Press freedom under democracy

By Ayomide Agbaje

This story readily comes to mind. That of a fierce and fine Nigerian journalist, Dele Giwa, who faced several assaults from the Nigerian government for always speaking the truth to power, and was subsequently killed with a mail bomb on October 19, 1987. It is still fresh in our memories like the early morning dew. We may never have forgotten such a tragic and momentous event — and in case you have, I hope I have refreshed your mind on it a bit This event, coupled with its seemingly conspired intrigues, de facto, points out to the long-standing state of the Press and the victimization of journalists in Nigeria. Well, one may be tempted to safely conclude that the deplorable act happened largely because we were at that time under the military regime who wields power without leniency on its perceived dissident elements. But I disagree. One must also admit, it is, however, still the same narrative — even under democracy that we are now and that we claim to have enjoyed over the past 20 years. Sadly, more journalists continue to get victimized, arrested and jailed during the course of carrying out their duties. Indeed a rather disturbing narrative this has been for the Press!
Let’s take a few instances. In 2017, over 22 attacks were recorded, Premium Times’ head office in Abuja was raided. In fact, the Publisher of the media house, Dapo Olorunyomi with Evelyn Okakwu, the online paper’s Judiciary correspondent were arrested on the 19th of January, 2017 over a story exposing the irregularities of the Nigerian Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai. Worse still, there is also the case of one Samuel Ogundipe of the Premium Times who was unjustly detained by the DSS for failing to reveal the source of his news report. Even when one of the foremost investigative journalists in Nigeria did an undercover investigation to reveal the rots and corruption in our criminal justice system, there were allegedly plans to arrest him and charge him for espionage, thereby forcing him into exile. And just more recently, two young Nigerian journalists, Olufemi Alfred and Gidado Yushau Shuaib were charged to court by the police over an investigative report exposing a Kwara agro factory where the smoking of Indian hemp is legalized. These events, inter alia, cannot but glaringly mirror the plight of the Nigerian journalist under the democratic state to a considerable extent. And by implication, the ripple effect is already having its perspicuous toll on the starched fabric of our democracy, which is fast-becoming soiled and dampened not knowing what becomes its fate as laundry beckons. If this is not a democracy sitting comfortably on the keg of gunpowder, then I wonder what is?
As a matter of fact, the reason for the truculent victimization of journalists cannot be largely disconnected from the proclivity of those in the corridors of power whose goodwill are often affected by the stands and exposé of the press against oppression and injustice in the society. This is within no province of doubt. Journalists are and will always be responsible to the masses — the ones they are committed to serving.
It is crystal clear that freedom of the press under democracy is nothing to write home about. Journalism is almost becoming an endangered profession. It’s a whole kettle of fish. We are in a country where there is no system that prompts the accountability of governments. Even though it is enshrined in the Section 22 of the sacrosanct constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigerian (1999 as amended) that “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter, and always uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
Moving on, to uplift the press under democracy, we need to have a safe environment for journalists to practise. There needs to be an independent commission to protect journalists who maintain the integrity of their work, and also stand up for them during times of attacks and precarious situations. A good example is the Committee to Protects Journalists (CPJ) that is committed to promoting press freedom worldwide by defending the rights of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisals.
Furthermore, ipso facto, there is an exigent need for a press that’s free from state control and fearless. A press that not only always serves as the watchdogs of authorities, but also as the conscience of the people and agents of societal and national change. A press that strengthens and sustains democracy. And most importantly, a press that is objective in keeping the public informed on critical issues and exposing the rot in our institutional systems through news reports and investigative stories — with sustainable impacts in the end view. I mean, in a nutshell and the actual point of fact, a press that is not only truly free, but also indeed free from fake news, alternative facts and propagandas that are injurious to the society. I believe this is achievable under democracy, with little or even no modicum of doubt. And as such, it should no longer be a question of “if” but “when.” Whether it would take long or not, the narratives have to really change!
In conclusion, indulge me to borrow a leaf of wisdom from the marbled words of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The freedom of conscience, of education, of speech, of assembly are among the very fundamentals of democracy, and all of them would be nullified should freedom of the press ever be successfully challenged. Thus, it is high time — and of high paramountcy — we averted our consciousness to the fact that the press has a very critical role in democracy. And its freedom to play this role should not be limited in any way, I would daresay in solidarity. But in the bargain, if at all there is anything else to add as a tuppence, the press should always cinch to be judicious in exercising her mandate in defense of the truth, the people and the society.
P.S: This piece earned the writer, Agbaje Ayomide, the 1st place in the maiden edition of the International Campus Journalism Conference Essay Competition 2020 proudly supported by the Opera News Hub Nigeria.

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