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Obstacles against press freedom in Nigeria

By Olawunmi Ojo, Gbenga Salau, Sunday Aikulola (Lagos) and Nkechi Onyedika-Ugoeze (Abuja) 
02 May 2021   |   4:20 am
Thirty years ago, between April 29 and May 3, 1991, some African journalists converged on Windhoek, Namibia to ponder the role of a free, independent and pluralistic media in the light...

Thirty years ago, between April 29 and May 3, 1991, some African journalists converged on Windhoek, Namibia to ponder the role of a free, independent and pluralistic media in the light of the constant pressures and violence faced by media professionals working in Africa at the time.

The conference, titled, ‘Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Media,’ was held at the instance of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in partnership with other UN Agencies such as UNDP and with the support of 12 international agencies, ranging from Nordic funders, the International Federation of Journalists, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, and the World Association of Newspapers, among others. Participants were drawn from 38 countries.

After the then Prime Minister of newly independent Namibia, Hage Geingob, set the tone by highlighting the importance of an independent and watchdog role for the press, participants, at the end of the conference, later adopted what became known as the ‘Windhoek Declaration.’

Thereafter, the Windhoek Declaration has continued to imply an important role for governments within firm parameters of freedom, pluralism and independence. It seeks to ensure that states are proactive in protecting journalists and advancing opportunities for citizens to exercise freedom of expression while avoiding control of the media or a state monopoly on the media. The Windhoek view on pluralism further points to states ensuring legal and practical support of sectors such as public service and community media.

“The establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development,” the Windhoek Declaration reads in part.

Co-founder of The Namibian, Gwen Lister, recalled: “The Declaration was adopted in 1991 in a climate of optimism. It was due, in most part, to Namibia’s newfound freedom, the slow unraveling of apartheid in South Africa as well as growing resistance to African dictatorships and development−type autocratic regimes. This context resulted in an impetus for democratic reforms within a rapidly changing media environment across the continent.”

Those ideas exchanged by African journalists and media professionals 30 years ago have not only acted as catalyst to encourage press freedom, independence and pluralism in Africa and other parts of the world, the Windhoek Declaration has since become a benchmark for ensuring press freedom around the world.

UNESCO’s General Conference endorsed the Windhoek Declaration and, following the proposal of Windhoek seminar participants to devote a day to the promotion of press freedom, the UN, in 1993, declared May 3 as World Press Freedom Day, the same day of the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration. Since then, UNESCO has organised international conferences to debate and raise awareness about press freedom’s most pressing issues. The conferences have increased in scope and size over the years, and the spirit of adopting a declaration at the end of each conference has been maintained most of the time.

Indeed, rallying to the Windhoek principles, subsequent workshops aimed at reproducing the momentum of media freedom, independence and pluralism held in other regions of the world. Four regional seminars were organised for Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Arab States, and Central and Eastern Europe. The events resulted in four declarations – Alma Ata Declaration, Santiago Declaration, Sana’a Declaration and Sofia Declaration.

In a review of the global impact of World Press Freedom Day, former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan once said, “The Windhoek Declaration became the first in a series of commitments, region by region, to uphold the freedom of people everywhere to voice their opinions, and their access to a variety of independent sources of information.”

Over the years, increasing numbers of countries have put in place freedom of information laws. There has been a rise in the acceptance of professional and ethical standards in journalism, and more national media systems are moving in the direction of self-regulation. Organisations to defend press freedom also have flourished at the local, national and global levels, and are working across board — to enhance the protection of journalists and end impunity, to promote media self-regulatory mechanisms and provide advice on media legislation and policy. With UNESCO working closely with many of the organisations since the Windhoek Declaration, stakeholders have evolved much more clarity about the complexities around self-regulation as a key standard for an optimum journalism environment.

Information As Public Good
EVERY May 3, the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) is marked globally, to serve as reminder to governments of their commitment to press freedom, while media professionals also re-evaluate issues around press freedom and ethics.

This year’s theme, ‘Information as a Public Good’, serves as a call to affirm the importance of cherishing information as a public good, while exploring what can be done in the production, distribution and reception of content to strengthen journalism, and advance transparency and empowerment without leaving anyone behind.

Executive Director, Institute of Media and Society, Dr. Akin Akingbulu, speaking on the importance of the commemoration, noted that the yearly commemoration helps to re-energise media professionals involved in the production and dissemination of information which citizens consume, aside from also re-enforcing commitment of media workers to professionalism.

On his part, the Director, International Press Centre (IPC), Mr. Lanre Arogundade observed that issues addressed by WPFD help to challenge the media to break the barriers of secrecy and opacity in governance. “WPFD has also been giving impetus to investigative reporting, which remains a major tool for exposing abuse of power and enthroning good governance,” he noted.

