PRESS FREEDOM AND THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS IN NIGERIA

PRESS FREEDOM AND THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS IN NIGERIA

AN OVERVIEW OF THE 2019 GENERAL ELECTIONS

BY

PROF. OLU OBAFEMI. FNAL., NNOM

 AT THE 2019 NUJ WORLD PRESS DAY, MAY 2ND-3RD

Introduction

In every society, the dissemination of information is most crucial. In fact the need to call for unity among people of a community is as important as the need for the free flow of information. The role of all mass media outlets in this regard cannot be overemphasized. The Press is one of these media outlets. Journalists, News broadcasters, News Editors, and reporters are agents of this medium, whose function is crucial to national integration, national development, good governance, peace and sustainability. To achieve this feat, freedom of the press is very important. Press freedom is defined as the condition in which the press is free to air news and pass information across every medium without any form of constraints. According to Sambe&Ikoni (2004, P.11) cited in Nwane (2014), Press freedom “focuses its attention on the unrestrained liberty to write or publish information for the consumption of the public”. It is the freedom to print without restraints. As the right to freedom of speech and life is important to all citizens, so is the freedom of the press to perform its duty without hindrance.

 

Conceptualizing Democracy and Press Freedom

Conceptually, democracy and the press have identical qualities such as equity, justice, freedom and civic rights that ordinarily should make them cohere in ensuring collective interests and progress. It is expected that the press in its reportage should fill any existing information gap between the leadership and followership in a democratic rule, since it is people oriented and a down-top system of governance. And as the intermediary, the press requires freedom to search for accurate information to be able to guide both parties. Thus this tripartite arrangement can only provide the desired result if the press enjoys a conducive atmosphere to assess and access information from both sides and do justice to the ruler and the ruled via accurate dissemination of information. In any viable democracy, the leaders and the press are two sides of a coin since they are expected to work for the masses, hence the need for interdependence without ruling out divergence in matters that relate to operational modes.

In this twenty-first century, freedom of the press is becoming          more important in achieving development,democracy and dialogue. According to            many studies, it is agreed that there is a connectionbetween the three D’s and a free press. If ideas cannot flourish in a free space, human, social and economic problems cannot be ameliorated. However, it is universally accepted that the freedom of the press is not a rightwithout limit, and some classifications of limitations on freedom of press have been devised by almost every liberal government.

 

The Roles of the Press in Elections

In any democratic state, election is undeniably crucial, to continuity in governance, social and economic engineering, national integration and sustainable development. The essence of election is to ensure that the people are represented effectively at every hierarchy of government. Hence it is important that the process is free and fair. To ensure this, the role of the press cannot be over emphasized.

According to (Fidelis, 157) one of the main constitutional roles of the media in a democracy is to objectively monitor governance while remaining consistent and preserving anobjective stance in holding those involved in the democratic process accountable to the people. He sums up the roles of the Press in an election to include the following:

 

  • raising awareness on the need for politicians to respect the right of the people in the electioneering process;
  • seeking out relevant truths about the electioneering process, including campaign reports; especially for people who are deprived of means to witness the process;
  • clarifying issues relating to campaigns anddraw the aspirants closer to the electorates;
  • educating the people on the differences between political parties, candidates and ideologies;
  • enabling the electorates to analyze campaign messages of politicians; and
  • setting the correct political agenda for the audience and not allowing the politicians to do so.

The main objective of the above should be to guide the electorate, especially the illiterate and non-educated population as they account for about half of the population. They should understand their rights; know what constitutes electoral malpractices and how to avoid being manipulated, as they are subsequently the victims of bad governance. The press functions in an election have a process which Lower (1976) identifies as follows:

  • Reporting and interpreting events (Monitor election process)
  • Defining issues
  • Portraying personalities
  • Investigative report.

These, if done appropriately, shall guide the electorates against making a wrong choice and enhance quality of democratic leadership. Good examples of this were given by the BBC and other media organizations through their outlets and channels by disseminating information in indigenous languages such as Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, and Pidgin.

 

However, for the above to be achievable, Sambe and Ikoni (2004, 11) point out six issues sacrosanct to press freedom in Nigeria. These are:

  • No prior or subsequent restraint
  • Freedom to gather information
  • The right not to be compelled to disclose the source of information
  • Freedom to import
  • The right to receive information
  • Freedom from unreasonable punishment for what is published.

 

 

Challenges to Press Freedom in Nigeria

In Maringues (2014) submission, the relationship between the press and successful government in Nigeria has not left much to be desired hence the disconnection between the D’s mentioned earlier. The history of the Press in Nigeria extended back to the mid-19th century with the emanation of the IweIroyin fun AwonAraEgbaati Yoruba. Although, several newspaper outlets had surfaced in Sierra Leone (1801), Ghana (1822) and Liberia (1826), which were started by Anglican missionaries (Maringues, 185). The constraint against press freedom in Nigeria is presumably as old as the history of the Press in the country. Over the years constituted authorities have made the issue of press freedom in Nigeria controversial. The IweIrohin, published by a Briton, Reverend Henry Townsend, in the colonial era focused mainly on religious activities. However it also devoted some space to aspects like abolition of slavery, right to education and civil rights. This made it run afoul of the colonial authorities in Lagos and Townsend was consequently sent back to Britain. The magazine’s premises was finally burnt down in 1867 during anti-white riots in Abeokuta .It was an instance of the earliest records of authoritarian restraints on the freedom of the press. This and other similar presence of  the reigning ‘authority’ in the dissemination of the function of the press has rendered the press subject to control and dependence.

