GUEST COLUMNIST BY Bisi Olawunmi, PhD
A Lecture presented at Zonal HQ of Radio Nigeria, Ibadan on Thursday, 31st May, 2018 to mark 2018 Democracy Day
The topic: Freedom of the Press in Democratic Societies , is very wide and cannot be treated exhaustively in one lecture of limited duration. So, I will try to give a panoramic view on the issue of press freedom and then try to situate it in Nigeria.
Freedom of the Press is basically freedom of media access to information and not being subjected to prior restraint in publishing such information for public consumption. Some also interpret freedom of the press to mean freedom of journalists to hold government accountable to the people. It has attained such global currency that the UN declared May 3 of every year as World Press Freedom Day.
According to Freedom House, only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoy a free press and media freedom is becoming weaker even in modern, pluralist democracies such as Canada and New Zealand. It points out that in the last five years, attacks on the freedom of the press have risen by 17.5 percent. Reports from media organizations present a gloomy picture of the state of press freedom, worldwide. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) annual ‘’kill report’’ indicated that 81 journalists were killed in 2017 and more than 250 in prison, with Turkey accounting for 160. Although the 81 deaths in 2017 represented a fall from the 93 killed in 2016, IFJ President, Philippe Leruth, noted that ‘’the levels of violence remains unacceptably high and most disturbing that this decrease cannot be linked to any measure by governments to tackle the impunity for these crimes’’. Eight of the journalists killed were women, and from even European democracies – Denmark and Malta – with the Maltese investigative reporter, Daphne Caruana Galiza blown up by a bomb planted in her car ! Mexico had 13 journalists killed, the highest for any nation, followed by Afghanistan and Iran with 11 each, Syria, 10 and 6 in India, the world’s largest democracy where attacks on journalists were being instigated by violent populism. Nigeria has had its share in the murder of journalists – at least three, the most notorious being the letter bomb killing of Dele Giwa, one of the founders of the Newswatch magazine, during the regime of military president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Killings with impunity. But then, one sometime wonders what motivates journalists to put their lives on line for other constituencies ! !
World Press Freedom Rating
Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2018 of 180 countries showed that none of the big democratic nations featured high as enhancing freedom of the press. The U.S., the self proclaimed apostle of democracy and press freedom, is ranked 48, Britain 40 with the five top press friendly nations being Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Netherlands, all in Western Europe. Nigeria is ranked 119, up from 122 in 2017 but with the observation that Nigerian journalists face ‘’harassments and threats when covering subjects with national security ramifications’’ and financial crimes. It concludes that ‘’investigative reporting is very risky for journalists in Africa’’. In an article titled ‘Press Freedom’s Dark Horizon’, Jennifer Dunham of Freedom House, a U.S.-based media rights organization, had noted that ‘’political leaders and other partisan forces in many democracies – including the U.S., Poland, the Philippines and South Africa – attacked the credibility of independent and mainstream media through alarming hostile rhetoric, personalized abuse online and indirect editorial pressure’’.
However, before proceeding further, perhaps, an historical excursion on the role and expectation of the press in societies would provide some contextual illumination for proper grasping of the state of the press today and why freedom of its operation remains contentious.
The book, Four Theories of the Press (Siebert, et al 1956) has detailed the evolutionary role of the press in three governance societies – The Authoritarian, The Soviet-Communist, and The Democratic. Various philosophers and political leaders articulated what were expected to be the role of the press under each system.
Authoritarian Theory Of The Press.
Those who propagated the Authoritarian theory of the press, ranging from Plato, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Goerg Hegel, Heinrich von Treitschke to the Fascist Authoritarians, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler believed in the supremacy of the state and that its leadership should not be subjected to public opinion projected by the media. They had a dim view of the reasoning capacity of the masses and held that the media should be supportive of the goals of the state, which primarily is the maintenance of law and order. Some of the philosophers even considered democracy a political heresy, an aberration! The Authoritarians argued that publishers usually were not privy to state affairs and therefore were unable to make accurate judgements on controversial issues which found their way into media fare. The belief was that if the press was allowed to spread uninformed information, it could trigger immediate or delayed reaction by ill-informed masses. “Why should those who have access to the mass media, who often are incapable of grasping the totality of the purpose of the state, who most often are not completely informed of the objectives of state policy – why should such persons, through their ignorance or stupidity, be permitted to threaten the success of that which has been determined to be for the good of all ?”(ibid) This projects an altruistic notion of government, that government decisions and actions are all for the public good and any query is a distraction. This explains the irritation of governments, across board, about criticism, as we shall see later even in the so-called model democracies.