Emmanuel Onwubiko, a former Federal Commissioner at the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria, who is currently the National Coordinator, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), expressed the view that information is a public good in Nigeria, stating that it is the reason Section 22 of the Constitution gives media practitioners the enviable role as members of the fourth estate of the realm and the national conscience of Nigeria who should use their newspapers, broadcast stations, online and social media platforms to canvass the enforcement of the rule of law and respect for supremacy of the law because under a constitutional democracy, the law of the land must not be a respecter of any person, class or status.

He stressed that information ought to be used or rather the media should be deployed to ensure that there is transparency and accountability in government and to make sure that nobody is above the law.

“Sadly, there are many government institutions that do not implement the Freedom of Information Act and do not see information as public good. Government officials, because of corruption, hide vital information from the press and by inference from the people. Some officials think they should only give access to public relations information that promote their brand and will do everything to inhibit the free flow of information. By so doing, they undermine the use of information for public good. This must change. There has to be sanction for violators of the FOI Act. The law on freedom of information must be sacrosanct,” Onwubiko said.

Bemoaning the hardline stance most government officials often have when it comes to information as a public good, Prof Lai Oso of the School of Communication, Lagos State University (LASU), however, observed that there is no government in the world that wants a totally free media, whether America, Britain or Nigeria. “They are all interested in trying to control or influence the media. Government/media relationship is always a difficult terrain, with lots of strategies and negotiations,” he reasoned.

Regardless of the challenges with FOI Act in Nigeria, Prof Oso said the yearly WPFD spotlights the condition of the Nigerian media, especially when it comes to the issue of freedom. “We have a lot of challenges or problems that put constraint on the realisation of the freedom of information or freedom of the press, most of which are structural or man made. So, the yearly commemoration reminds us of some of these constraints and how we can overcome them,” he said.

Essence Of World Press Freedom Day 2021
EXECUTIVE Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) and Head, Transparency International (Nigeria), Auwal Musa Rafsanjani is delighted that this year’s celebration of World Press Freedom Day is returning to Africa in Namibia, exactly where it began in 1991, with focus on contemporary issues for freedom of expression, access to information and the public service role of journalism within the changed communications ecosystem.

“Firstly, by taking the conference back to its root in Namibia, Africa, there is a recognition by UNESCO that the dimensions for access to information has greatly changed and this affirms the need to go back to the drawing board. In the spirit of the World Press Freedom Day, there is always the constant reminder of the need to highlight the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world; to defend the media from attacks on their independence; and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession. While Press Freedom has been greatly repressed in Africa especially, the 2021 Day reiterates the need for Africa to be reminded that it is the host continent for the global declaration of press freedom.

“Secondly, and particularly looking at Nigeria and the experiences of the recent past, especially bordering around press freedom suppression, the new reliance on unverified channels for consumption of information, the theme of the 2021 celebration holds a significant meaning. A public good, both in its economic and broader terms, refers to goods that users cannot be barred from accessing. In this light, the theme stresses both quality of information as a public good and its accessibility. These are clear lines that need urgent attention in Nigeria. The country must address issues of quality of information while ensuring access to quality information. Today, unverified media platforms hold sway, especially online platforms that have become merchants of fake news. This has pushed Nigerians to become consumers of poor-quality information from poorly trained and untrained media practitioners.”

Rafsanjani, however, bemoaned the unfortunate fact that, today in Nigeria, government have been seen to clamp down on mainstream media, with journalists being harassed and arrested. “Even in the build up to the World Press Freedom Day celebration, we have seen a clamp down on some key media channels in Nigeria. Recently, the government sanctioned Channels TV. This continued harassment of the mainstream media would only encourage the consumption of information from mainly online platforms where quality controls are not guaranteed.

“We have seen efforts to ban or restrict social media in Nigeria rejected by the populace. The attempt indeed appears dictatorial irrespective of the fake news that emanate from the social media platforms. But there is the need to recognize that information as a public good must serve the betterment of the entire populace and the country at large. The best approach is to educate citizens on quality information and conduct sensitisations on credible news verifications.

“Development partners, civil society groups and the organised private sector must partner with the media in ensuring consistent capacity building on investigative journalism. The media must also be supported in the campaign against fake news, while the organised private sector, which constitutes the highest employer of media in Nigeria, must adhere to the commitment to ensure the welfare of media practitioners in Nigeria. The civil society, which has remained a key ally of the media in Nigeria must continue to sustain the partnership and support for free press in Nigeria. In doing these, the critical stakeholders outside of the media would be able to contribute in ensuring information as a public good in Nigeria.”

Who Is Afraid Of Free Press?
ON the occasion of the WPFD, critical stakeholders have expressed worry about press freedom in the country.

Onwubiko, in particular, contended an assertion that Nigeria had the freest press in Africa, saying that South Africa comes tops in that category. According to him, since the year 2015 when President Muhammadu Buhari (rtd.) assumed office, the media industry has not fared well.

