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How ownership, poor conditions of service, state actors’ interference hinder free press

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Journalists on duty….Photo: Femi Adebesin-Kuti<br />

According to a popular saying by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” There have been a lot of arguments around the Nigerian media and the state of its freedom. Though a free press is essential for an enduring democracy, the Nigerian press is considered not free.

For some, the Nigerian media environment is free, so free that anything beyond the present level will become licensed.

For others, the social, political, and perhaps, economic environment are hostile to the expression and enjoyment of freedom by Nigerian journalists. This disparity is due to shrinking standards, vanishing expectations and increasingly widespread entitlement mentality by a growing powerful political elite.

In the past and under military dictatorship, cases of brutal assassination of journalists and irrational arrest and detention of others were common. The cases of Dele Giwa, Editor of Newswatch magazine, Bagauda Kaltho of The News magazine and others come to mind.

It has been argued that if there is any form of pressure, motivation, portent inducement or threat capable of impacting, influencing journalism practice, then there is no free press in the form that is necessary to support an open society.

Many have also argued that journalists in Nigeria are the worst paid in the world and that many media outfits operate without paying their workers. This they said has made public relations agencies to monetise their relationship with the media practitioners, who in turn remain loyal to them for enabling them to survive the harsh economic life.

Unpaid journalists, some argue, would not put their lives in danger necessary for journalistic integrity when they know that doing so would compromise their sources of income.

Apart from just a few, most of the media houses in the country do not represent any real business other than the shorter-term political ends of their proprietors. It is for this reason that the cemetery of media enterprise is littered with the graves of dead newspaper houses, many of which were left to perish after serving their short term purposes.

Also, the relationship between the media and the three arms of government, particularly the executive, has always dangled between friendliness and frostiness. In a quest to play its watchdog role, the media frequently clashes with the government, an atmosphere, which has breed a history of distrust between both parties. 

Since what constitutes “national security” is not a clearly defined out, the media frequently finds itself at the receiving end of attacks by security agencies. 

On March 1, 2019. Norman, owner and editor-in-chief of online news outlet The Realm News, was arrested by the police in Umuahia, Abia State, while at a local radio station, Flo FM to discuss politics. In 2018, a member of the House of Representatives caused police to arrest and detain a journalist, Musa Krishi, working with Daily Trust, for allegedly publishing an advertorial purported to be critical of the parliamentarian.

Also, in June 2014 when the army sealed off the popular newspaper distribution depot in Area 1, Abuja, saying it was carrying out “routine security check.” Of course, the action was defended by the presidency at the time under Goodluck Jonathan, who also described it as “isolated incidents of security checks.”
 
In September 2017, soldiers attacked journalists at the NUJ office in Umuahia, beat them up and destroyed their work equipment. Reason: The journalists were taking photos of the army during Operation Python Dance.

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

There are endless examples of such reckless abuses and harassment of journalists by state actors. Constantly suspicious of the stance of journalists, government officials explore and exploit the security agencies to bully reporters and media practitioners.

A cursory look at how this also played during the 2019 elections proves the endless war between the media and security agencies, which should actually work hand in hand for the betterment of society.

In Delta State, over 250 duly accredited journalists were barred by the Resident Electoral Commissioner of INEC from accessing the premises and covering election events in the commission. Only those whose names were in a different list put together by the commission were given access to cover election events.

In Edo State, Collins Ossai of Channels television was barred by political thugs from covering the elections, while security officials looked the other way. In Lagos, BBC Africa Pidgin reporter, Ajoke Lijadu-Ulohotse was slapped by a politician, Segun Adewale, over her coverage of vote buying. Also, about 15 thugs attacked Benjamin Alade of The Guardian while he took pictures and video of protesting National Youth Corp members, who were owed allowances at a collation centre in Idimu area of Lagos.

In Kaduna State, Amos Tauna of Daily Post and a group of journalists were physically assaulted while covering the irregularities being perpetrated by politicians and their thugs. Their phones, cameras and other personal belongings were seized and destroyed. Kunle Sanni, a reporter for Premium Times was abducted by political thugs for taking pictures of alleged underage voters at Governor Simon Lalong’s polling unit in Plateau state. He was later released after he was forced to delete the pictures.

In Kano, both police and soldiers held AIT reporter and his cameraman for four hours and forced them to delete recordings of organised violence visited on opposition voters. They were eventually released after they had erased the video recording.

Many have advocated for the media to be strong partners with state actors to enable a more seamless communication. But the moment the medium becomes the friend of state actors the society is the loser, as it is denied of the truth and the conspiracy would deepen rather than bridge the void.

National President, Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Chris Isiguzo, stressed the need to build strong institutions that would have respect for the rule of law. He said, “We have the necessary laws that could guaranty freedom of the press but we don’t respect the law. The media has to rise up to that challenge as agenda setters; we must stop being reactionary and be more proactive. In that way, we get to set agenda for the system.”

He, however, lamented ownership as one factor militating against a free press, as politicians own most of the media outfits, adding, “We have very poor conditions of service in the media industry. There is no way the media can be free when the operator is not effectively taken care of by the employer. I feel senior journalists should come together and establish media platforms and promote professionalism and ethical standard, rather than leave the industry for politicians to decide how journalism is practiced in Nigeria.”

Isiguzo said NUJ had always stood for the welfare of journalists.

For Chairman, Centre of Excellence in Multi-Media/Radio and Television, University of Lagos (UNILAG), Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye, “The media must be fearless but responsible, placing their practice on the banner of truth. The other name for democracy is free press and there cannot be a sustainable democracy without free press. Government must understand this for development to occur.”

Prof Lai Oso of School of Communications, Lagos State University, said journalists are expected to help the process of governance by performing optimally as good members of the Fourth Estate to foster and stabilise Nigeria’s democracy and political development so as to continually prevent any unwarranted and retrogressive interventions in the country’s political life.


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