The much the Authoritarians conceded was that “even if he (the ruler) is mistaken, his mistakes should be pointed out with the utmost respect”! (ibid) This demands that journalists relate to rulers with the deference of paternalism – whoever tells his father, to his face, that he is a liar, even if the father had not spoken truth. This disposition addresses the issue of irreverent criticism by many journalists which sometime attract the rage of government officials. Hegel derided the democratic notion that “all should participate in the business of the state” and disparaged freedom for the individual and, by extension, for the press. He asserted that freedom meant freedom of the individual to know that he is not free but that his actions are determined by the state, a proposition further articulated by von Treitschke to mean that true freedom is freedom within the state rather than freedom from the state. Freedom of the press from the state is considered as negative freedom, a position contested by Libertarian theorists of press freedom.
The Authoritarian press theory postulates that the masses are not interested in the affairs of state, but pre-occupied with existential issues and as such the media should not bother this level of people with political issues ”because of the danger of disturbing the masses or of causing them to develop an interest in that which they were incapable of comprehending”. Fascist Authoritarians were more blunt in their rejection of democracy while stressing the mental diminution of the masses. Italian fascist, Benito Mussolini, had declared : “Fascism combats the whole complex system of democratic ideology, and repudiates it, whether in its theoretical premises or in its practical application. Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation, and it affirms the immutable, beneficial and fruitful inequality of mankind, which can never be permanently leveled through the mere operation of a mechanical process such as universal suffrage”. As for the German fascist, Adolf Hitler, while conceding reaching out to the masses for purposes of mobilization either for war or any other cause, such communication must be of minimum intellectual content.
This according him, is because ‘’ the receptive power of the masses is very limited, their understanding small’’ pointing out that “on the other hand , they have a great power of forgetting”, and advising that “this being so, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few points”. I want to say that the All Progressives Congress (APC) propagandists for the 2015 presidential election understood this and coined the one-word mantra, “Change”, which the masses can easily grasp with the opposition now countering with the equally evocative “Change the change’’.
The tenets of the Soviet-Communist theory of the press accord substantially with the Authoritarian theory, the main point of departure being that while private media ownership is allowed under the authoritarian system, the media is an adjunct of party and state under the communists. But it also propagates that the media must be subservient to the dictates of state and that its freedom is freedom within the rules of the state.
Democracy And Libertarian Theory Of The Press.
Now to the twins of Democracy and Press Freedom as postulated under the Libertarian theory of the press. We all know about democracy and its simplistic definition as government of the people by the people and for the people. That, of course, is altruistic democracy, defined so simply as a sop to the masses to give them a complacent, sedative notion of being actively involved in public governance, even if vicariously. In practical terms, though, democracy is government by an enlarged oligarchy, for the oligarchy to serve the establishment order. The 2016 American Presidential election was a revolt against this oligarchy in the U.S. Freedom of the press under the Libertarian theory is freedom to publish freely and without prior restraint by the state. A cardinal role of the press in a democracy, which fundamentally separates it from the two other governance systems, is that of watchdog over government. The basic assumptions of the Libertarian theory of the press are that the people are sovereign – the power in a state – while elected officials are mere representatives with whom the people sign a social contract, periodically renewed or terminated via elections, based on performance rating by the electorate. 5.
Democracy, as a system of government, is a conflict prone, complex construct of checks and balances among three formal power points – the three arms of government – but yet with an enduring fear that welders of governmental power may become overbearing, hence the need for media to monitor government so that it does not exceed its powers and become a threat to the people. This implies that the intentions of government in a democracy are suspect, a recipe for conflict in managing government-people relationship and relationships with other constituencies in the state, including the media. In fact, authoritarian and communist press theorists see the libertarian theory as projecting governments in democracies as enemy institutions against which the people must be on defensive guard, a notion they claim is false.
Two major philosophers of Libertarian theory of the press were John Locke and John Milton. Locke developed the theory of Popular Sovereignty contending that the people constitute the centre of power and authority in a state, delegated to elected representatives under the Doctrine of Social Contract that allows the people to periodically renew or terminate such contracts based on the performance evaluation by the electorate. The press is given the role to mediate the people’s assessment of government performance through its public opinion function under this doctrine. Milton developed the concepts of the “ Open market place of ideas” to which there is free access for people to have their say without hindrance, however false, on the belief that under his other pet concept of ‘’ The self-righting process’’ such falsehood, in contestation with truth/reason in the ideas market, will be vanquished. He believed that man is a rational animal with capacity to distinguish between falsehood and truth. The state, he emphasized, should not interfere in this interaction of ideas in the market. The Western notion of freedom of the press is predicated on this Miltonian dictum of non government interference in the public sphere of ideas, thus creating a liberal, free-wheeling press, especially the American brand.
