The International Press Centre (IPC), Lagos, is doing a great job. Promoted by one of Nigeria’s best, a journalist and activist, Lanre Arogundade, the centre has been consistent in its advocacy and capacity-building crusade to draw the attention of stakeholders in the Nigerian project to the state of the media. It has also continued to place a mirror before the media rousing media professionals on the need for self-criticism and self-regulation.
Last Wednesday, it killed several birds with one stone. It held a media roundtable to mark this year’s edition of the United Nation’s International Day to End Impunity (IDEI) for Crimes Against Journalists. The IDEI is actually November 2, every year. It’s a day set aside by the UN to draw global attention to the culture of impunity for criminal actions against the journalist. But for the Covid-19 pandemic, the event would have been fittingly marked on November 2. Same for the World Press Freedom Day held every May 3. Also known as World Press Day, it was set aside by the United Nations to raise awareness on the need for governments to respect the freedom of the press. Indeed press freedom is non-negotiable. It’s at the core of good governance. It’s the rotor that drives civil liberties, good corporate governance, justice, fairness and equity. A free press is the sine qua non for a free society.
The sanctity of free press is enshrined under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It points society to the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration – an eloquent statement of free press principles cobbled by African newspaper journalists in Windhoek in 1991.
Thus when last Wednesday, the IPC convened a roundtable, it’s fashioned as a forum to take participants through the hallway of journalists’ safety all through to the guarded terraces of free press. The event was successful on many fronts. First, it offered itself as a watering hole for the meeting of relevant media associations including the Nigerian Guild of Editors, the Nigerian Union of journalists, the academia, adjunct civil society organisations, among others.
The event presented participants an opportunity to drive a knife through the soul of journalism in Nigeria. The verdict was clear. The Nigerian state actors still work assiduously to gag the press. The Nigerian journalist is not safe, was never safe and there are no redeeming ensigns of safety in years to come. At least, not in the immediate intervening years.
But one must not discount the nature of journalism. By training and practice, journalism exposes the journalist as a busy-body and meddlesome interloper. The journalist is one who pries into other people’s businesses. His job is to uncover what someone or an institution has covered and does not want exposed. In this sense, the journalist is not wanted, especially among a people steeped in evil and a cocktail of misdemeanours. No busy-body is ever welcomed in a community where people do evil, commit crime, spruce up figures and where there is a culture of corruption. No journalist is welcomed in a place with a tradition to suppress state secret. Nigeria epitomizes such state. This explains why government after government get into overdrive to suppress free speech. And in their quest to achieve this, the media is usually the first target. Gag the media, you gag the people.
The result is Nigeria’s poor performance in upholding free speech over the years. Check the Global Press Freedom Index 2020 issued by Reporters Without Borders, Nigeria ranks ignominiously high (115th position out of 180 nations). Nigeria shares same space with Mexico (a country notorious for drug and corruption), Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, etc.
And you just wonder, why can’t Nigeria be like Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden, the top four nations in the world with best press freedom indices? Now, check out standard of living in these top four nations. They are the best places to live on earth. There, leadership is intentionally open and pro-people. In these four nations, poverty is a thing to be ashamed of because the people are well-governed.
It does appear there is a link between press freedom and prosperity. Where there is press freedom, there is a high probability that there will be prosperity for all, not for a few. A corollary is that where there is no press freedom, watch it, there is a festering culture of corruption. Again, Nigeria is a good example.
So, why does the Nigerian state suppress press freedom and undermine safety of journalists? The answers blow in the wind. Nigerian governments are corrupt and want to continue in their corrupt ways, unchecked! A historical perspective to this is our long years of military rule. Military governments are usually opaque, running as cabals and cliques. This opacity, unfortunately, has continued to thrive even in our democracy.
A society gets the type of leaders it deserves. This is true of Nigeria. The Nigerian society pampers the crooked and the corrupt. As a newspaper columnist of many years standing, I have had to answer queries like: Why are you always writing negative analysis about my state; write about your state and leave my governor alone. Sometimes, you get the stick because you are perceived to be against the President, Minister, Senator, etc because such a person is not from your ethnic group, or religious persuasion. Something akin to the Stockholm syndrome where those whose future is being stolen are the ones fighting hard to defend those plundering their common patrimony. Sadly, some of such comments have come from journalists.
The theme of this year’s IDEI is ‘Protect Journalists, Protect Truth.’ It’s deliberate and it’s most appropriate for the Nigerian situation. It makes more sense when weighed with the message of UN Secretary General, António Guterres, which says, “If we do not protect journalists, our ability to remain informed and make evidence-based decisions is severely hampered. When journalists cannot do their jobs in safety, we lose an important defence against the pandemic of misinformation and disinformation that has spread online.”
Nigerian state actors daily cry against the plague of fake news dished out on social media. Best way to mitigate this is to allow the press the latitude to freely operate. Erudite Professor Ayo Olukotun who sauced the event with his illuminating intervention on the encumbrances of journalists’ safety and press freedom has a nugget of advice for the Nigerian government and its actors: If there’s no difference in press freedom and safety of journalists under the military and what we now have under a democracy, then there’s no difference in government. He believes that free press is the light that stands between tyranny and constitutional democracy and any government that cannot offer this has failed being a people-oriented government. Then he drops the clincher: President Muhammadu Buhari and other Nigerian leaders must weigh themselves on the altar of history – “the same press you try to gag today will be around tomorrow to score you through the prism of history.” Lesson: No government has successfully gagged the media, especially a “vibrant, lively and audacious” media which is how Reporters Without Borders described the Nigerian media. It comes with dire consequences even for such government.