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Buhari and four years of threats to press freedom

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[FILES] Journalists on duty

The vexatious media accreditation requirements recently released and withdrawn by the National Assembly in the twilight of the eighth legislature fittingly capture how the media fared in the four years of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration: trampled.

Due to take effect from June 11, the guidelines demanded, among other provisions, that media organisations should submit copies of their income tax return for the last two years if they wish to be accredited for the coverage of NASS activities. Media stakeholders considered the action an attempt to trample on the freedom of the press.

The Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), in fact, described the guidelines as, “a scurrilous attempt to gag the press in a democracy and it cannot stand. These guidelines run contrary to the grains of reason, democratic ideals and they are a clear affront to the letter and spirit of the Nigerian constitution, which empowers journalists to freely practise their profession without any gag, muzzling and restriction.”

The guild regretted that the same eighth National Assembly, which benefited immensely from free press in its moments of trial, had turned against the press.

Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) had reacted in a statement by its deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare that implementing the ‘accreditation guidelines’ would allow the lawmakers to escape accountability for their constitutional functions.”

SERAP urged the Senate President Bukola Saraki and Speaker of the House of Representatives Yakubu Dogara to “open the windows and let in the daylight” of the National Assembly by immediately withdrawing the accreditation guidelines and allowing journalists to freely cover the activities of leadership and members of the National Assembly.”

The organisation had threatened to take national and international legal actions if the unlawful guidelines were not withdrawn by Friday, May 24.

Coming barely three weeks after the country joined the rest of the world to mark the World Press Freedom Day, on May 3, the guidelines underscored the statement that the country’s leaders pay lip service to advancing one of the fundamental tenets of democracy: free press.

Earlier, in April 2017, the Chief Security Officer to the President, Mr. Bashir Bindawa, withdrew the press pass of the Aso Rock correspondent of Punch newspapers, Olalekan Adetayo. This dented the Buhari-led administration, which was barely two years old, bringing back memories of what the press was subjected to during the 1984 to 1985 era of the president when he was a military head of state. Although the pass was later restored, the damage had already been done.
Attacks, attacks, attacks everywhere

The Director, International Press Centre (IPC), Mr. Lanre Arogundade, told The Guardian that not less than 60 journalists had been attacked in the last four years. He said, “there is too much hostility towards the media not just from government but some individuals. There is no strong commitment on the part of government to enable the FoI Act thrive.”

The Guardian checks revealed records of disagreements between journalists and state governors, especially in Rivers, Plateau and Kano states may have occurred while bloggers and social media writers also experienced the same.

The other biggest threat to the media these past four years has been the ever-present overzealousness of security agencies that routinely interfere with the responsibilities of the press to cover and report events.

The Nigerian press has had to face police brutality, arrests, torture and even death for the least publication that gets authorities mostly politicians and businessmen provoked.

In September 2017, soldiers attacked journalists at the NUJ office in Umuahia, beat them up and destroyed their work equipment for taking photos of the army during an Operation Python Dance show.

In 2018, a member of the House of Representatives caused police to arrest and detain a journalist working with Daily Trust, one Musa Krishi, for allegedly publishing an advertorial purported to be critical of the parliamentarian.

During the last election, for instance, it was widely reported that security operatives routinely harassed and intimidated journalists, significantly impacting on election coverage. A group, The Committee for the Protection of Journalists, on March 13, 2019 complained of the incessant harassment of journalists during the presidential and governorship elections.

Nonso Isiguzo, a news editor with the privately owned Nigeria Info, a radio station, told CPJ that he was travelling on an election day between polling stations to report on elections in the Ahoada West Council of Rivers State when armed men, some wearing camouflage uniforms, stopped their Nigeria Info-branded car, told Isiguzo and his driver, Sunday Isiitu, to get out, and took their car keys.

Shortly afterwards, a second car carrying five others whom Isiguzo identified as journalists with accredited press tags was also stopped at the same point on the road.

