Thursday, 7th December 2023

Press Freedom Day: Stakeholders advocate free, accurate information to curb COVID-19

By Gbenga Salau, Margaret Mwantok and Sunday Aikulola
03 May 2020   |   3:55 am
The 2020 World Press Freedom Day will be marked around the globe today with less fanfare due to Coronavirus pandemic, which is ravaging humanity. Although the theme of this year’s celebration

Sanwo-Olu making a press briefing

Journalists Urged To Uphold Ethics

The 2020 World Press Freedom Day will be marked around the globe today with less fanfare due to Coronavirus pandemic, which is ravaging humanity. Although the theme of this year’s celebration is Journalism without Fear or Favour, the fear of COVID-19, which has forced many nations to announce lockdown, will ensure no large gathering, if there would be one at all.

So, it was no surprise when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the Netherlands that had planned to hold the World Press Freedom Conference (WPFC) from April 22 to 24 in The Hague moved the event to October.

However, the Director-General of UNESCO, Ms. Audrey Azoulay, has said that free information was essential to helping the world face, understand and overcome the coronavirus pandemic.

In her message to mark the World Press Freedom Day, Azoulay stressed the need to consider the importance of information as journalists, in informing the public, giving them the means of combatting the illness by adopting appropriate practices.

According to her, “UNESCO has teamed up with the rest of the United Nations family to fight the “infodemic” of rumours and disinformation which is exacerbating the pandemic and putting lives at risk. To help put an end to the problem, we have joined forces to promote two major social media campaigns, ‘Together for Facts, Science’ and ‘Solidarity and Don’t Go Viral’.”

With the current challenge across the globe, the director stated that every threat to or attack on the diversity of the press, the freedom of the press and the safety of journalists concerns her organisation, hence the United Nations system of organisations, with new coalitions formed by media, governments, and actors from the spheres of law, academia and civil society worldwide, would support journalists and their fight for independence and the truth.

The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, also recognised the role of the press when he said, “as the [COVID-19] pandemic spreads, it has also given rise to the second pandemic of misinformation, from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories. The press provides the antidote: verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis.”

But as Nigerians mark the day this year, remotely, there is cheery news. Nigeria has moved up five steps in the World Press Freedom ranking. The country was rated 115 among 180 countries, moving up from 120 that Reporters Without Borders (RWB) rated it last year.

Paradoxically, the RWB in its summary notes about Nigeria stated that: “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. Two journalists have been shot dead while covering the Islamic Movement in Nigeria protests – one in July 2019 and the other in January 2020 – without any proper investigation with the aim of identifying those responsible.

The RWB projected that the next ten years will be pivotal for press freedom because of converging crises affecting the future of journalism. It listed geopolitical crisis (due to the aggressiveness of authoritarian regimes); a technological crisis (due to a lack of democratic guarantees); a democratic crisis (due to polarisation and repressive policies); a crisis of trust (due to suspicion and even hatred of the media); and an economic crisis (impoverishing quality journalism) as issues the media industry will grapple with.

Speaking on the theme as it relates to Nigeria, the Executive Director, Media Right Agenda, Mr. Edetaen Ojo, said media practitioners in Nigeria have practiced without favour, but certainly with a lot of fear.

Some have argued that the COVID-19 experience has exposed the country unpreparedness for the epidemic. In this has the media failed in not alerting the leaders and governments to challenges in the health sector, especially as some of the leaders and those in government claims they never knew the health sector was this challenged.

Ojo stated that there was never any doubt that the country’s health sector was in any mess and unable to provide any decent level of medical support to the country and its people. He maintained that nobody should claim ignorance of this reality and the media certainly did a good job of consistently highlighting the inadequacies in the medical sector.

The MRA boss stated that the government’s failure to implement the Law and establish structures for effective implementation deliberately created a situation where there is a lack of transparency in governance. 

“These weaknesses are now too apparent in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the government has also, by its conduct, unwittingly, shot itself in the foot, because its lack of transparency has also robbed it of the trust of citizens.  Nobody believes anything the government is saying, making it extremely difficult for the government to govern and be effective in its response to the COVID-19 situation. Hopefully, if we do manage to cover out of this situation, the Government would have learnt a bitter lesson and I hope that rather than go back to their usual antics, they will make a serious effort to remedy all the shortcomings that have resulted in our current predicament.”

