This year’s World Press Freedom Day was celebrated across the globe last Saturday, May 3rd. An annual ritual initiated by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), the occasion is devoted to an examination of the journalism practice worldwide. The CPJ uses its Global Impunity Index to judge each country. It is a measure of the political atmosphere under which journalists operate in any given country.
Nigerian journalists would be very surprised that CPJ has adjudged Nigeria as one of two countries in Africa with the most unfriendly environment for journalists. The first, obviously, is Somalia, easily recognised as a failed state, where journalists are murdered almost on a monthly basis.
Putting Nigeria in the same bad basket as Somalia may seem harsh, but we have to appreciate where the CPJ is coming from. Its decision was based on a number of unresolved murders involving journalists, believed to have been carried out by agents of the Nigerian state in the 1980s. These include the death by a letter bomb of high profile news magazine editor/publisher Dele Giwa. He was the co-owner of the very popular general interest Newswatch magazine. Over 39 years since his death, the first ever by a parcel bomb in Nigeria, in 1986, no arrests have been made by the police. After Dele Giwa, there were other unexplained deaths, including that of Bagauda Kaltho, both unresolved till date.
It should be noted that those killings occurred during the period of military dictatorship that did not hide its dislike for journalists.
Hence the surprise shown over the CPJ rating of Nigeria. It is true that environment under which journalists work in this country has improved considerably since civil rule returned in 1999. Journalists and other civil society activists worked hand in hand to force the military to give up power, and the romance has persisted because successive political leaders realise that they need the journalists to win power and hold onto it.
However, this relationship often has been ruptured by brushes between journalists and overzealous security aides of some political leaders.
A case in point is last month abduction of an editor of the Lagos-based Sun newspaper on the order of the governor of a state who did not like the editor’s reporting of his government. Few months earlier, an editor of The Guardian newspaper was shot dead in his home. His wife was forced to watch the execution. Besides, physical harassment of Journalists by security forces, particularly the police and State Security Service (SSS) under civilian rule are as rampant as they were under the military.
Apart from the political, the socioeconomic environment is just as unfriendly. The salary is irregular; journalists in some media organisations, both government-owned and private, work without pay for upward of 15 months. Worse still, there is no insurance cover for the majority of journalists in this country.
These persecutions of journalists have gone on in spite of constitutional guarantees of free speech and citizen protection by the state. This in addition to the National Assembly passage of a Freedom of Information Act in 2012. It is a citizen right piece of legislation which empowers Nigerians, including journalists, to demand information of public interest of any government official. Failure is punishable with imprisonment.
Under this undoubtedly harsh environment, it is to the credit of the perseverance and ingenuity of journalists that the Nigerian press has been adjudged “one of the freest” in the world, and “the most vibrant” in Africa.