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21 years of democracy, media still under threat, say stakeholders

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May 29, marked 21 years since Nigeria returned to democratic rule after 16 years interregnum.

Chief Olusegun Obasanjo acknowledged the role of media when he won the 1999 presidential election, saying, “the media has made a significant contribution towards our collective efforts to bring about a truly democratic order in our country. I genuinely want to acknowledge their contributions.”

All over the world, democracy thrives on the freedom of the press. Section 29 of the 1999 Constitution also guarantees this global tenet that a free press is needed for a robust democratic practice.

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Under President Obasanjo’s administration, from 1999 to 2007, many reforms were brought to News Agency of Nigeria, Voice of Nigeria and Radio Nigeria. He established over 25 FM stations in nearly all the states of the federation.

Obasanjo’s ambition for third term, however, did not go down well with the media, as he was fiercely condemned for this.

President Yar’Adua enjoyed good relationship with press until the terminal ailment that led to his death. His ailment was hidden from the press and members of the public, which elicited complaints and vituperation.

Under President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, the press had some turbulent times with the government. The challenges of Boko Haram insurgents in North East, where over 200 secondary school girls from Chibok in Borno State exposed Presidents Jonathan’s ‘insensitivity’ to national security. Harsh editorials were published criticising his regime in the poor handling of corruption in aviation and petroleum sectors. The editor of Leadership newspaper was arrested, detained and charged for sedition.

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The presidency was also suspected to have organised secret confiscation of newspapers before they could appear on newsstands. The alleged seizure affected Leadership, Daily Trust, The Nation and the Punch Newspapers. The DSS intercepted and seized hundreds of copies nationwide. The Nigerian Press Organisation and other organisations faulted the crackdown.

There have been various cases of abuse of press freedom under President Buhari. Specifically, from 2015 to 2019, there were cases of journalists who were harassed and media houses attacked. For instance, in 2019, some armed soldiers invaded the headquarters of Daily Trust in Abuja. The Nigerian Army argued that they invaded the offices because of a report where classified military reports were ‘divulged’. Director International Press Centre IPC, Lanre Arogundade said, ‘the development is a fresh threat to freedom of the press as well as the freedom and individual liberties of journalists and other media professionals working in Daily Trust’’, adding that the activities constitutes a threat to democracy.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders(RWB) ranked Nigeria 120 out of 180 countries in its 2019 annual World Press Freedom Index, which says Buhari’s administration marks “an unprecedented level of disinformation – especially on social networks – which was spread by officials within the two main parties.”

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“Journalists are often threatened, subjected to physical violence or denied access to information by government officials, police and sometimes the public itself,” said the report, which called on Buhari to make defense of journalism a priority for his second presidential term, which started last year.

Though in 2020, RWB ranked Nigeria 115 out of 180 countries on world press freedom index, industry watchers have insisted that the Nigerian press was still under threat from some quarters.

Arogundade told The Guardian that the relationship between the government and the media had deteriorated from 2019 to 2020, and fallen to just 20 per cent.

According to him, “It has fallen to embarrassing level in the sense that while you had the usual hostility to the media by security agents, now you are looking at the state executives being directly involved in the harassment of journalists; ordering their arrest, and making pronouncements.”

He lamented that journalists were being arrested unjustly and not charged to court, adding, “The level of intolerance is unbelievable. We are worried that in situations where there should be a sense of understanding and maybe common sense should prevail has been absent.

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“For instance, when the curfew was initially placed to curb COVID-19, it was very difficult to convince security agents that journalists were essential workers and should be allowed free movement.”

Arogundade said even at the level of the judiciary, media personnel are charged to court and given stringent bailout conditions, which helps to perpetrate the unlawful detention of journalists.

He insisted, “media professionals must begin to think of ways of resisting the continuous eruption of press freedom and violation of the rights of journalists. For instance, when Governor David Umahi pronounced ban on some journalists, Media Rights Agenda and IPC took the step of petitioning the Court of Conduct Bureau to say that that was a violation of the governor’s oath of office.”

He advised, “We need to fight this battle at different levels; we should look at the use of regional instruments like the ECOWAS, AU, who have conventions that talk about the fundamental human rights and freedom of expression. Nothing states that we cannot go to the ECOWAS court to seek justice.”

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A professor of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Lagos, Ralph Akinfeleye said, “We thank President Buhari for putting things into normal perspective. In terms of coverage, I think the press has tried to be objective and has done the needful; subject of course to some intricacies by government-owned media. I think they can do better.

“On the part of privately owned media, I think they are trying their best in their reportage and of course some handicap during the last two elections where the so-called watch dogs could bark and they couldn’t bite, in fact, some of them were infected with a virus, not corona virus but rabies so they need anti-rabies.

“So I want to challenge the NUJ and Nigerian Guild of Editors to make sure their members adhere to the ethics of code of conduct of the profession. 21 years down, Nigerians expect the press to be more objective in their reportage to be able to be the watchdog of the society, monitor and make government accountable to the people at all times according to Section 22 of the constitution and to be a dog that not only bark but bites when there is need to bite.

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Akinfeleye, who is also a member, World Journalism Education Congress, noted that it appears there is lukewarm on part of the press in testing the Freedom of Information. Credit to President Jonathan who passed it after twelve years of struggle. The document is there but we are not trying to test it. We are leaving it for lawyers to test for us, which is not good. It is only Femi Falana, Media Rights Agenda that are fighting for the press all the time.

But Ahaziah Abubakar, news director for the state-run Voice of Nigeria, thinks threats to press freedom in Nigeria are overblown.

“Press freedom in Nigeria, as far as I am concerned, is a relative term in general,” Abubakar told VOA. “We pride ourselves in Nigeria as the freest in terms of press freedom in Africa.

“By the grace of God,” he added, “I have been to main economies of Africa — South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Ghana — and I know the level of freedom these countries have, and I will rate Nigeria higher than them, particularly during this democratic era.”

Arogundade further advised, “More importantly, we have to develop engagement mechanism with those in authority, especially the security agents on how to relate with the media in a crisis situation; we need multidimensional approach to address this problem.”

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