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Watchdogs – Not watched dogs

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In simple terms, “watchdog” is sort of a compound noun, which means “a dog that watches over something or someone,” while “watched dog” is a noun phrase: unlike the former, it means that “there’s a particular dog that’s watched (or supervised) over by some person or people.” What’s more, the “dog” in “watchdog” protects some group of people living in a certain geography or location. But the “dog” in “watched dog” is, on the contrary, the one that is being protected by these people – say, from harm or predators. In the former, the dog is robust and self-defensive, and can therefore protect other people. In the latter, the dog appears to be weak and as such in need of support and care of its owners. So what does “Watchdogs – Not watched dogs” mean? It is clearly an injunction that journalistic practices should be void of external interference, control, or manipulation.

In other words, journalists (as well as broadcasters) are to watch and not to be watched over. They are to watch over crimes, injustices, malpractices, and every other act that is deemed unfair and unlawful. Professionally, they are competent to carry out their duties as the fourth estate of the realm. When they are supervised, it does mean bodies such as the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) cannot work independently of the executive arm of government, for example.

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They are not the kinds of dogs with ropes tied roundabout their necks, and so having no freedom of speech and expression. The fact that they are watchdogs means they know what to do, where they are going, and how to discharge their duties as when due. That is, their decision and direction should not be dictated by any force or power whatsoever. On August 5, 2020, the big-story headline of The Punch – “Hate speech: NBA, activists lampoon FG for raising fine to N5m” – actually typifies the idea that journalists are “watched dogs” instead of “watchdogs”. Reading the story, one would discover how a number of well-meaning and well-intentioned associates and activists and senior advocates express their righteous indignation regarding the FG’s hiking of the hate speech fine. One of them seems to be very close to our stance of the state of journalists in Nigeria. In the words of the out-going National Publicity Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Kunle Edun: “This is an unconstitutional attempt at gagging the press. The press as the fourth estate of the realm plays the constitutional role of our democracy in the face of increasing impunity, seemingly official policy of disobedience of court orders, sheer exhibition of rascality by some of our security agencies and unbridled corruption in government.

“Gagging the press by increasing the fine for hate speech by 900 per cent is anti-people. The government should be more concerned about how to improve the welfare of Nigerians, stop the senseless killings in the country and give the people some hope that they have a government that cares. It is the failure of these core responsibilities of government that causes disaffection in society. “These are the root causes and that is what government should deal with primarily, not scratching the surface.” What could have clearer than the fact that present practices of journalists and broadcasters, in Nigeria, are empirically consistent with laudable interference of some power or force of arm that be?

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Aren’t the press watched over by the FG? Their argument – as it were – rests on the premise that the associates or advocates are claiming their exclusive rights as media practitioners: We are watchdogs and not watched dogs! Imposing a 5-million-naira fine on “hate speech” might be very consequential. It could mute the press, so that it does not broadcast or publish what pertinently seems to be advantageous to the country.

It has been argued that it’s a counter-productive way of stifling freedom of speech, which I think its repercussions might be dire and indeed irreparable on the part of the press. The astronomical increase in the hate speech fine might not be a total eradication of hatred in the political and economic spectrum of Nigeria. In my opinion, I think the 21-st Century is rather a better time the Federal Government ought to work with the press. Working with them means not watching over them – but remember, the principle of separation of power doesn’t, in any way, override the principle of checks and balances.

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