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WAMILA calls for freedom of press to uphold democracy

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Participants at the West African Association of Media Lawyers (WAMILA) virtual conference have stressed the need for governments in the sub-region to protect freedom of the press, saying it is a necessary tool for democracy survival.

With the theme, ‘Press freedom, regulating online media and the growing need to protect media practitioners’, the participants also argued that continuous advocacy and coalition building is important.

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In his speech, Prof. Abiodun Adeniyi of Department of Mass Communication, Baze University, Abuja, stated, “the philosophy of freedom has a range of indications. It is liberating and democratising. It is a state of being unhindered. Freedom contributed immensely to the success of industrial revolutions of the West. Freedom may not be the key to success but it is primary to it. Freedom is the criteria for the resolution of social ills. It is the absence of a reduction of limits in Nigeria. Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in 2011 is a success towards press freedom. In Nigeria, the media was almost annihilated during the military era leading to guerilla journalism. The challenge is taking the risk and finding a balance. The battle will continue. There is a need for media literacy.”

Speaking on the theme, Monica Aigbe from Nigeria, said journalists are now scared to put out information in the country. “The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has not been of any good. Our tongues are tied. Lives of journalists are being threatened. The remuneration is also poor,” she said.

Thobekie Matimbe, a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe, said the role of the media couldn’t be over emphasised in ensuring that citizens receive critical information. “For any democracy to thrive, it is critical they uphold media freedom. It is regrettable that there are lots of crackdowns on journalists, bloggers and civil societies that have to do with an exposition of crimes or human rights violations and corruption. That is something we have been witnessing over the past decade. The crackdown comes in different forms like abductions and killings of media practitioners. There is also the issue of Internet shutdowns. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes provision for expression and each right include the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information. Now that we are faced with the pandemic, critical information has to reach the public. Corruption must be addressed so that there will not be tension between the state and media practitioners. Rule of law must be guaranteed. There is also a need for capacity building. Media practitioners must raise awareness and must continue to engage the government, especially during COVID-19. Partnership with other organisations is also key.”

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Noah Ajare Cyber said, “there is a need for further advocacy. We can challenge some of the legislations that are not of best practices globally. We can approach appropriate courts. If we cannot find justice at national court, we can approach ECOWAS courts or African courts.”

Gabriel Baglo observed that there are not enough lawyers defending journalists. He cited the case of a journalist in Togo reporting corruption in the oil sector but there is only one lawyer defending him.

For Joseph Onyekwere of The Guardian Newspapers, media practitioners must be protected in West Africa. “There has been arrest, detention, and prosecution of journalists for doing their work. We must regulate online media like traditional media. Nigerian Press Council Act should be amended to regulate online media. There is a need to encourage human rights lawyers in various countries that are willing to defend journalists when they undergoing prosecution,” he advised.

Mojirayo Ogunlana-Nkanga also said there is a need for collaboration. “We must get Africa to a place where democracy is really established and not a shadow of what it should be. We should write the national assembly why freedom of expression must be guaranteed. We need to keep sensitizing media practitioners that whatever stories they are bringing out must be factual.”

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Korieh Duodu from Ghana, while saying his country does not have privacy legislation, however, noted that the right to information law has recently been passed after many years. He also said that Ghana has a good level playing field for investigative journalism. But there is a defamation bill, which is against free speech.
media lawyers must be proactive. Government must come up with balanced regulation.

Ruth Atim from Uganda said the restriction on media is worrying. According to her, in Uganda, before you post something on social media, you must seek authorisation from Uganda Communications Commission.

Carlos Gaio said media regulation is broad. “Plurality of the press and access to information is important in defense of democracy. Conversations are going on to regulate social media with the excuse of combating fake news, hate speech. In Europe, there is a discussion over the Digital Service Act. In the UK, there is a debate in parliament over social media regulation. In the US, there is a proposal at the senate to change the Communication Decency Act to regulate what is considered harmful content. In talking about media defense, you talk about legality, proportionality, and legitimate aims for those restrictions.

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