The Social Responsibility Theory Of The Press
The fourth theory of the press, the Social Responsibility theory, is a follow up reaction to the perceived excesses of the media under the Libertarian theory. Articulated in the 1947 report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press in the U.S., the Social Responsibility theory while sustaining the need for a free press sought for such freedom to be matched with responsible conduct by the press. Seven charges were leveled against the media in its practice of libertarian journalism. These include concentration of media ownership in few hands, resistance of press to change, its invasion of privacy and endangerment of public morals and paying more attention to the superficial and the sensational. The Commission, popularly known as The Hutchins Commission, named after its chairman Robert Hutchins, president of University of Chicago, listed five requirements for a responsible press. The first requirement expects the press to provide “a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning’’. It demands that the press must be accurate. Other requirements are that the press should serve as a forum of exchange of comment and criticism; project a representative picture of constituent groups in society; present and clarify the goals and values of society and provide full access to the day’s intelligence, that is, access to all. The Commission had observed the high professional ethics in medicine and law, recommending same to the press with this advisory : ‘’Specifically, the press should assume the responsibilities of common carriers of information and discussion, should experiment with high quality content…engage in vigorous mutual criticism and seek to improve the caliber of its personnel”. Today, 70 years after the Hutchins Commission’s report, the inadequacies of press performance, low quality of content and limitations of caliber of media personnel seem to have worsened ! The Social Responsibility theory posits that freedom of the press – freedom from external restraint – under the Libertarian theory is negative liberty where it leaves individuals to act according to their own dictates which could open the public to injurious information which poison the well of public opinion.
State Of Press Freedom In The U.S.
In the United States, freedom of the press is currently under severe stress following the seeming confrontation between President Donald Trump and the leadership of the mainstream media. The establishment media, an adjunct to the political oligarchy, which had initially dismissed Trump as a joke, had a rude awakening when he won the Republican presidential primaries and eventually the election, and have since been relentless in his negative portrayal, even as President, with Trump countering with equal venom. What we are witnessing today is a demystification of the American mainstream press, that can put its freedom on line, down the line, with serious consequences for journalism, globally. The mainstream American flagship media have breached two fundamental principles of responsible journalism – which are providing accurate and truthful report of events and shunning rabid partisanship by imbibing fairness in reporting. What are the facts supporting these assertions ? Media partisanship in favour of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, and against Trump, was overwhelming as shown by newspaper endorsements in the table below :
Newspaper endorsements of H. Clinton and D. Trump in 2016 U.S. election
Candidate Daily Weekly Mag. College International Total
1. Hillary Clinton 243 148 15 77 17 500
2. Donald Trump 20 6 0 0 2 28
Source : www.google.com
It is significant to note that 57 of the newspapers which endorsed Clinton were among the highest circulating newspapers in the U.S. while only two were of that high circulation for Trump. The newspapers which endorsed Clinton included The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, three of the icons of America’s print media establishment. The USA TODAY, the newspaper with the highest circulation in the U.S. – 3. 8 million daily – and printed simultaneously in 37 locations, specifically urged its readers not to vote for Trump. 8.
The CNN leads other TV networks in critical coverage of Trump. Columnist Jim Rutenberg had pointed out that the massive endorsements were distinguished by ‘’blunt condemnation’’ of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, and a ‘’save the Republic tone’’. ‘’Many newspapers which endorsed Clinton encouraged readers to vote for her primarily, if not solely, to prevent Trump from being elected president’’, he declared.
However, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the CNN have had to retract or correct stories about Trump, a development which Trump latched on to dub them fake news outlets. Fake news has now gained currency world wide. The New York Times, after the presidential election result was declared, had to write what was considered a public apology for its biased coverage, signed jointly by the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Dean Baquet : “After such an erratic and unpredictable election there are inevitable questions- Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support base among American voters ? …As we reflect on this week’s momentous result… we aim to rededicate ourselves to report America and the world honestly… striving always to understand all political perspectives’’. Rutenberg said of New York Times’ comedown ; ‘’ Having grown up at the Times, I am pained by its decline. More troubling, as the flagship of American journalism, it is giving all reporters a black eye’’.
