corruption or abuse of office. Occasionally arrogant public officials in their air conditioned offices will not respect the journalist appearing before them in search of clarity on specific issues of public interest. Since most public officials are physically unavailable or can’t be traced, media resorting to use of telephone in conducting interviews with majority of public officials has been the only solution.

However, due to the fact that most public officials have not taken short courses in public relations or journalism to acclimatise themselves with media, they are always caught off-guard when a journalist reaches them on telephone.

While on telephone, they have no time to consult with hard copy books and probably they aren’t in offices and will make sweeping comments or arrogantly intimidate the journalist on phone. “Who gave you my number? I don’t talk to people like you” they usually say before prematurely terminating the call.

However, in the News Business, no comment is a comment and whenever efforts to contact a source are successful; whatever the source tells the journalist will always be a comment for the story.

Surprisingly enough, when such a source that had earlier made arrogant and disrespectful comments and later reads them in the published story will quickly pick his phone and call the journalist hurling all sorts of insults at him or her forgetting that he had misused his earlier opportunity to comment.

It is unfortunate that many leaders in Nigeria continue to undermine the importance of the media ignoring the fact that the media is the “voice of the voiceless” and that journalists have the right to access information and that freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution. It is important to note that the dissemination of information if executed properly stands out as a key element in good governance and democracy. A flourishing and independent media in any country is a good indicator of good governance and democracy.

Due to denial and suppression of information, many top government officials have managed to put behind their backs a lot of misdeeds. It is therefore important for our leaders to understand that freedom and access to information is a human right enshrined even in the United Nations Charter. In 1964 the United Nations Assembly adopted resolution 59 (1) which states that freedom of information is a fundamental human right and “ …the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nation is consecrated”.

As stated by the United Nations Assembly and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is crystal clear that freedom of expression and access to information is a right that every government and citizen should strive for. The media should, therefore be given opportunity to publish factual stories for the interest of the public.

If all those in authority should do things the right way, then they have nothing to fear let alone news men. Journalists are capable of checking the abuse of press freedom. The press should not be used as a medium for political dog-fights or witch-hunts by some pressure groups, politicians, potential politicians or political aspirants. The press should not indulge in harassment of individuals for their purely private affairs.

Journalists cannot collectively disappoint their audience. They realise that the tools for their trade, WORDS are dangerous. They have thus always heeded to the warning of “Let mortals beware of words for with words we lie”.

As in other modern states, Nigerian journalists should be allowed to fulfill their vital functions of informing the people without hindrance. If the request for the passage of the freedom of information bill is granted and ingrained in the new constitution and charged with utopianism we shall be traveling in the right direction to utopia, or perhaps more realistically to a democracy that works for the people and not just the power brokers. It is only then that we can foster good government and development to make Nigeria one of the twenty most developed nations in the world by the year 20-20.

Both the Senate President, Senator David Mark and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Dimeji Bankole have recently on separate occasions assured the nation that the freedom of information bill before the National Assembly will soon be passed. The two leaders are men that I can read their lips at any given time. Do it now please.

And the on-going request for improved wages for members of the Fourth Estate is quite apt. Thanks to the Hon. Minister of Information and Communications, Prof. Dora Akunyuli for speaking in support of the quest.

Sir Ichoku is a retired director of the Rivers State Ministry of Information and Comunciations

 

Anthony Ichoku