THE stats are scary. The auguries are bleak; so bleak it bends the spirit. It lashes at the spine and makes you fret as a journalist. It makes you ask ‘who is next?’ Journalists have always known that their calling is a dangerous one. It’s like a walk in a minefield of explosives; you never know when you will step on the agent of death: the bomb! Last Wednesday, May 3, was the World Press Freedom Day. It’s a day journalists all over the world pause to take stock, reflect on their journey and on the impact of their exertions on humanity. I have never lived under any illusion that every section of humanity would desire free press. The journalist is a busybody. By training and practice, he is expected to uncover what men wanted covered. He is the one licensed to leak a secret. And nobody likes his secret exposed. The journalist is to make governments to account to the people. And if you fathom that every government ordinarily would wish to account to no one but itself, then you will appreciate that the journalist is a marked man; an unwanted gadfly who must not be allowed to poke his nose into the usually sleazy and slushy affairs of state.
The media is the chief promoter of civil liberties. With a strong wave of democracy sweeping across the nations of the world, you would expect that the press would become freer. You would expect that fewer journalists would become tenants in prisons and detention camps. Never! It does appear that some so-called democracies would rather have no press than tolerate the shadow of a journalist.
Let’s consider the statistics from the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ). In 2016, 259 journalists were jailed worldwide. The figure was 199 in 2015. In 2014 (221 journalists); 2013: 211; 2012: 232; 2011: 179; 2010: 145; 2009: 136; 2008: 125; 2007: 127; 2006: 134; 2005: 125; 2004: 122; 2003: 138; 2002: 139; 2001: 118; 2000: 81. Plot the graph; it is a progressive curve; meaning with more awareness of ‘democracy’, there is more incarceration of journalists. This is a cruel paradox.
Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey is the chief jailer of journalists with 81 of them hauled into prison in 2016. China comes next with 38 journalists; Egypt 25, Ethiopia 16; Nigeria jailed two journalists in 2016: Jones Abiri publisher of Weekly Source in Bayelsa State and Friday Ogungbemi, publisher of Policy and Lawmakers.
A cursory look at the list of journalists-jailer nations would reveal a particular trend. They are all developing (some underdeveloped) nations, or countries which morphed from unitary-socialism to pseudo-democracy. Eritrea, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Iran and Uzbekistan are prominent on the list. First world nations like America, Canada, France, Germany and the United Kingdom are missing from the list. So, why jail the journalist; why haul him to the gulag like a despicable criminal. It is because leaders are afraid of free speech; they would rather gag the pen of the ready writer than have him express himself. They gag the press when they have so much evil to hide; they muzzle the press so it does not expose their dirty dealings, criminal activities and the virulently vile words deployed in the language of governance. The fact that third world nations populate the list of journalist-jailing nations shows an inverse relationship between flourishing democracies and free press. Where the tenets of democracy are respected and honoured, there is free press; but where elections are rigged, humans slaughtered in primitive savagery, there is usually a tendency to gag the media.
Insular and quasi-democratic nations like North Korea, Qatar et al where the leaders rule with iron fist without regard for human rights often do not tolerate or promote press liberty let alone investigative journalism. The journalist’s right to know is abhorred. The good old virtue of reporting in the public interest is sacrificed on the altar of self-serving interest of the principality at the helm of government.
Yet, the world needs freedom of the press. And not just the global human community; every good leader needs the media to drive and propagate the leader’s vision for his people.
The United States of America is a model for the promotion of free press. America is not a perfect system but its leaders from old times realized that no human-centric development can happen without a free press. In 1787, a former US President, Thomas Jefferson, wrote that a free press is an important component of a functioning democracy. He is today famous for declaring that he would rather have “newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers. And in 1823, the same Jefferson wrote: “The only security of all is in a free press. …It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
Keeping the water of governance pure means we must ensure that the watchdog of society is not chained or gagged; that its hands are not tied in any way or its vision deliberately blurred by carefully choreographed state policies and intrusions into the life of the journalist.
Mr. John Bray, the US Consular-General in Nigeria in his remarks at a World Press Freedom Day programme in Lagos, last Wednesday said: In a democracy, the press has a duty to hold government leaders accountable to the people, holding up for scrutiny any abuses of power by elected officials. Their role as the government’s watchdog is key to the system of checks and balances that is fundamental to the smooth running of every democracy.
“Unfortunately, not all governments accept such public attention. According to Reporters without Borders, more than a third of the world’s people live in countries where there is no press freedom. Most of them are quasi democracies, with systemic deficiencies in the electoral process, or countries where there is no system of democracy at all. Working under such conditions, journalists risk everything to hold regimes accountable”. In Nigeria, we have seen governments show extreme intolerance for criticisms and abhorrence for free press. But in the face of such danger, the Nigerian journalist, more than his peers, in Africa has defied the barrel of the gun; dared the deadly cold cells of prisons and the lashing whips of overzealous security men to expose scams and scandals including orchestrated murders of innocent citizens by those paid with tax-payers’ money to protect them.
Bray attests to the gallantry of the Nigerian journalist. “Before my arrival in Nigeria four years ago I had read about the courage and sheer doggedness of the Nigerian press in the dark days of military dictatorship. In my time here, I have seen that you are still the voice of the forgotten. You have not lost your thirst for the truth or your willingness to go wherever a story leads you, thereby contributing to transparency, accountability, and good governance in your country”, he told the audience.
Yet as we clamour for more press freedom, journalists should also know that freedom comes with responsibility. Publishing or broadcasting the truth, fact-checked and verified, remains the strongest defence of the reporter. Journalists must do away with over-reliance on social media as source of news.
Mr. Bray put it most succinctly: “Check and double check your facts before you put out a story- this increases your personal credibility and the reliability of your platform. Be thorough in your research and strive to look for every side of a story before you hit ‘send’.”
Every democracy needs a free press. Those in authority in Nigeria should realize that it was the Nigerian media that birthed the democracy they are toying with today and the media cannot stand aloof while the same democracy is desecrated. James D. Wolfensohn, the ninth president of the World Bank Group while speaking to the World Press Freedom Committee in 1999, said: “A free press is not a luxury. A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change.”
Those who desire to see change in Nigeria must also desire a free, robust press. They go hand in hand.