In the case of the retracted CNN report, it had claimed that the article did not receive proper vetting ! Three people had to be fired. The lesson here is that to compromise editorial quality control in furthering a blind partisan agenda can be very costly. Such high profile goof by a global media icon cannot be good for press credibility and freedom of the press. It is instructive that the White House correspondent of CBS News, Major Garrett, could admit that Trump was only exploiting a long running disenchantment with the traditional media. ‘’The mainstream media has had a credibility problem for some time now. Politicians and ordinary people have ceased to believe it in the same way that they used to ‘’, he conceded.
But Trump, not letting up, have gone to dub CNN and the Networks as ‘’enemy of the people’’ and the new opposition. And in what must be a deliberate humbling of the mainstream media, President Trump bypasses them and goes on Twitter forcing the press icons to go and get the story there !
The Uk Situation
Freedom of the press faces challenges also in the UK where the Investigatory Powers Act became law on 29 November 2016 giving powers to about 50 individuals and government entities to monitor internet browsing of citizens and even hack into computers, without any warrant. Many civil society groups rose against the law. Executive Director, Open Rights group, Jim Killock, described the Investigatory Powers Act as a threat to investigative journalism and freedom of expression in the UK. ‘’ In just four years, the UK has fallen ten places in the World Press Freedom Index’’, he stated, pointing out that mass surveillance of citizens undermines democracy. British Security Minister, Ben Wallace, is insisting that such data gathering is needed to combat serious crime and in counter-terrorism.
Growing Threats To Freedom Of The Press
Freedom of the press in democratic societies is under threat, primarily from three sources – governments, criminals/crime cartels and not the least, journalists themselves. Governments in democratic societies, invoking the demands national security, feel justified to restrain freedom of the press with regard to ‘sensitive matters of state’ so as to supposedly prevent a breakdown of law and order and consequent descent to lawlessness. For government leaders and officials, even in democracies, infringement of national security has been broadened to literally include any disclosure not pleasing to government. These leaders and officials, rather than see themselves as agents of the people to whom they are accountable under democratic system of government, have increasingly assumed the authoritarian role of Plato’s all-knowing Philosopher kings and wise men, respectively, who must be beyond reproach by the ignorant masses and an ignorant, despised press. 10.
Many governments in democracies regard the press as irritant interlopers in public governance that must be kept at arms length when they are not being used to con the people into supporting a government agenda. And as in authoritarian monarchies and other dictatorships, governments in democratic societies increasingly expect the press to genuflect in its critique of public policies and actions, thus eroding a major tenet of democratic ideology that allows vibrant media interrogation of government. The executive arm of government is the most guilty of attempts to muzzle freedom of the press, which in some democracies is the last institution standing up to Presidents and Prime Ministers, who have generally emasculated the legislature and the judiciary. This has brought charges of imperial presidencies in some democracies, given the accumulation of power in the office of Head of Government. This is a contradiction in a democracy. It is therefore suggested that the two other arms of government, especially the legislature which has oversight functions on the executive, should be alive to their roles and clip the emergent ‘Supremo’ arrogance of presidents and prime ministers. Freedom of the press in democratic societies will be greatly enhanced if the legislature see an interrogatory press as an ally, complementing its oversight role on the executive. The catch here, though, is that the legislature, itself not being immune from media searchlight, may find it self-serving to align with the executive against the media. This leaves freedom of the press in a state of flux.
The negative impact of criminals and criminal gangs on freedom of the press is real. Investigative reporting of crimes and criminals put journalists at grave risk of violent reprisal from gangsters. This threat to press freedom by criminal kingpins is most rampant in South American countries, but obtains in many other democracies where a liberal judicial system grants generous bail terms to violent criminals who turn around to intimidate society, including journalists, thereby limiting the freedom of the press to report that area of the public sphere. In a chilling example of murderous intimidation of the press, a Mexican journalist, Gumaro Perez Aguilando was shot dead while attending his son’s school Christmas pageant.
However, journalists can significantly reduce the level of threat from criminals if criminal court proceedings are reported matter-of-factly, dispassionately without being perceived as being persecuting. A major flaw in crime reporting, especially in Nigeria and the U.S. is often the obvious bias, manifested in media trial, against criminal suspects. Not only is it that media trial does not enhance credibility of reporting, for violent extremists, it inflames vengeful anger which is unleashed on journalists.
