The safety of journalists
Given the sensitive duties of journalists in giving vent to the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression for which the institution has been dubbed the fourth estate of the realm, the spate of violence unleashed on Nigerian journalists in recent times calls for concern. And although journalists are part of a larger society that is being daily dehumanised by insecurity in the land, the governments of the federation at all levels need to be more proactive to journalists’ welfare and safety than they presently are.
This month alone, two journalists have been victims of kidnapping in a manner suggesting that pen-pushing professionals are now the toast of abductors. The Punch newspaper correspondent, Mr. Okechukwu Nnodim was kidnapped on February 3, 2021 by armed men who stormed his compound in the Arab Road area of Kubwa in Abuja; while Chidiebere Onye, a reporter with the Nigerian Television Authority was kidnapped on February 9, 2021 in Rivers State while returning from work.
They were not exceptions. Media Rights Agenda (MRA) monitored and decried the trend. According to the organisation’s programme director, Ayodele Longe, in 2020, journalists kidnapped either from their homes or while returning from work, include Mr. Maxwell Nashian, a journalist with the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), who was kidnapped from his home in Adamawa State in January 2020 and later died in the hospital after his release; and Chinenye Iwuoha, another journalist with the FRCN who was kidnapped in Umuahia, the Abia State capital on May 6, 2020 while returning from work.
He also recalled the case of Mr. Mienpamo Saint, a news blogger and owner of Naijalivetv.com, who was abducted on May 9, 2020 from his home at INEC Road in Kpansia, a suburb of Yenagoa, Bayelsa State by masked gunmen; and Mrs. Chinyere Okoye, an Assistant Manager of News and Current Affairs at the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), Channel 6 Aba, who was abducted by unknown gunmen in front of her house at Obikabia Road in Aba, Abia State on May 27, 2020, again while she was returning from her office.
One good measure of the health of a democratic nation is the level of safety journalists and other media workers enjoy. A nation that does not prioritise the safety of journalists and other media workers can be regarded as a sick nation.
Hostility toward journalists worldwide has been on the increase as noted by United Nations organs and other organisations interested in the welfare of journalists. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) reports that in 2020, 59 media workers were killed, among them four women worldwide. The report also reveals that on the average, one journalist was killed every four days and that impunity for crimes against journalists continues to prevail.
In Nigeria, incidents of seizure of equipment, assault, detention of journalists, arson against media premises, imposition of fines, murder and other forms of intimidation have been witnessed. One of the most egregious verbal attacks on journalists was recorded in 2020, when a former Minister poured invectives on a journalist who asked a legitimate question on who was bankrolling his tour of states in Nigeria. The year also witnessed the imposition of heavy fines on media houses without fair trial or due process being followed.
It is the responsibility of government to protect journalists and ensure a favourable environment for them to carry out their duties. On the contrary, government officials and security agencies frequently treat journalists and other media workers with suspicion and hostility. The media have the responsibility of holding government accountable to the people. This position is guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution and other international instruments. Specifically, section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria states 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 (Chapter 2 of the Constitution) and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
Government should uphold the spirit and letter of this provision by according the needed respect for media workers and ensure their safety in the performance of its function as the fourth Estate of the Realm. The citizenry also needs to understand the delicate role of the media as arbiters in public discourse that must be trusted to clarify the goals of society. It is within the duty of the citizen to defend the freedom of speech and of the press.
It is in recognition of this importance that the United Nations (UN) set aside November 2 every year as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. A free and open society is the bedrock of development in any society and only a positive disposition to the media can engender such a society.Government agencies must ensure that those who commit crimes against media workers and, indeed, any segment of the society are brought to book to stem the reign of impunity.
Given the importance of the work of journalists to society, they ought to be protected and supported by government and the ordinary citizens. It is a good gauge of the health of society when journalists can perform their duties unhindered. Oppression and impunity for crimes against journalists must not be condoned in any democratic society.