Also, on an election day, the report, which cited another report by the BBC Pidgin, continued, Segun Adewale, a local politician known as ‘Aeroland’ and a member of the Peoples Democratic Party, hit and shoved BBC reporter Ajoke Ulohotse in Abeokuta, Ogun State.

The case of Mr. Jones Abiri, publisher of a Bayelsa State-based weekly paper, Weekly Source, also comes to mind. Abiri was arrested by operatives of Nigeria’s State Security Service (SSS) in July 2016 and detained till July 2018. Before he was charged to court, the Nigerian government had denied he was a journalist but only a crime suspect.

In January 2019, soldiers simultaneously invaded the office of the Daily Trust newspaper in Abuja and its outstation in Maiduguri, arrested the regional editor, and carted away computers and laptops for allegedly publishing classified military information, thus undermining national security.

Kunle Sanni, a Premium Times journalist was abducted by political thugs for taking pictures of alleged underage voters at a polling unit of Governor Simon Lalong in Plateau State. He was later released after he was forced to delete the pictures.

Though Nigeria is one of the highest ranked African countries with vibrant media, the country’s press is still subjected to attacks by institutions of government.

The 2019 ranking of press freedom, which was conducted by Reporters without Borders, also known as Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) saw Nigeria drop a place from 119 in 2018 to 120, among 180 countries.

The RSF bemoaned the incessant harassment and intimidation of journalists by military officers and politicians in the country, noting that journalists in Nigeria face obstacles when reporting stories that had to do with politics, terrorism and financial embezzlement.

The body said, “the defence of quality journalism and the protection of journalists need to be priorities during Buhari’s second term.”

A tall order for FoI Act
While assessing the state of the media in the last four years, Arogundade said that it had not been a smooth sailing for the media considering the many violations related to the issue of the FoI Act.

He said: “During the general elections, an unprecedented number of journalists were harassed and stopped from doing their work, even the fact that journalists were accredited by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) did not stop those kinds of situations. While journalists have been striving to do their work, the environment is not made conducive by government.”

A professor of mass communication, Lagos State University, School of Media and Communications, Lai Oso, said for the FoI Act to function well in the country, the media and civil society must use the tools at their disposal. He said, “the media institutions are not using the tools as expected. We need to build coalition, network that would be able to finance the use of the FoI Act instrument, as it would require a lot of resources.”

Arogundade lamented that it was quite worrisome that the trend of journalists’ harassment had continued. According to him, even government agencies and bodies have failed to ameliorate the media plight by not responding to their FoI request and as at when due.

The social media blossomed during that era, not essentially because government enabled it but because of developments in smartphone technology that allowed the spread of the digital experience and the consequent availability of the Internet to a larger segment of the population.

There is no absolute freedom anywhere in the world and it is also important that journalists understand the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Freedom of Information (FoI) Act is not a repetition of the United Nations Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which is also enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution and provides for the right o freedom of information. The FoI Act is an enabler for journalists to ask for information and rely on an existing law of the land to be allowed access.

Oso said the media in the last four years had experienced some challenges especially from security agencies that often go beyond the line in terms of their relationship with journalists. “ This, in a way put some kind of question at the level of tolerance and press freedom. By and large, I think we have had a very robust media engagement. The government has expressed a lot of reservations with the social media, but so far, no attempt has been made in trying to cut some of the excesses of the social media,” Oso said.

Oso said the media-government relationship could be characterised as love and hate. Oso noted, “Government has not been able to sum up the will to clamp down on the media, because of the robustness of the critical mark of opposition to such an attempt.”

Strengthening the media for the future
The media enjoyed more freedom under the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan but events since then appear to project the Buhari-led administration as seeming ready to settle score with the media in the last four years.

However, Oso argued against the belief that the Jonathan Goodluck-led administration was more media-friendly, saying, “the way the All Progressives Congress (APC) engages the media is different from the way the PDP does. It’s not that the government prevented the media from doing something for the PDP, as they were free to organise their own media engagement. You will find out that the way APC uses the media today is different from the way they did as opposition; they were more creative but the PDP has not been too good at their use of the media.”

