By Adeleke Gbenga
The 2021’s World Freedom Press Day has come and gone but issues it brought to the front burner for journalists to ponder will linger for a while.
Journalists from different chapels of the Nigeria Union of Journalists(NUJ)Kwara State Council converged at their Secretariat last week to examine and discuss the topic of this year Press Freedom Day ”Information as Public Good” determined by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO)as it does every year. For Mr. Gbenga Bamidele, the keynote speaker and Convener of Society for Journalism Initiatives(CSJI)
who suggested that the yearly event on every May 3 ought to be commemorative than celebrative because of what the event being observed connotes charged journalists to search for new roles for their profession that is being threatened by the new media. He tasked them to be more professional and responsible to be taken serious and earn the trust of the society by being critical, painstaking and sieve every information posted to the public space for facts and evidences because these information are public good. Mr Bamidele in his paper titled ”Access to Information in Journalism” regretfully told journalists that their traditional roles of gate keeping have been undermined by the social media and internet, stressing that they needed to struggle more than ever before to earn their freedom. Short of tasking them to rise to occasion in this new age of information revolution when new media dominates the new media space, he told them that the society needs their professional skills more than ever before to play their watchdog roles, the conscience of society and to be guardian of public space in the interest of the public. According to him ”the roles of Journalists now go deeper into helping the public understand the myraid of information now available and more importantly to verify the reliability of the information. The age of information technology has taken the decision of what the public can know from journalists. All these are qualities and features of a journalist that relates to the ethics of the profession and sense of responsibility to the wider public”.
To enable them to perform their duties as expected of them by the public, he reminded journalists of what their profession is, saying journalism is a process of collecting information, do critical assessment of the information collected, then verifying them before reportage.
”The commodity sold in information gathering is the accuracy, originality and timeliness of the information” he observed. The guest speaker charged journalists to always go extra mile to do fact and source checking in their duties, stressing that they can not afford to leave public space to the new social media warriors most of whom are not professionals in information dissemination. He acknowledged the pressure and temptation to which journalists are often exposed in their duties which can make them to compromise the principles of fact and source checking, he exhorted them to always put public interest above their personal benefit to earn public trust. ”With the attendant pressure, journalists can compromise their fact and source checking process which can result into great damage in a social contents. Journalists therefore have to remain loyal to the public by putting the public interest above their personal benefits. Consequently, journalists are expected to be all incisive in their news reporting to maintain credibility and social trust. While it may be a high task to expect journalists to be objective, the methods of information gathering have to be objective. This can be achieved only through a process of verification of information as well as the need of the journalists to be independent” he told journalists. He charged them to report news with fairness to all parties, noting also that their news presentation must always reflect diverse views and interests within a clearly defined content.
”World Press Freedom Day has its origin in a UNESCO conference in Windhoek, Namibia on May 3rd 1991. On that day, signatories of the historic Windhoek declaration for the development of free, independent and pluralistic press stated in Article(V)that; the worldwide trends towards democracy and freedom of expression are a fundamental contribution to the fulfilment of human aspirations. This point underlines the interlink roles of this fundamental freedom for the advancement of the public good of humankind. While the 1991 Windhoek conference focused on print media, the 10th anniversary in 2001 highlighted communication through the airwaves, giving rise to African Charter on broadcasting. In 2011, for the 20th anniversary, UNESCO supported a conference which focused on peoples’ rights to seek and receive information which culminated in 2019, the recognition by the United Nations of September 28th as the International day for Universal Access to Information” Mr. Gbenga Bamidele stated.
In his own paper titled ”Freedom of Expression and Quality of Journalism” Comrade Taiwo Otitolaye, Executive Director of Community Outreach for Development and Welfare Advocacy (CODWA)charged journalists to struggle for freedom, telling them that freedom can not come by mere wishing. He advised men and women of the pen profession to embrace quality Journalism, the characteristics of which include according to him, fact checking, fairness to all and objectivity among others. He also listed qualities of a good journalist which he charged them to strive to attain to include; good education background, self development, good use of words, versatility and thorough knowledge, Investigative skills, good communication skills, professionalism and self confidence, persistence and discipline and strict adherence to ethic of Journalism and standard practice.
Speaking on freedom of expression in general, he described it as all encompassing and as foundation of other freedom. ”Freedom of expression is the legal groundwork which allows people to access information about current events and matters of public interest. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authorities and regardless of the frontiers. These also include freedom to exercise a right of personal autonomy or political expression or participation, it include freedom of speech or religion without government influence or limitation” he charged.
Speaking further he told the audience that freedom of expression is a foremost human right issue as it forms Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of expression covers freedom of speech, according to him including freedom of the press, adding that it gives individuals and communities the right to articulate their opinions without fear of censorship or punishment.
He charged that effective media depends on freedom of expression which gives right to media to function and report freely, sometimes critically without threat or fear of punishment, highlighting that freedom of expression and quality Journalism promotes civic space, transparency, accountability, open government, Advocacy and development.
Mr. Otitololaye noted that it is freedom of expression that gives vent to the audacious activities of the new media, internet and social media that is currently giving more to concern, observing further that freedom of expression even gives room for expression of hate speech and incitement to violence as he cautioned that right to freedom of expression is not absolute.
He charged that journalists can only become free when they remain independent just as he exhorted them to search for alternative and independent sources of income now that many media houses are finding it difficult to meet their obligations to their reporters.
”Where there is press repression, freedom of expression and quality Journalism is in danger and the civic space will shrink. The media is left with a choice, self censorship or risk the consequences of guerrilla(revolutionary)Journalism. When the media cannot accurately tell the whole story, it is impossible to achieve balanced, high quality Journalism. In countries where media are pressured to only report on things that favour governments or certain political interests, there can not be freedom of expression and quality Journalism. Journalists are forced to adopt self censorship. Some who become dissidents have become subjects of attacks. The brave journalists who continue to report without pressure of censorship often risk fines, legal cases, prison sentences, violence and even death. A respect for freedom of expression is an essential element for a functioning and accurate media” he told journalists.