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‘Why journalists need protection as frontline workers in COVID-19 fight’

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Though Nigeria may have moved up five steps in the World Press Freedom ranking, 115 among 180 countries, communication experts believe there are still more to be done. According to Reporters Without Borders (RWB), Nigeria moved up five steps from 120.

In its summary note about the country, RWB stated: “Nigeria is now one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are often spied on, attacked, arbitrarily arrested or even killed. Two journalists have been shot dead while covering the Islamic Movement in Nigeria protests – one in July 2019 and the other in January 2020 – without any proper investigation with the aim of identifying those responsible.”

However, industry watchers believe that the media has been responsible for the ‘sanity’ experienced across the country at this time of coronavirus pandemic, informing and educating the public.

Two days ago, the world celebrated the 27th edition of Press Freedom Day under the theme, ‘Journalism Without Fear or Favour’.

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The National Communications Officer of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Mr. Macaulay Olushola, told The Guardian the theme was apt in reflecting on the practice this trying time.

Recall that UNESCO is charged with a specific mandate to foster freedom of expression and sees press freedom as crucial foundations of every democracy, development and dialogue, and as preconditions for protecting and promoting all other human rights.

According to him, “a recent research conducted by UNESCO indicates that journalists struggle to work with fear or favour. When this happens, there are tendencies of compromise and bias. With the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation in the media landscape, there is need for the society, more than ever, to support the journalists, in order to get appropriate and unbiased reportage.

“Journalism in every society is a risky profession. With poor remuneration and social welfare, they continue to face unprecedented battle in search of information. Journalists are the mirror of every nation and the engine of growth. A nation with a silent press would remain undeveloped, and difficult to achieve the global goal of sustainable development. Media workers should be encouraged to report without fear.”

Olushola said UNESCO Abuja, with the collaboration of NUJ, United Nations Center and Channels Academy, would be celebrating the event in an experience sharing webinar today to further highlight the important role of a free and independent press – the press that seeks to report the truth, and bring facts to light and champion a fair society.

He added, “The journalists and government must work together to develop an environment that embraces freedom of expression.”

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Yesterday, Monday, May 4, UNESCO held an online discussion to mark the day, bringing together UN Secretary-General António Gutierres, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, journalist Younes Mujahid, President of the International Federation of Journalists, Maria Ressa, investigative journalist from the Philippines, founder of the Rappler news website, and the Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, alongside a number of other high level participants.

The debate attempted to address the danger of what the UN Secretary-General has described as the “dangerous epidemic of misinformation.”

It advocated the need for a free press in countering disinformation, which is putting lives at risk and undermining the response to the COVID-19 pandemic by promoting false cures, conspiracy theories and myths.

The Director-General of UNESCO, Ms. Audrey Azoulay said, “Information is a fundamental right. In times of COVID-19, Information can save lives. I wish to pay tribute to journalists, women and men who commit and take risks to keep us informed.”

She added: “Their work is more important than ever, as they help members of the public know how to act and governments to take informed decisions.”

Director, International Press Centre (IPC), Mr. Lanre Arogundade, told The Guardian that the press freedom has not radically improved in Nigeria when compared to 2019, as that was an election year and journalists’ rights were violated in the course of covering the elections.

According to him, “the outbreak of coronavirus in Nigeria made journalists frontline workers in curbing the pandemic. So far, this year, we have recorded about 30 attacks on journalists in Nigeria and this shows that we do not appreciate the role of the journalist in crisis times. In fact, I could dare to say that the situation of press freedom has worsened.

“One would really think that given the need to provide credible information on COVID 19 against purveyors of fake news, the role of the traditional media would be recognised and government would put in place mechanism for their protection.”

Arogundade lamented the fact that governors criminalised all forms of criticism against them for their poor performance, saying, “the judiciary now seems to be a willing tool in these violations; when a journalist is charged to court, he is given stringent bail conditions that he cannot meet. In a way, they use the judiciary to perpetrate the violation on the right of the journalist.”

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He stressed that press freedom must be constitutionally provided for. “We are in a dilemma today because section 22 of the constitution says we should hold government accountable to the people, and this is what the journalist is trying to do in the coverage of this COVID-19, but there is no enforcement mechanism provided.”
 
Prof. Tony Afejuku of the University of Benin, while assessing the level of press freedom in the country compared with what was obtainable last year, said this is one area that President Muhammadu Buhari has worked hard to ensure.

“He has been fair to the press, but that does not mean that he has not committed some “press unfreedom” looking at what happened with Sowore,” he added.

Afejuku gave credit to the president’s special advisers on media and publicity, who he said might have directed Buhari in the right path considering their backgrounds in the media.

Commenting on Governor David Umahi’s decision to ban some journalists in Ebonyi State, which he later apologised for, Afejuku said his action was inconsequential, considering the fact that this was the governor’s second tenure.

He said, “that the governor picked on one or two journalists is not enough to say press freedom is being threatened in Ebonyi State, but as they say, an injury to one is injury to all.”

On the impact of fake news on press freedom in Nigeria, the professor stressed it must be dealt with maximally. “There should be laws to back this up, and if the laws are not strong enough, government must make them so because fake news can kill, or even start a war,” he added.

Afejuku advised the media owners to pay practitioners well and as at when due to scale the practice in the country.

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Also, Professor of Mass Communication, Lagos State University, Lai Oso told The Guardian that not much has changed from last year with regards to press freedom in Nigeria, “As the media seem to be behaving in the traditional pattern. The traditional media has toned down compared to last year that was election year,” he said.

With the increasing trend of fake news posing a big threat to the mainstream media, Oso said, “Even with this COVID-19 pandemic, you still find some people spreading fake stories. It is as if there are some Nigerians somewhere who enjoy fake news production and dissemination. Sometimes, when government reacts, we tend to see that as an act against press freedom, but people don’t consider the health of the society.”

He noted that the issue of press freedom across the globe was a balancing act, adding that journalists must expose those who want to compromise that freedom, even among themselves.

He said: “Journalists must be vigilant and ready to speak out to keep government in check.”

Oso also reiterated the need for media owners to provide good welfare packages for their staff in terms of salaries, insurance and so on.

“If journalists are not well paid, they will be compromised on the beat. I commend the Lagos chapter of NUJ for naming some of the media organisations that are doing poorly in that regard.”

He called on the union to police the profession in the right direction.

Oso said, “NUJ must be ready to expose those that doing things that are unethical, it must not just sit and issue statements but also train members on technical writing skills and values that support the profession on a regular basis.”

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Executive Director, Institute for Media and Society (IMS), Dr. Akin Akingbulu, told The Guardian that these were times of great complexity, as journalism finds itself in a situation where it has to provide information and education to diverse audiences in which there is limited understanding of the nature of the disease and destructive potentials.

He noted that as misinformation and disinformation compete vigorously for the public space, it tasks the navigational competences of journalists.

According to him, “available evidence shows that journalists are doing a lot in providing accurate and timely information on the pandemic and the efforts of various national institutions in containing it.”

He stressed the critical challenges that journalists in Nigeria face in covering the pandemic, as the rights of journalists have been violated in the course of performing official duty in some parts of the country.

Akingbulu advised the Federal and state governments to, “provide conducive environment for the media by ensuring the safety of journalists and unfettered access to information; support the provision of insurance and protection equipment for all journalists who operate on the frontline in the coverage of Covid-19; pay compensation to journalists whose rights have been breached among others.”

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