It is my view that journalists, perhaps, constitute a major threat to freedom of the press in democratic societies as a result of blatant bias in reporting, particularly political reporting, inaccuracies and scurrilous opinion writing by columnists and editorial writers as well as inflammatory radio talk shows and phone-ins. The most important product of the press is News. Its credibility is predicated on fairness and accuracy. The sad reality today in many democratic nations is that much of media content cannot pass the integrity test of fairness and accuracy, thereby significantly diminishing the credibility and believability of media fare. Embarrassing errors of fact, grammar, spelling, poor sentence structure inundate media reports, manifesting absence of quality control in the news production process. Journalists must appreciate that freedom of the press is not given, per se, but must be earned. Freedom for the press is a vote of confidence in the press to perform in accordance with professional best practices. This has not often been the case, here in Nigeria or even in older democracies like Britain and the U.S. which facetiously pride themselves as the cradle of journalism. As Nigeria heads into another cycle of electioneering, the press will face daunting challenges in its reporting and analyses, both of which will be litmus test of whether it has learnt lessons on the need for accurate reporting and fairness in news analyses. The choices are for editors and media proprietors to make, with attendant consequences for survival of print media establishments and relevance of broadcast media. Already, the market is giving its verdict in declining subscriptions and tune-offs, forcing The Guardian of UK to publicly plead for donations from subscribers to stay afloat due to fall in revenue arising from declines in circulation and advertisement !
For freedom of the press to thrive in democratic societies, there are role expectations of government both as governing authority and media owner, journalists, private media owners and relevant constituencies.
People in government must wean themselves of arrogance of power, a sense of being a privileged class of infallibles for whom any criticism, however well founded, is regarded as provocative temerity. Elected representatives and their co-travelers, the bureaucrats, who share this arrogant trait, must be constantly reminded that government and its officials in a democracy are accountable to the people and not lords over the people, an aberrant psyche that this class of people have developed over the years. They are, by constitutional obligation, expected to diligently respond to views and opinions from the people and their intermediary institution, the press, or risk getting their contract terminated. It is immoral for elected officials to appropriate government owned media for their personal and political ends. It is shortsightedness and a measure of illiteracy of mass communication dynamics for government to obviously interfere with media editorial content such that the outlet loses credibility and patronage, thereby becoming practically useless as a platform to reach the people. State governors are more guilty of appropriating state-owned media for massaging their egos.
Journalists, as noted earlier, bear the greatest responsibility for freedom of the press. A major challenge for journalists is defining their roles in a democratic society, especially in an emergent democracy like Nigeria. The major shortcoming of journalists in Nigeria is lack of professionalism, which leads to lack of integrity and consequent low self esteem, masked in unfounded braggadocio, especially by print journalists. Apart from humbling errors, many media content – broadcast and print – lack depth and context. If the broadcast media can be spared, since its editorial content is generally in outline form, not so the print, particularly newspapers. Media content have overwhelming number of political stories, often of partisan, PR bent.
Depending on the ownership of the medium, the slant of a story can be predicted. I know people who stopped buying particular newspapers because of this predictable slant to stories. It neither enhances the credibility of such medium nor advance the freedom of the press.
The poor use of language generally, and the penchant for vitriolic verbiage, are some of the shortcomings of journalists, the latter a trait shared with the irreverent segment of the American press. The unnecessary combativeness of some journalists, sometime bordering on confrontation, particularly columnists, are negatives which add no value to the content and image of a media establishment. Such tendency needs to be discarded given the volatile state of the nation. Journalists are expected to mediate dialogues among contending groups in society, with fairness and enlightening information, not to take rabidly partisan positions that render their mediatory role futile. Stoking conflict, as it were, in a democratic system that is already wired for conflict, is a case of double jeopardy for the nation. In fact, one is tempted to say that Nigerian journalists are confused as to what their role should be in a democratic society. This raises a poser : what journalistic options can one ascribe to the Nigerian journalist : development journalism, advocacy journalism, adversarial journalism , chop-I-chop journalism, ‘follow-follow’ pack journalism or a mixed grill? It is up in the air.
Ownership factor cannot be an excuse for lack of professionalism. A professional journalist should have the courage of his/her conviction to persuade the proprietor about the correctness of his/her professional judgement on editorial matter and if this fails, should have the decency to quit. It won’t be the end of the world, but then such journalist would have earned the respect of the proprietor. It is a matter of integrity, which, sadly, is not that common among many practicing journalists. Journalists must be ready to fight for freedom of the press from various constituencies seeking to impose their will on the press, including proprietors. This leads me to the issue of training. Many so-called journalists lack academic/professional training for the job.