The situation continued into the early twentieth century with the enactment of the first press law in Nigeria by the colonial government, which relatively suppressed the freedom of the operations of the Press. It was in 1903 a series of “publishers’ obligations” was enacted mandating a compulsory quarantine of every newspaper content by the authorities before it was published. In a report by Maringues (2014), the law made it mandatory for a copy of every issue of a newspaper to be submitted to the “authorities”. This enactment was further intensified by the 1909 “anti-sedition decree”, which enforced a two-year imprisonment on “those who through speech or writing encouraged anti-government sentiments” (p.4). The introduction and enforcement of these laws prompted Lord Lugard’s move to censor every newspaper during the state of emergency in 1917.

After Nigeria gained her independence from the colonial authorities, it plunged into a long repressive military rule which lasted for about three decades (Nwanne, 2014). He explains that this era pummeled the Nigerian Press with other series of repressive laws and antagonistic operations primarily from the government. Although it was during this period that the Nigerian constitution was formulated, including the enactment of the freedom of expression acts, he believes that the law only existed in the books as the situation on ground was entirely contrary. In fact Nigeria has not recorded any other form of intense restraint on the Press as it did in the military era.Some of the most notable highlights of this period, according to him, included:

  1. The Circulation of Newspaper Decree No. 2 of 1966.
  2. Defamatory and Offensive Publication Decree No. 44 of 1966
  3. Newspaper (Prohibition from Circulation) Decree No. 17 of 1968.
  4. The Sunday Star and ImoleOwuro (prohibition) Edict No. 17 of 1968.
  5. The Printers and Publishers of the Sunday Star and ImoleOwuroDeclaration of Unlawful Society Edict No 19 of 1968.
  6. Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree No. 11 of 1976.
  7. Armed Forces and Police (Special Powers) Decree No. 24 of 1967.
  8. Trade Dispute Decree No. 7 of 1976.
  9. Newspaper Prohibition from circulation validation Decree of 1978.
  10. The Press Council Decree No. 1 of 1978.
  11. The Daily Times Decree of 1978.
  12. News Watch Proscription Decree of 1987

Maringues opines that these laws were put in place to repress the activities of the press from covering the ‘undemocratic’ activities of the military government, a government that was known for its common neglect for human rights and constitutionality. This era of press restraint was characterized by the death of significant press personnel in Nigeria such as Dele Giwa who died after he opened a letter bomb. In fact she has details of the several military misconducts and injustice.

The issue of press freedom in Nigeria has not been resolved even under democratic rule, in spite of the human rights to freedom of association and expression as rigidly engrained in a democratic system. Nwame (2014)cites the invasion of African Independent Television(AIT) premise during the rule of President Olusegun Obasanjo. In an account of the relationship between the democratic rule of Goodluck Jonathan and the Press, he describes the relationship as a “cautious optimism”, because “the President occasionally appreciates the role of an unfettered press in national development but often over-reacts to seeming bad press” (16). The Jonathan rule was not free of press suppression and manipulation to suit the opinion of his government.

One of such occasions occurred April 2013 when two reporters of the Leadershipnewspaper, Tony Amokeodo and ChibuzorUkaibe were arrested, detained and later charged to court on charges of felony. In a swift reaction, just 72 hours after the journalists were arraigned in court, the Federal Government withdrew the charges against the reporters. According to Vanguard:They had been accused of forging a document purported to have emanated from the Presidency (16).

The 2019 general elections presented a more complex challenge compared to previous elections as the political class has become more aggressive for power. This is more so when only two strong political parties were in contention. In the desperate bid to be elected, other methods like armed banditry, impersonation and kidnapping evolved which were given as basis for the involvement of the military in the process. These fundamentally corroborate Quintal observation that the press can only be effective in ensuring a credible election if “… journalists are permitted to work unimpeded and without fear” (https://relief.int/report/Nigeria/youcannot-muzzle-media-nigeria-journalist-press-freedom-buhari).These factors increased the threat posed to the freedom of the Press and safety of its personnel to be investigative and accurate. Here are few examples of such external factors which gagged the operation of the Press.

According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), Jones Abiri, an editor of the Weekly Source, was reportedly detained without charge in 2019. Resultantly, he was refused access to his family and his lawyer. Although, he was subsequently released in August, but the action against him was clearly an infringement on not just his fundamental human right but an obvious restriction to the freedom of the Press as enshrined in the constitution of the country. In a similar vein, Samuel Ogundipe of Premium Times was detained and prosecuted for concealing a source of a news item. His detainment was justified by President MuhammaduBuhari when he said the rule of law which encapsulates the freedom of the press must be subjected to the supremacy of national security and interest. There were also instances of HamisuMuhazu of Daily Trust and Musa Minguji of Blueprint being restrained by the military.

