Between press freedom and state security
Recent strain between journalists and military authorities arising from reportage of political events in the last few weeks has necessitated another debate of the age-long intricate relationship between press freedom and state security.
The need for this evaluation rests on the truism that development and peace can only take place when there is security, just as there can be no freedom where there is no state.
Events such as reported clampdown on and arrest of suspected members of the Nnamdi Kanu-led Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), harassment of and destruction of property belonging to members of the Abia State chapter of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) as well as reports from Amnesty International indicting the Nigerian Army of suppression of freedom and human rights violation, provide the context for critical appraisal of this complex relationship.
As human rights watchers have observed, the tension playing out in Nigeria is consistent with a growing global trend by state authorities to use anti-terrorism laws to punish journalists and gag the press under the pretext of state security. According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, since the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States, 144 out of the 195 countries in the world have passed new counter-terrorism laws; laws which permit searches, arrests and detentions without warrants.
For Nigeria, which has also passed an amendment of the anti-terrorism law, this is a dangerous addition to the Official Secret Act of 1962, which forbids public disclosure of classified information or any information prejudicial to the security of the country. Sadly, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA 2011) does not in any way repeal the Official Secrets Act provision in the 2004 National Security Act.
And so, since the present democratic dispensation, both the Official Secrets Act and other State Security laws have been used to crackdown on journalists, invade settlements and violate the rights of people. An instance to recall is former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s infamous invasion of Odi in Bayelsa State and Zaki-Biam in Benue State as well as the former president’s indiscriminate public humiliation of perceived critics. The brazen impunity with which public office holders treat subordinates and citizens, and the manner state governors have selectively construed state security with the intention of emasculating perceived adversaries, are all odious manifestations of the abuse of state security laws. All these clearly contravene the right to freedom of expression and the press as stipulated in Section 22 of the Constitution.
However, whilst the Official Secret Act puts a check on the irresponsibility resulting from unbridled and reckless use of this right, glaring cases of official conspiracy, unjustified silence and disregard for people’s lives and property place a heavy burden of truth-telling on the news media. When facts on the ground conflict with interpretations provided by military intelligence, especially in an age when social responsibility of the press has been markedly challenged by the emergence of the social media, it becomes difficult to conceal even inconvenient truth. It is even morally despicable for journalists who should cover events in public interest to cover up such states of affairs.
Furthermore, the ambiguity about what constitutes state security has put the press in a perplexing state of moral judgment. On one hand, military authorities are more assiduous in intervening in incidents that are perceived to infringe on state security, whilst on the other hand, they tend to overlook other horrendous events, which are capable of breaching the peace. In a situation whereby the government of the day is suspected of using the military to promote an inscrutable resurgent colonialism through religious bigotry and fractious ethno-cultural relations, the citizens cannot trust such a government enough to define security for them. How can a journalist understand what state security means when there are varied interpretations to mismanaged security issues in the country?
This is where synergy between the military and the press comes in. Since information is not only a fabric of human existence but also a necessity for mankind to be free and self-governing, the military should endeavour to give information that should lead to trust building, provision of peace and rest of mind. As auxiliary guardians of the state, they should ensure that, loyalty in terms of communication is not solely to the powers that be, but primarily, as it ought to be, to the people whose territorial integrity and internal security they vowed to safeguard. The implication of this information-disseminating function, which duty imposes on the military in times of war and crises, is that the military owes its first loyalty to the citizens, that is, the civil populace.
Owing to this fundamental loyalty, managers of military information are obliged to tell the truth when relating with citizens; yes, truth that should be managed with utmost sense of responsibility bearing in mind the common good. In this regard, they would need to be predisposed to civility and decency, as well as careful selection of the wording of their language when informing the general civilian populace about state security matters. All this suggests the need for capacity building for persons managing information in the Nigerian military to purge them of the condescending expressions and dismissive posture characteristic of military language. We are in a democracy and that is classically the government of the people – from whom government derives sovereignty.
Far from being one-sided, the capacity building procedure should also involve educating the press about the world of the military. Because journalists and other arms of the media over-rate the empowering role of news-telling and information dissemination, they tend to see the world from only their professional lenses and arrogate unjustified powers unto themselves and their profession. Often, this leads to clashes of interest in their perceived roles in the state. Aside from periodic sessions with editors and senior managers of public information, embedding journalists into military beats and operations should be greatly encouraged. This is a normal global best practice to build relationships and trust in operations.
Professionally, this would forge mutually benefiting discussions about how to recalibrate the balance between state security to which the military is committed and the ideals of human rights, which inform journalistic practice in this democratic age. Besides, it would enable the press to understand the perspectives of the military when interpreting observable facts and properly manage truth in the interest of the common good, which both professions serve.
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