This breeds a feeling of job insecurity which cannot enhance confidence on the job. So, journalists must embrace self development.
Various constituencies – advertisers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non state actors – impinge on the freedom of the press. Advertisers erode freedom of the press in its editorial content with threat of advert withdrawal should any negative story be carried about the company or organization. NGOs seek to set agenda for the press in a decoy manner, either through training or conference grants, with the expectation of publicity for such NGO’s agenda, irrespective of whether or not the journalist believes in the cause. Journalists face a dilemma in this situation, particularly in media establishments which are unable to offer training for their journalists or sponsor their participation in conferences and workshops. Nevertheless, journalists need to decline NGO offers on matters which are offensive to cultural and economic sensitivities of the nation.
Freedom of the press can only apply when media organizations remain as thriving businesses. The reality today is that many media organizations, particularly newspapers and magazines, suffer declining circulation and advertisement revenue putting their survival at risk. An identified factor for this sorry state is the loss of audience. The press – newspapers houses – and even broadcast stations, should engage in audience surveys to identify their audiences and their content preferences with a view to producing need-based content. Media managements cannot continue to operate on the rule of the thumb.
However, with specific reference to government-owned media, government should de-emphasise commercialization of news as they are more of public service institutions so as to facilitate access to all segments of society. Members of the public in a democracy are entitled to easily accessible and affordable information about operations of government and activities in their communities to create an informed citizenry better equipped to contribute to public discourse.
The network system of Radio Nigeria and NTA are laudable developments in bringing public information organs closer to the people, but they need to be better funded to produce more local content for their target audiences. Discussion programmes and phone-ins on broadcast media provide a spontaneous feedback system that benefit both the governed and the governing authorities. Anchors, presenters and moderators, however, need to exercise greater control on these programmes to prevent their degenerating into platforms of abuse and defamation.
Journalists should embrace civic journalism that nurtures a dynamic, collaborative relationship with government and its agencies as against an obvious adversary relationship with government. This is not recommending a subservient media relationship with government but that journalists should restrain themselves from exercising media power in an abrasive, confrontational manner that seeks to put government to ridicule, thereby drawing baleful resistance. It is important to remind journalists that they are basically common carriers of information which the public are expected to use in an informed way in making demands on government and other constituencies which will be duly reported by the media. It should be worrisome to journalists, induced into confrontational investigative journalism, that they are generally left to carry the can, without public demonstrations of support, when they suffer persecution and jail terms from vengeful governments and their officials. In tragic cases, journalists lose their lives. The point being made is that journalists should not assume the roles of other people and groups. Constitutional provision, as in the case of Nigeria, granting liberty to the press for watchdog role over government without constitutional safeguard in the performance of such role, is empty liberty. Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act, 2011 signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan on 28th May, 2011 has not significantly improved freedom of the press in Nigeria. In fact, one of its provisions which requires a seven-day timeline in seeking information from government establishments can be an impediment in the fast-paced, deadline demands of news production.
Nigerian journalists must factor the cultural context into their reporting and advocacy, rather than imbibe, in totality, the precepts of Western notion of press freedom. As noted by Emma Daly, Director, Communication , Human Rights Watch, writing on the topic ‘Rising Hostility to Media Threatens Real Democracy’, exporting of press freedom concepts of ‘’Western’’ well established democracies to countries in the early stage of democratic transformation can compromise the creation of free press concepts that could be more consistent with their social and cultural context. That the press is critical to democracy is indisputable.
American legendary news anchor, Walter Cronkite, once famously declared : ‘’freedom of the press is not just important for democracy, it is democracy’’. Truly, the people’s right to know, mediated by the media, is core to democracy. The mediating media must be free to access necessary information. Governments and its overzealous officials cannot appropriate this right of the people and of the press under the guise of protecting national security. As the BBC told former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, during the Falklands War with Argentina in the early 1980s, government officials don’t have monopoly of patriotism.
Manuel Serrano, a Portuguese editor had articulated the primacy of press freedom in a democracy thus : ‘’ Press freedom is the means by which journalists hold power accountable. The day we stop using it, our democracies will become hollow concepts, devoid of substance. For there can be no democracy with a mute press’’. So, freedom of the press in democratic societies is not negotiable. I thank you all for your attention.
Dr. Bisi Olawunmi, Senior Lecturer, Department of Mass Communication, Bowen University, Iwo is former Washington Correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria and Fellow, Nigerian Guild of Editors.