According to Executive Director International Press Centre, Mr. Lanre Arogundade, “we consider the actions of Governor Umahi a grave threat to and assault on our fundamental rights and freedoms as citizens, particularly in the light of his relentless attacks on journalists whose roles are more important now than ever before in the context of a global pandemic that poses an existential threat to humanity. We are motivated to take this step by our conviction that if we in Nigeria are to overcome the current and future challenges, the ability of journalists to be able to continue their professional and constitutionally mandate the role of gathering, processing and disseminating information to the public should not be hindered.”

Professor of journalism and mass communication, Ralph Akinfeleye said journalists must educate the politicians about the true meaning of democracy. Because it appears many of them are not clear what is called true democracy —to the extent that an elected governor can come out with rubbish of telling us recently that he was banning two reporters for life, though he said he has apologised but that is satanic. With or without his apology that shows how some of them are thinking. If a reporter writes anything against you, you can write a rejoinder to the Press Council

Akinfeleye who is also Council Member, World Journalism Education Congress argued that journalists must adhere strictly to the code of professional practice in order to practice without fear or favour. They must understand their role of the fourth estate of the realm and never the fourth estate of the wreck.

According to him, “journalists must also base their reportage on truth because the truth is the cornerstone of good journalism. Like the Holy Book, which says, thou shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. So if you base your report on the truth, then you don’t have to be afraid of anybody but when journalists compromise the truth, they endanger their practice and credibility before their audience. The instrumentality of the Freedom of information should also be put to test. Chapter 2 gives journalists an obligation to monitor them

“Owners of the media should be educated about the roles of journalism and business, they should understand there must be a symbiotic relationship between the owners and the practitioners.

“The government should also give hazardous allowance to journalists as they give to the health workers during COVID-19. The government should also provide a bailout during this period as most of the newspapers publish fewer pages.”

Similarly, former Minister of information, Tony Momoh said journalism without fear or favour is threatened now because many people now perform the duties of journalists when they are not. “Truth is what drives journalism,” he said, “The guiding principle of mainstream journalism is if in doubt, leave out but now in contemporary practice, everybody that has a phone now is a journalist. Even if the information is fake news, they don’t care because the guiding principle of social media is if you receive share without finding out whether it is true or not.”

Section 22 of the constitution says that the media must monitor governance on behalf of the people thereby making the government accountable to the people.

He continued, “they must also be protected during COVID-19 — just as journalists covering wars are protected. During the civil war, the army protected journalists that covered the war. Owners of media establishments must also provide insurance for journalists.”

For the Chairman, Lagos State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Dr. Qasim Akinreti, this year’s theme is appropriate, as it really justifies the critical role of journalists to report for the public good and public interests.

He noted that the question and answer sessions by the COVID-19 task forces across the country have witnessed intelligent and robust information exchanges to the benefit of the public, even though some of the questions rattled the government officials in some instances.

“The Nigerian media have always questioned Nigerian leadership of not allocating enough funds to implement budgetary provisions for the health sector. There are records of editorials on dilapidated health centres across the country. There have been news commentaries and features on inadequate health facilities and increase in health tourism over the years.” 

A communication scholar at the University of Port Harcourt, Dr. Obiageli Ohiagu, said, in Nigeria, her worry is that the reportage of the statistics seem very much at variance with the reality, as people suspect that the government and the media are not telling the whole truth. She observed that the average Nigerian believes that far more people have died or have the virus than what the media report.

“According to Infographics Online Statistics, the reportage of COVID 19 was the major yardstick used by reporters without borders in the ranking of World Press Freedom for 2020. The first five countries (Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Netherlands) were all European countries while America was only 45th in their ranking as they blamed Trump for displaying constant open hostility towards journalists’ reporting.

“If the media and government have a united voice, which is an abnormally, then soon the media will lose their credibility as the Fourth Realm of Government, if the media cannot without fear or favour give the people the facts of the situation, but bend the reality as dictated by the government then it is a worrisome situation irrespective of our position in the World Press Freedom index. An uneasy relationship with the government as exemplified in Trump’s case is more expected instead of the government-media partnership or agreement that is being noticed in the Nigerian scenario.”

“Apart from seemingly providing figures that agree more with the government than with the reality, on the positive side the Nigerian media have done a lot on information dissemination and awareness creation on the issue. A lot of Nigerians are embarking on preventive measures that have been abundantly publicized by various media. So while facts and information dissemination have been professionally handled by the Nigerian media, figures seem to have been doctored by the government and media alliance, and that’s really sad because we need to trust media reports.”