It is one of the more thoughtful decisions of the United Nations (UN) to institute the World Press Day to commemorate Press Freedom and to remind humanity of the need for the freedom of expression, and why the plurality of opinions is the most efficient system to reflect the truth about society and the necessity and value of independent media to reflect the reality of communities. President Muhammadu Buhari, in a goodwill message for the occasion, called on Nigerian journalists to exercise press freedom responsibly. He noted that freedom of the press was an irreducible minimum in any flourishing democracy. He rejected the notion that everything is permitted because there must be rules governing performance. But he also said that the media must be sensitive to what the country is going through and anything that would exacerbate the situation and further inflame passions and emotions should be avoided.
President Buhari’s sentiments seem well appreciated by the Nigerian media who never forgot that when he was a military dictator in the early 1980s, he did not believe in the freedom of the press and that he was the architect of the notorious Decree No. 4 of 1984 (The Protection of Public Officers Against False Accusation) the most draconian press law ever enacted in Nigerian history. Two journalists were jailed as a result, and truth was no defence. As president in a democracy, Buhari has managed to restrain his impulses to some extent, but the ambivalence is always present and, sometimes, noticeable in the many quarrels his officials have had with members of the press. The country has always been confronted with the dilemma of operating a democracy with too few democrats seeing that we are in an environment where any criticism, no matter how innocuous, is considered destructive and a critic is not just a critic but an enemy.
We do not underestimate the influence of our cultural backgrounds of theocracy, monarchy, even the autocratic power of the elders, but 60 years after independence, it is often shocking to hear that a newspaper correspondent has been imprisoned in Owerri because he insulted the governor or, actually, someone in the governor’s office felt that a report was disrespectful of the governor. The Nigerian Press has seen enough of attempts to teach journalists a lesson through abuse of power, the most laughable being the Amachree case in the 1970s when the Rivers State correspondent’s head was shaved with broken bottles before he was locked up, because he reported a teachers’ strike on the governor’s birthday. It appears laughable now when it is compared to what happened to Mr. Dele Giwa in the 1980s. Victimising journalists for writing those drafts of history without grievous errors of fact or malice or deliberate mischief undermines democracy. Frequently the catch-all offence is when a reporter is held by Department of State Services (DSS) because his report has been deemed to be prejudicial to state security. Thus national security is hoisted up in the sky and given a transcendental status and used as a cover to perpetrate grievous human right violations. The other day a TV station was fined the prohibitive sum of N5 million, a sum capable of sinking a media organisation with meager resources in an economy that tethers between recession and recovery. Its offence was that it interviewed an obscure official of an illegal organisation.
We cannot but continue to plead for a much better understanding of the functions of the press in a democracy. It is not merely that the Press is asked by the Constitution (Section 22) to “uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people;” it is that there is still a residue of a fallacious notion that the freedom of the press means freedom for journalists whereas it actually means freedom for all citizens.
We appeal to Nigerians to give Nigerian journalists their due, to treat them with some respect and refrain from trying to hurt or ridicule them. The Nigerian press has one of the most enviable records in patriotism and commitment throughout Nigerian history considering the kind of men it had in its fold, including Herbert Macaulay, John Payne Jackson, Ernest Ikoli, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Anthony Enahoro. The memory of these men and those like them is an inspiration.
The Nigerian press has never had it easy at any point in its history. Now, it has to contend not with colonialists but neo-fascists who would want death penalty for “hate speech” and life imprisonment for “fake news.” They forget we have had the same argumentation in the House of Representatives during the debate over what became the Newspaper Amendment Act of 1964. The contest has always been between fear and hope, with those given to fear recommending the most draconian measures. However, the future tends to be won by hope. We stand with hope.