Press repression: A cleric’s concern
Consistency in the contemptuous disposition of the political leaders to the constitutional responsibility of the media came again into focus the other day when a cleric decried the poor attitude towards the fourth estate of the real that has a responsibility to monitor governance and hold people in power to account.
In his message at a church service to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Nigerian Tribune, Most Reverend Michael Olusina Fape, the Diocesan Bishop of Remo and the Archbishop of the Ecclesiastical Province of Lagos noted that the last 10 years of Nigeria’s democracy, had not shown ‘‘much difference or great improvement in the disposition of our so-called democratic government to journalism as a profession…’’ Besides, the peculiarity of the Nigerian operating environment has forced not a few media outfits to ‘‘bow’’ too bad management, bad economic policies, and bad political and authoritarian might. The man of God couldn’t be more right.
Regardless of the crucial role of the media is assigned to play by the authority of the constitution, successive elected governments have demonstrated albeit in varying degrees, intolerance for the prying eyes of the news media into and exposure of misbehaviour and deviations in high places.
Section 22 of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) stipulates that ‘‘the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter (11) and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.’’ There is no other professional group within the Nigerian society that is accorded the crucial role to oversee the activities of government, speak truth to power and call constituted authority to account if need be. None. To this extent then, the journalist and other media practitioners bear both moral and legal burden to keep rulers on their toes, to scrutinize governance and to ensure that the government keeps faith with the provisions of the constitution of the land.
Therefore, the very attitude –and act- of intolerance on the part of a democratically elected government toward the media is, first, a violation of the letter and spirit of Section 22 of the 1999 constitution (as amended). Besides, by repressing the media, the governor denies himself feedback from the governed that enables him to improve on his performance.
Second, it is taken for granted in a democracy, especially of the American type practised in Nigeria, that the media is a key and necessary institution to check the possible excesses of holders of power. Indeed, ‘‘Journalism’’, argues American author Andrew Vachss, ‘‘is what maintains democracy. It is the force for progressive social change’’- which is true with particular regard to the citizens. In the same vein, Prof. A. B. Yehoshua of Haifa University says that the job of journalism is to hit people over the head in order to provoke their consciousness of what is happening. Otherwise, they don’t want to know. If democracy is to live up to its popular definition of being by the people for the people, then the people must be fully aware of the activities of the government on their behalf. Under the Nigerian constitution, the media is the recognised information channel for this purpose. Public officers need to be reminded, in this regard.
Third, and deriving from the two points above, any government must, without a choice, learn to live with the inconvenient but critical role of the media. It is, in a manner of speaking, an inevitable part of the heat to endure by whoever operates in the kitchen. No leader can claim to be a democrat who will not tolerate the constitutionally granted oversight function of the media. And it must be added that, in the words of American journalist Bill Moyers, the quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply intertwined.
Curiously, Nigerian political leaders have cultivated a very bad habit of intolerance toward media practitioners. Agba Jalingo, publisher of CrossRiverWatch is currently facing treason charges for allegedly accusing the Cross Rivers State Governor Ben Ayade of a financial misdemeanour. His case is now considered globally as an example of a threat to press freedom. Jones Abiri, the editor of The Weekly Source, has since mid-2016, been detained, released by court order, and re-arrested by the Department of State Security (DSS) first on the allegation of terrorism, later of being a militant that demanded payments from oil companies. He is out on bail but there are fears he may be tried in secret as the state prosecutor seeks court permission that witnesses against Abiri remain anonymous. Investigative journalist Fisayo Soyombo who exposed corrupt practices in both the Nigeria Police Force and the Nigerian Correctional Service is in hiding from security officers hunting for him.
It is a tragedy that Nigeria that should show a good example in the workability of representative democracy in the black world is sinking into the unenviable category of intolerant governments. Many are wont to think that this is a country of mere power-drunk leaders, of ‘‘a democracy bereft of democrats.’’ These are sufficient reasons for the laments of Most Rev. Fape and other concerned patriots at this time.
People in office and power need to study, not just read the words of Walter Cronkite that, ‘‘freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy’’ and whoever abridges our right to free speech seeks, ipso facto, to overthrow the foundational liberty of the nation, to adapt from Benjamin Franklin.
In sum, anyone who desires to participate in the ongoing democratic process, as citizens or as public office holders, must with no option in the matter, shape up to imbibe and live by the tenets of the system of government, which include the constitutional right of the media to operate within the law or ship out.
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