While many argued that the last four years recorded the highest number of attacks on journalists in the country, others believe that the current administration had nothing to do with the attacks.

Also, the increasing influence of state actors on the media outcome is another issue. Many media houses displayed dangerous political bias, with editorial content leaning towards identifiable political interests, a situation described as not signifying equity, and which also runs counter to the watchdog role of the media. Journalists covering state houses have often been induced to treat news stories mainly from the perspectives of the state actors.

In an industry now dominated by fake news, it’s even becoming very difficult to draw the lines between news and junk. Social media with its speed and viral nature has made this even more pervasive.

According to the Nigerian Press Council, “the Nigerian media have fallen victim of manipulations by government and politicians. We are being witnesses to the fallen standard of journalistic profession and its negative contributions to nation building through a hackneyed uncouth and indiscrete reporting of events and issues… ethnic polarization of media houses and consequent undue influence on power and political tussles. As a result, in moment of crisis, the media become ready tools for those actively involved in the crisis of power.”

Under section 22 of the 1999 Constitution, the media is required to uphold the fundamental objectives of the state and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.

Some have argued that the duty imposed on the media has been frustrated by the denial of access to information on public affairs. The provision of the constitution is a fundamental right by virtue of section 38 of the constitution, which stipulates, “every citizen shall have the right to freedom of expression including the right to obtain information and impart ideas.”

Perhaps, many Nigerians are ignorant of the right the act gives; to request information from any public institution from all arms of government; executive (presidency), legislature (lawmakers), judiciary (courts) or any other parastatal supported by public funds or private organisations that provide public services or utilise public funds.

What this means is that a lot depends on the journalist seeking the information. Any journalist whose access to information is restricted therefore has recourse to this law. Although reports have indicated that most government ministries, departments and agencies routinely frustrate efforts to effectively apply this law, records have indicated that most of the people seeking access to government information using the provisions of this law are not even practising journalists. Most are NGOs.

To strengthen the freedom of the press in the country, Arogundade said that the media must adopt the principle of “an injury to one is an injury to all”, adding, “media professional bodies such as NGE, NUJ, NPAN and so on need to start a dialogue with the government, police, army and others to have a clear understanding of the situation and subsequently proffer solution.

A mass communication lecturer at the University of Jos, Dr. Taye Obateru told The Guardian that the media had done very well in aiding democracy growth in Nigeria, “The fact that we have independence at all has a lot to do with the media. The media fought for the restoration of democracy after the military interregnum. It is not as if the media took to campaigns but other civil organisations partnered with the media to ensure growth.”

Obateru, whose PhD thesis was on professional media practice in Nigeria said the media sometimes go overboard to survive. “Many media outfits are not strong enough to retain the best hands or pay good wages. In terms of compromise, a hungry man is vulnerable to manipulations.”

He, however, advised that journalists should continue to strive to uphold best practice, “At the end of the day, what journalism thrives upon is integrity, and should one lose it, it is like throwing caution to the wind,” he said.

While assessing media regulators, practitioners and owners in the democracy era, Chairman Unilag Radio, Centre of Excellence, Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye said the press had done well but there was room for improvement. “I will say also that the government on its own part has exhibited some elements of tolerance. This is subject to some occasional misgivings on the true meaning of democracy on the part of politicians and of the true meaning of free press for sustaining democracy on the part of lawmakers and policy makers.

Akinfeleye noted that the media had failed to deal with hate speeches, in spite of its crucial role in ensuring the survival of democracy. “Government should exhibit more tolerance by not withholding information, it should release information to journalists as at when due.

“An article written in 2011 on freedom of the press as contained in the document allows the press to demand any public information and the government is empowered by this provision to release the document to the journalist, and the journalist does not need to state any reason why he or she needs this document,” he added.


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