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Some governors’ threat to press freedom

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It is becoming customary for governors to play God displaying visceral hatred for the media and the opposition in general. This is unfortunate for the emerging democracy in Nigeria, the strong tower of the black race. The other day, the Governor of Ebonyi State, David Nweze Umahi barred two journalists from the Government House for life and threatened to deal ruthlessly with them if they continued to write reports that create ‘panic’ among the people.

The two journalists are Chijioke Agwu, correspondent of The Sun in the state, who did a report on Lassa Fever outbreak in the state and Peter Okutu of Vanguard who did a report on alleged military invasion of Umuogodoakpu-Ngbo community in Ohaukwu local government area. The governor’s action attracted widespread condemnations from various groups within and outside the state. He has reportedly rescinded his decision.

The act of Governor Umahi is needless because the function of the media is constitutionally guaranteed.

Hence, it has become imperative to revisit the action of Governor Umahi and sensitise him about the role of the Press as enshrined in the Constitution. Sections 22 and 39 of the 1999 Constitution as amended, states that, “the press, radio and television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to…uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”

Thus, in societies the news media have come to serve an additional function as watchdogs on the activities of the arms of government. They have kept democracies viable by giving voice to the voiceless, ensuring that a ruling majority cannot trample on the rights of the minority.

Essentially, the media like the other three arms of government — executive, legislature and judiciary has constitutional roles; and that is why it is referred to as the Fourth Estate of the Realm. Ipso facto, the media is part and parcel of the Realm.

The media as the sentinel has the duty of watching over the Realm, keeping a sharp eye open over other arms of government as enshrined in the Constitution.

So, for any arm of the government to attempt to cow the media is to violate the Oath of office to defend the constitution upon assumption of office. Unless this fact is recognised democracy will not thrive, because the media plays critical role in promoting good governance; ensuring optimal deployment of public resources; facilitates the protection of the rights of citizens; and ensures that corrupt practices are exposed.

As such, journalists bring the attention of the public to the questionable and outright wrongs of some public officials; pressed by an aroused and informed public, such officials and individuals are usually quick to right the wrongs. Therefore, the media is in the business of trumpeting matters and is expected to agenda rise issues in the society.

When a US-based group, the Committee of Concerned Journalists, surveyed journalists about the character of their profession at the very end of the 20th century, they came to this common understanding that the central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society. This may account for why the fundamentals of journalism as it is practised in democratic settings attempts to base itself on fact, not opinion.

Unfortunately, Governor Umahi is certainly a poor student of history; and poor students of history never do well! Through his anti-people and draconian action against the two journalists, he advertised himself as an intolerant despot; and his despotic small mind was evident in his action. He choose not to place a higher premium on the nobility of the assignment of journalists.

As such, he should wean himself from the delusion of power, because when the Liberty of the press sinks, it sinks with the liberty of the state. He should recognise that good governance requires opposing views; and governance is about the people, not about the interim occupant of the seat of power.

So, it is appalling that political officeholders in the country, especially governors from Southeast and Southsouth who take delight in detaining journalists, are the greatest beneficiaries of the battle for freedom in a democracy won for Nigeria by the press.

Now that they are in power, it is curious that one of the institutions that won democracy for them, is the one they are seeking to gag. Where were these governors when pressmen became guerrilla fighters for democracy from 1993?

Nigeria is a democracy under the rule of law. Therefore, it is unacceptable to the citizens that those entrusted to see to it that the rule of law is upheld, now seek recourse to self-help. As the custodians of the rule of law, if the Governors are aggrieved, they should go to court to seek redress.

Meanwhile, other political officeholders including the ones detaining even siblings and spouses of journalists and radio poets in Kwara State, should note that the press is the ethical director, guard and custodian of governance and everything in the society.

Therefore, under no circumstance must a man in power gag the press. Whatever the allegations against the journalists on their beats, there are enough provisions in the statutes to deal with such alleged misdeeds. Any political officeholder, especially in a democracy, who arbitrarily imposes any sanction on the press outside of the law is an enemy of the people. It is not for nothing that the press is the only profession given a direct and expressly stipulated role in the Constitution — to hold all other arms of government and officials accountable to the people who hire them all.

All told, we firmly oppose any attempt to prevent the media from performing its constitutionally assigned role by any arm if government. We all have equal stakes in the success of ‘Project Nigeria’. Specifically, the press has a long history in our independence struggles, having fought alongside nationalist leaders.

In the main, it is good that Governor Umahi did not wait to be blacklisted by media houses before he retraced his steps to allow for a free press, which is crucial to democracy. Other political leaders who have been asking for federal reinforcement from Abuja to detain journalists in their states should renew their minds about the role of the press in a democracy.


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