Additionally, there were instances of harassment of journalists by political thugs, as in the case of KunleSanni who took pictures of Plateau children with voters’ cards which negates the nation’s electoral act. He was forced by three thugs to delete the pictures which was seen as a threat to the political ambition of their sponsor.In Kaduna, ShindongBalaof Radio Nigeria and Amos Tauna of Daily Post were attacked by a group of more than 20 men while covering election.  The men confiscatedBala and Tauna’sphones, recorders and press pass. Bala managed to retrieve his belongings after paying the men.

In another instance, armed men who claimed that their boss had been held by the military, abductedIsizugo as an exchange for the release of their boss.In his own account,Nurudeen Abdullah reported that the offices of Daily Trust in Abuja and Maiduguri were raided, closed down by thugs, and journalists were taken away.

However, it should be noted that the increase in the number of media outlets made the competition for patronage more intense and allowed some level of compromise on the part of the Press in balancing their reportage. Unofficially, some media organizations were classified along political parties by the electorates. This created a negative image of the Press and in some quarters it was regarded as unprofessional.

Nowadays, in every conversation, the words “Press Freedom” are mentioned. It shows how important that freedom is. However, the same significance is not given to the responsibilities linked to it. This makes it liable to be abused. As we know, any institution or freedom if left ungoverned has the tendency to be abused. This created the need for freedom of the press to be controlled.(https://www.uniassignment.com/essay-samples/law/the-abuse-of-freedom-of-the-press-law-constitutional-administrative-essay.php?vref=1)

 

 

From the above submissions, it is obvious that in realistic terms the challenges hindering Press freedom in Nigeria include but not limited to:

  • the concept of what makes a good news headline by the Press and the tendency to be ‘allergic’ to criticism on the part of leaders;
  • drawing a line between patriotism and the right to access information.
  • desperation on the part of those in quest for leadership and the integrity of the press on the one hand and the safety of its personnel on the other hand.
  • dichotomy between professionalism and political interests of the owners/controllers of both private and public media.
  • Eradicating all forms of violent dispositions in the electoral process.

 

Conclusion and Recommendation

These instances and many more that have been cited in other sources which we have not highlighted here, are the exemplary cases of the numerous issues and challenges in having a free and truly independent press in Nigeria. Those in government and those struggling to oustthem out of power see the Press as threat to their own “democracy”, hence they use official power and other violent means to manipulate or suppress the press.By extension, these issues have affected the democratic representation of Nigerians in government. The election process in Nigeria is liable to be undemocratic when the press has been restricted from performing its duty perfectly.

  • Leaders who cannot withstand democratic tendencies such as criticism and respect for the rule of law should not be voted at all or be voted out of office.
  • All stakeholders in the democratic process should rate the security of the citizens above any other interests.
  • Remuneration for political office holders in Nigeria has made politics too competitive, hence, the rat race which has denied true patriots to run for political offices. Therefore, politics should be made less attractive.
  • The Press should be above board in its reportage and eschew partisanship, nepotism and bigotry.
  • Government should reform the process of recruiting security personnel to ensure credibility and professionalism. This can be achieved if special institutions at secondary and tertiary levels for trainingpersonnel are established, rather than haphazard recruitment of officers.
  • The judiciary should be rid of unscrupulous elements who aid and abet criminality especially infringement on the rights of the Press, through bribery and legal manipulation.
  • Bodies like CPJ should be given legal backing to prosecute any form of trampling on the Press freedom and defend or discipline personnel when appropriate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

Becker, S. and Lower, E (1976) “Broadcasting in presidential campaigns 1960-1970” in Fidelis Chuka     The Role of the Mass Media in the Nigerian Electoral Process, in Unizik Journal of Arts and Humanities.

Ben U. NwanneAnother Look At Press Freedom In Nigeria, European Journal of Research in Social Sciences, Vol. 2 No. 4, 2014 ISSN 2056-542 retrieved from https://www.idpublications.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/ANOTHER-LOOK-AT-PRESS-FREEDOM-IN-NIGERIA.pdf

Fidelis Chuka  The Role of the Mass Media in the Nigerian Electoral Process, in Unizik Journal of Arts and Humanities , retrieved from https://www.ajol.info/index.php/ujah/article/viewFile/101202/91925

https://relief.int/report/Nigeria/youcannot-muzzle-media-nigeria-journalist-press-freedom-buhari

https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2018-05-03/secretary-generals-video-message-world-press-freedom-day

Michèle Maringues. The Nigerian Press: Current state travails and prospects; cited from https://books.openedition.org/ifra/640?lang=en, on 29/04/2019.

Sambe, J. A. and Ikoni, U. D. (2004). Mass Media and Ethics in Nigeria. Ibadan: Caltop Publications Nigeria Ltd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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