Nigerian journalists on
May 3, 2014 joined their counterparts worldwide to celebrate the World Press Freedom Day, a date set aside by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, to apart from inform the general public on events and issues that affect them but to also let the people know that the media is a significant force in modern-day culture and politics.
It is a day meant to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, evaluate press freedom around the world, defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who lost their lives in the exercise of their profession, among others. Each time the World Press Freedom Day is celebrated, one is forced to pause and ask this question: How freely are journalists who practice in Nigeria and other parts of the world? There are sustained attacks on journalists globally.
It is an undeniable fact that the world today is currently experiencing a turbulent period like never before. In Nigeria, the unfortunate events of Boko Haram terrorism and insecurity around us are enough to cite as examples, as thousands of innocent people including media men who are doing their job, have lost their lives, leaving behind their wives, children, parents and siblings. As this year’s World Press Freedom Day was celebrated, majority or many journalists are currently languishing in different countries innocently, most of them without access to lawyers. They did not commit any offence, other than discharging their duties professionally.
Right now, some Al-Jazeera journalists are being detained by Egyptian authorities. They are Peter Greste, Abdullah Shami, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed who have been in detention for about 5 months now, according to Muslim Students Society of Nigeria (MSSN), Lagos State chapter via its monitoring outfit, Media 961. The body’s Director, Abdurrasheed Abubakar said the Al-Jazeera journalists have appeared seven times in court for performing their statutory role, pointing out that journalists are not criminals. “It is the fundamental rights of the people to know, and it is the responsibility of the media to give them the most objective and unbiased information, he stressed and called for the immediate release of the reporters and other journalists who are going through the same treatment in other parts of the world.
In its report, the committee to Protect Journalists recently said over 500 reporters have been in prison worldwide in the last two years while the International Federation of Journalists reported that 105 media workers were killed in 2013.
The group added that while extremist groups in crisis-ridden regions have been behind a good numbers of these injustice meted on journalists, in certain cases, government officials, even the allied forces with the United States of America are culpable. “Back home in Nigeria, we are hitherto ranked among socially responsible media in the world, yet our leadership has failed to address problems bedeviling the media industry, one of which is poor welfare package.
Journalists in Nigeria, according to facts, are among the worst remunerated in the world, most journalists live on the gratifications they receive from people, which is seen as unethical. They are not paid wages by their employers”.
In the area of attacks on Nigerian journalists, we say thanks to God for making democracy to thrive after the many years of military rule in this country. The major problem with the Nigerian journalists is the constitution which failed to provide protection for the press, rather than section 36 which provided for freedom of the individual to receive and impart information without interference, and in a manner that is justifiable in a democratic society. Section 21 of the constitution gave the press, including radio and television and other agencies of the mass media the obligation of upholding “the fundamental objectives” of the constitution and to “uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people”, it gave no special protection for press freedom in upholding the obligations.
In reality, government interference during the Shehu Shagari years was commonplace and several journalists lost their jobs for giving out stories considered unpalatable by the authorities. At the state and federal levels, government media was used to propagate only the views of those in power instead of serving the interests of the public as stipulated by the constitution. Much as the press and other media have a very vital function to perform in our democratic system of government uptill today, and even called the ‘court of public opinion’, there is nothing in our constitution to support the contention that they form the fourth arm of government . The right to freedom of expression under section 36 of the constitution is one which belongs to all who have to hold opinion, receive and impart ideas or disseminate information but stipulates no separate treatment to the press or mass media.
Compared to the military, the civilian government under Shehu Shagari was more subtle in its approach to control the mass media. Indeed, journalists in Nigeria witnessed an unfortunate era during the military reign when late Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese and Yakubu Mohammed founded the Newswatch magazine in 1985 and in that same year, Dele Giwa was killed through a parcel bomb in his residence, and the publication was banned in 1987 for publishing details of the Political Bureau set up to articulate popular opinion on Nigeria’s political future. There had been a long list of media houses arbitrarily closed by the military authorities for publishing stories considered offensive while the arrest of journalists also became overly frequent.
