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At workshop, experts urge govt to strengthen law on free press

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Participants at the workshop

In the world over, media plays a critical role in sustenance of democracy. However, hundreds of journalists have been killed, harassed or threatened while performing their duty as watchdog of the society.

A free, uncensored and unhindered press or media is essential in any society to ensure that the people’s right to information is not tampered with, but politicians and government officials often abuse blasphemy and defamation laws to gag the media.

According to a report by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), about 160 journalists were attacked in Nigeria alone, in the last two years.

To strengthen media performance as watchdog of the society, a workshop on the codes of conduct for Nigerian journalists and media houses was held recently in Abuja.

While speaking at the three-day training organised by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) Foundation, a foundation sponsored by the German government, Resident Representative of KAS, Dr. Vladimir Kreck, noted that press freedom is essential to any democracy, and if there is no press freedom, democracy cannot work.

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Kreck said that there is still a lot of space in Nigeria to improve press freedom, adding that there is need for journalists to adhere strictly to ethical standards of the profession.

On her part, Programme Manager, Humanitarian, Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), Adenike Aloba, noted that the real victims of the absence of freedom and the violation of rights are the people.

She lamented that press freedom the world over has continued to take hits even in developed countries with wide reaching implications for democracy and constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Aloba lamented that despite posturing by the government and its representatives of a free press, their actions say otherwise with attacks against the press on the rise and the chief perpetrators being state-actors.

“Failing media business models across the world has compounded the challenges faced by the media and in the year of the pandemic, lay offs and the shutdowns of media businesses have been the order of the day. The implications of this for press freedom are gaping.

“Across the world, media organisations are turning more and more to public-driven financing of their world, the success or failure of which relies quite heavily on media consumers, the public.”

Country Director of Amnesty International, Ossai Ojigho, stated that to enable a regime of press freedom, existing laws that guarantee the freedom of expression should be strengthened; adding that coercive laws like the Cybercrime Act should be amended.

“That law (cybercrime law) has been used to intimidate and harass journalists, so they should amend that law to make sure it is in line with international standard, including the Terrorism Act, because it has also been used as a means to challenge people who voice dissenting opinions against the running of the affairs of government.

“Rather than create new laws, they should amend problematic provisions in laws, they should expand the constitution so that it clearly states and includes press freedom, but most importantly they should implement existing laws to ensure that people can freely access public policies, people can seek justice in court, people who make complaints are heard. National Assembly can do a lot more to ensure that all the other parts of governance are being run efficiently, ” she said.

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On his part, Dr. Tunde Akanni, a lecturer in the Department of Journalism, Lagos State University, noted that over centralisation of broadcast power in the hands of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has distorted the nature of the country’s federal nature and calls for the regulatory regime to be opened up.

According to him, as a commission that regulates the sector, which is broad-base, those who are supposed to be on its board ought to be drawn from different sections of the society such that the board will be reflective of the different shades of Nigerian society. “It is only when that is done that that commission can take decisions that will be truly reflective of our society,” Akanni said.

“The board of NBC has always been populated by appointees of the president most likely members of his party, most likely not reflective of the different divide of the society.

Akanni added that the merger of NBC and Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) was long overdue; saying that this is the practice in every democracy,  “because of the changes that technology has come to register on our lives. In the United States, the federal communication commission alone has a government commission regulating both the broadcasting and the telecommunication sectors.

“In the UK, the office of communication also regulates both the broadcasting and the telecommunication sectors. These are richer countries and countries that our leaders want to cite as democratic models. If they are, and we are trying to copy some things from them, why won’t they copy this? This will save us from a lot of troubles, such as huge bureaucracies, expenditure etc.”

Speaking on “Reasons for and challenges of monitoring the media,” representative of NBC, Dr. Tony Anigala, said that many Nigerians see the commission as being independent and do not judge it fairly.

He noted that for journalists to earn the public trust, “it is morally imperative for every journalist and media house to observe the highest professional and ethical standards.

Anigala stressed that journalists should refrain from publishing inaccurate and misleading information, noting that where such information has been inadvertently published, prompt correction should be made. “ A journalist must hold the right of reply as a cardinal rule of practice.”

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“A journalist should strive to enhance national unity, promote universal principles of human rights, democracy, justice, equity, peace and international understanding.

“The challenges of broadcast monitoring are numerous but collapsible under financial constraints, shortage of manpower and inadequate modern infrastructure for monitoring occasioned by new technology and poor feedback from the public.”

A professor and Head, Department of History, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Tunji Ogunyemi, is of the opinion that the press has helped in preventing the disintegration of Nigerian State more than any other institution.

He noted that were it not for the press, coupled with the help of religious bodies, civil society organisations and judiciary, the country would have gone into tatters as a result of mis-governance of the leaders. “The press has done this in synergy with other institutions such as, civil society organisations, inclusive of religious organisations and the judiciary. These institutions have helped in stabilising the Nigerian State.”

He said that Nigeria has a better record in terms of freedom of expression and protection of fundamental human right compared to some African countries.

“Nigeria is not a ‘Banana Republic’; there are so many countries in Africa where fundamental human rights are abused. You will not put Nigeria side-by-side with North Korea, Congo and Somalia etc. We have in Nigeria a modicum of respect for the fundamental rights of man. Of course, in one or two instances there might be a break but on a scale, Nigeria has done well.  Nigeria is the most vociferous African state. They criticise the head of state and abuse him. Some will even say the head of state is clueless or a clone, you dare not try it in other places.”

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