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Attack on journalists as threat to democracy

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Two recent incidents of assault on journalists pontificate growing concern about increased hazards being faced by Nigerian journalists in the course of performing their official duties recognized by the constitution. One, the Department of the State Services (DSS) and some policemen descended on a reporter with the Punch newspaper, Friday Olokor over the wearing of a press tag. He was brutalized and had his clothes torn; all in the journalist’s bid to cover a panel of discussants at the African Council of Women Conference in Abuja.

And two, Oluwagbemiga Olamikan, a photojournalist with the Vanguard newspapers, was allegedly manhandled by DSS operatives during a fracas after the secret police prevented some reporters from covering the trial of some supporters of Sunday Adeyemo, also known as Sunday Igboho. Expectedly, the incidents have been widely condemned; but they neither diminish the danger to which journalists are exposed nor erase concern about official high-handedness, particularly of security personnel.

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The Media Rights Agenda (MRA) in a reaction to the Vanguard photojournalist’s incident, criticised a proposal by the DSS to investigate it stressing that it would be an exercise in futility that would have no credibility. It called for a serious, independent and impartial investigation into this and other attacks against journalists.

Also responding, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in the federal capital territory (FCT) asked the Department of State Services (DSS) to stop harassing journalists in the course of their duties. The union lamented that in recent time, violence against journalists has increased with the authorities directing aggression towards journalists especially in terms of harassment and arbitrary detentions of journalists covering events.

Recently, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in collaboration with the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) released a report on the safety of journalists under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. The report revealed that eight journalists have been killed and 300 violations affecting 500 journalists and other media workers have been recorded under the administration. Some of these deaths may not have resulted from attacks from government functionaries but the accompanying impunity shows that government has not been doing enough to provide an enabling environment for journalists to perform their duties to society. Or, worse still, are complicit in stifling the environment of operation for the journalists.

The report also described the recent surge in attempts to clamp down on the media as “a sign of a weak democracy.” That summation is faultless. Safety of journalists goes beyond doing a favour for the individual journalist; it is a sacred service to the society. The journalism profession is regarded as the Fourth Estate of the Realm or more poignantly, the Fourth Branch of Government because of the indirect influence it wields in governance.

Aside from the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary, the press is the only other profession given a constitutional role as encapsulated in Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The section states that, “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives… and uphold the responsibility of the government to the people”.

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To ensure that this function is unencumbered by governmental and other obstacles, Section 39 (1) of the same Constitution provides that, “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”

Even though some inadequacies have been noted in these provisions, the spirit behind them are unexceptionable and bears reiteration: that when the media perform their duties, they are not just busybodies but are carrying out sacred duties in aid of society and its democratic imperatives. To carry out these duties, the media would need a clement environment and a government committed to democratic ideals and the notion of the greatest good for the greatest number of people rather than the narrow interests of the ruling elite. There are certain inadequacies emanating from the media but a mutual exchange of ideas can provide redress.

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In carrying out these duties, the media may ruffle feathers in pursuit of the truth and in holding government accountable to the primary purpose of governance. Indeed, a government that is not put on its toe by an independent media is a mortal danger to society. The antidote to a ‘pestering’ press is good governance and not repression or other dangerous proclivities.

In recent times, the disposition of those who hold the levers of power has been negative towards the press. Some of these are manifested in proposed amendments to some laws with the intention of expanding the strangle hold of government on the independent media. They include the proposed amendment to the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) and National Broadcasting Commission Acts. This path cannot help government and the society in the long run. What can help government overcome the fear of the press is a government that is committed to the primary responsibility of safeguarding the life and property of the governed and ensuring that civil liberties are jealously guarded.

The mutual suspicion between the press and government is historical and may never end. But this situation can be ameliorated by a tolerant government that guarantees freedom of expression and of the press. Governments can disagree with the press without being overbearing. The safety of journalists is a veritable measure of the progress of a democracy and it is in the enlightened self-interest of government to guarantee same.

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