Journalism’s crown jewel is its ability to make persons and systems uncomfortable with the overriding aim of driving positive change in society through accountability. There are many who believe that since President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office in 2015, there has been a deliberate shrinking of Nigeria`s public space with the press suffering some of the hardest blows landed by unjustifiable and unconstitutional restrictions on the freedom of expression. These restrictions which have mostly been systematic and subtle have in a few prominent instances spilled into the open.
In this wise, the current travails of Agba Jalingo come into view. The journalist from Cross Rivers State has found himself in hot water for his audacity in criticizing Prof. Ben Ayade, the Cross River State Governor. He has been put on trial on very serious charges and remains in detention. Of course, calls for his release from many quarters both local and international have so far received deaf ears.
Agba Jalingo `s situation has also forced a painful recollection of the recent fiasco that involved the arrest, detention and subsequent trial of Omoyele Sowore, another journalist, who while fishing in political waters upset the sharks who swiftly came after him. These arrests have become frequent and deeply troubling. Every society that is free, equitable and headed for holistic development is marked by the premium it places on the rights of its citizens especially the right to express what they think as part of their contribution to societal development. This right to the freedom of expression is never absolute as the elements of chaos are never free from any society, but where things work properly, any restriction on such a fundamental right is itself subject to the scrupulous supervision of the law.
Nigerian security agencies have always struggled to let Nigerians enjoy their fundamental rights especially the right to freedom of expression. Under President Muhammadu Buhari who assumed office in 2015, intolerance of freedom of expression has only increased. In the name of national security and fighting terrorism and corruption, the right of Nigerians to freely express themselves and thus contribute their own quota to national growth is being ripped apart.
The effect of this can only be deleterious. Nigeria is a country sorely lacking in public accountability and transparency. Under the impenetrable screens of impunity in public spaces, corruption rages unchecked. The effects are all too visible. Public infrastructure is in tatters and insecurity sweeps the land. In such a grim situation, Nigeria stands in critical need of strong voices that are able to diagnose its ills and prescribe effective remedies.
Alas, public officers who bristle at any and all forms of criticism are doing everything to silence those critically important voices. Journalism by its nature is a profession of many a professional hazard. The tactic of choice of many who feel hard done by the truth is to shoot the messenger while ignoring the message. This inclination has seen many journalists around the world killed or imprisoned simply for daring to bring the stories of others to the fore. In a world seemingly resigned to its own implosion, taking to journalism is increasingly becoming a death sentence.
However, it is work that cannot be stopped no matter the danger. Journalism sheds light into darkness and while the call for Agba Jalingo`s release must remain strident, it must be kept in mind that without good and independent journalism, Nigeria faces a return to its darkest past. Jalingo was granted bail last Thursday.
Kene Obiezu, wrote from Abuja