He noted that many media houses have faced repressive attacks by the agents of government as they show “no regard for media pluralism and freedoms.”

Onwubiko said, “the Department of State Services (DSS) have arrested and detained many journalists for publishing stories unfavourable to the government. Newspaper houses have been invaded by the military and the reporters harassed. The current Army chief recently banned a reporter for asking him questions concerning purchases of arms. So, how is Nigeria the country with the freest press? But I concede that Nigeria has more than enough press laws and media laws to check hate speech, cybercrimes and the spread of fake news.”

Onwubiko further stressed that not much has been achieved in the media to enhance the printing environment in Nigeria, noting that the aspect of the industry has suffered long periods of abandonment and policy contradictions that have resulted in the demise of the local paper producing industry such as the one that used to be located in Oku Iboku in Akwa Ibom.

“Production of printing materials in Nigeria is not going on locally or the printing press materials are not sourced locally, which means that media companies have no choice but to import machineries and paper prints from abroad at high costs and high tariff regime. The high cost of newspapers, which comes about because of the high costs of the printing press and high production costs and other materials, and the high rate of poverty among the most active members of the population means that less number of people can afford to buy hard copies of newspapers. For the soft copies, the high cost of data means that not all owners of handsets can access news or have unfettered access to electronic media. Nigerians are paying the most for data all over the world. Cable television costs so much. Cost of electricity in Nigeria and the non-availability of electricity means access to electronic media is few and far between for readers and audiences, just as media companies are now compelled to buy generators and diesel-powered electricity plants to run their companies. These additional costs are passed on to their customers. So, the challenges are much and though. This yearly events have created the environment to mount pressure on government and legislators to make good laws to promote access to media. Really, not much in terms of positive developments have been noticed over the years.”

In its 2021 review of press freedom in Africa, Reporters Without Border said although there was less deterioration in Africa’s “Abuses” score, it continues to be the most violent continent for journalists, and the COVID-19 pandemic fuelled the use of force to prevent journalists from working.

In its assessment of Press Freedom across the world, the annual World Press Freedom Index, recently released showed that Nigeria has dropped five points in ranking. From its 115 rank in 2020, it was recently ranked 120 by Reporters Without Borders, the organisation that has, since 2002, been publishing the yearly World Press Freedom Index.

The index ranks 180 countries and regions according to the level of freedom available to journalists. In its analysis on Nigeria, RWB said Nigeria is now one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are often spied on, attacked, arbitrarily arrested or even killed.

It noted that the campaign for the 2019 general elections that returned President Muhammadu Buhari for another term in February 2019 was marked by unprecedented level of disinformation, especially on social media.

“Online freedom is restricted by a 2015 cyber-crime law that is widely used to arrest and prosecute journalists and bloggers in an arbitrary manner. Three journalists have been shot dead while covering Islamic Movement in Nigeria protests since July 2019 without any proper investigation to identify those responsible. The police are often the direct beneficiaries of impunity and were blamed for the death of a young trainee journalist after arresting him in October 2020.

“The major street protests in 2020 were accompanied by violence against the media. Several news organisations were torched and many reporters were attacked. With more than 100 independent newspapers, Africa’s most populous nation enjoys real media pluralism but covering stories involving politics, terrorism, financial embezzlement by the powerful or conflicts between communities is very problematic.

“This was seen yet again in 2020, when an investigative reporter was threatened and several of his sources died or were killed after he investigated massacres in the northern state of Kaduna.”

Therefore, the theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day, ‘Information as a Public Good’, comes handle and a call for all Nigerians, including political leaders, to have a rethink on how they have obstruct press freedom, especially as Nigeria’s rating has dropped by five points.

The report noted: “Respect for press freedom is still largely dependent on the political and social context. Elections and protests are often accompanied by abuses against journalists. The financial weakness of many media outlets makes them susceptible to political and financial influence that undermines their independence. For the most part, state-owned media still tend to be governmental mouthpieces or propaganda tools and have a long way to go before they become really independent public service media reflecting a wide range of opinion.

“On the pretext of combatting disinformation and hate speech, many countries have adopted new laws in recent years with vague and draconian provisions that can easily be used to gag journalists. Another disturbing phenomenon is the increase in online attacks, often by trolls close or directly linked to the government, that are designed to discredit or intimidate journalists. African journalists were hit hard by the coronavirus crisis in 2020.”

With the celebration of WPFD returning to Africa, Arogundade expressed hope that the world would be reminded that Africa has been playing the frontal role in the advancement of media freedom and the democratic right of citizens to know.

To Prof Oso, “the significance of hosting the 2021 global conference in Namibia is to remind us about the Charter of the global policy of freedom of information and how freedom of information has become so crucial in terms of politics, democracy and in terms of how to realise our citizenship within our country and the global community. So, I think it is a way to remind us of where we are coming from and of course to chart a way for where we will be going in the next future.”