Really, freedom of the press is better protected under a civilian government than a military regime. This is why the Freedom of Information Bill succeeded in becoming a low today. Although the FOI is yet to be fully operational, there is no doubt that Nigerians and journalists are protected under that law. Journalists are weary of the non-entrenchment of a clear protectional clause for the practice of their profession. It is, therefore, important at this moment of constitution review, to call on the National Assembly Committee on the 1999 Constitution Review to ensure that issues affecting the media and practitioners are entrenched in the proposed new constitution to enable them to carry out their statutory obligations of informing, entertaining and educating the people.
It is hoped that a new constitution will be drawn up for the next civilian dispensation which will give the mass media the obligation of upholding the fundamental objectives of the constitution and ensuring that the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people is uphold. The new constitution should guarantee freedom of expression for journalists, it should also give specific protection to the press to equate press freedom with freedom of expression for the individual. The press is equipped to collect, analyse and disseminate information to the public for the good of the general society, and is, therefore, better placed to vindicate the right of the people to know the activities of those in power, interprete and provide information to the public. An institution that is responsible for creating a bridge between the government and the people require certain specific guarantees in the constitution to ensure its effectiveness.
Freedom of the press should be clearly enshrined in the new constitution and this freedom should adequately guarantee to the press the right to receive and disseminate information and protect the source of such information. Any existing law that tends to unduly strangulate the freedom of the press should be reviewed, because the failure of the Nigerian constitution to specifically guarantee press freedom remains a source of anxiety for most journalists as they want the law that will abridge the freedom of speech or of the press. There is also need to give legal protection to journalists to guarantee the confidentiality of their sources in aid of freedom of information.
No matter the circumstances, journalists should be able to say no to the government and politicians when they go wrong, whatever the medium. As journalists, we should not at all times try to identify the interests of our owners and protect them through what we publish. Several factors inhibit press freedom and the free flow of information and some of these factors are induced by the legal framework under which the press operates and government’s extra-legal and arbitrary control of the press. The right of the press to seek, obtain and publish news and information without constraint should be specifically entrenched in the Nigerian Constitution.
All restrictive laws on the press should be expunged from the statute book while the freedom to information should be fully guaranteed. The National Assembly Committee on Constitution Review must ensure that all clauses restricting the free and independent practice of journalism are not included in the new constitution.
The press, whether privately or government-owned should be made free from political manipulations to permit independent and unhindered operation. Harassments, arrests and detention of journalists, including the arbitrary closure of media houses have had a very negative effect on press freedom in Nigeria, and has seriously affected the quality of the Nigerian press, especially in the nature of information provided to the public. There is the need for legal restraint on the government and security agencies to prevent their arbitrary interference, harassment and closure of media houses.
There should be specific constitutional provision forbidding the closure of media houses, while journalists accused of violating any criminal law should be treated in accordance with the due process of law this means prompt and fair trial before competent courts. There is no doubt that a system of information management that gives journalists access to official information will ultimately promote responsible journalism and put paid to rumour mongering and publication of unconfirmed or unsubstantiated reports. As Nigeria seeks to restructure and achieve a new constitution for its people, there is the need to promote openness and condemn secrecy in the conduct of all forms of official business.
The current state of press freedom in Nigeria falls very short of the standards set by the international bill of rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. So, the time to redress this shortcoming for the government and people is now.
In view of these, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), the Nigerian Press Council (NPC), Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Broadcasting Association of Nigeria (BON) should see the welfare of journalists, dead or alive, as a priority and work with both government and media owners on how to effect a standard wage for the practitioners of journalism to live happy and good life, to put an end to all forms of unethical practices among members and ensure that a clear and absolute press freedom is entrenched in the new constitution and also enforced to the letter.