The recent ranking of Nigeria as 115th out of 180 countries on 2020 World Press Freedom Index is not cheering. The index, compiled by an international non-governmental organisation, Reporters Sans Frontiéres (Reporters Without Borders), described Nigeria as a climate of permanent violence.
“Nigeria is now one of Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are often spied on, attacked, arbitrarily arrested or even killed,” the organisation noted. It added that two journalists were shot dead, one in July 2019 and another one in January 2020, while covering protests by Islamic Movement in Nigeria without any proper investigation to identify the culprits. This year’s ranking is even an improvement compared to last year’s which ranked Nigeria 120th. Across the world, the worst country is North Korea which ranked 180th. The best 10 countries are Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Switzerland, New Zealand and Portugal.
Invariably, journalists face daunting task in the discharge of their duties. A non-governmental organisation, the Press Emblem Campaign, says between March and April 2020, 55 journalists across 23 countries died from COVID-19 infection. About 250 others are languishing in prisons and detention centres in different parts of the world. This year alone, about seven media men have been killed in the world. In 2019, Reporters Without Borders said 49 journalists were killed and 57 others held hostage. Over the past 10 years, 941 journalists have been killed.
In Nigeria, the story is not different. In August 2019, publisher of the online Cross RiverWatch, Agba Jalingo, was arrested and charged with felony, terrorism and attempt to topple the Cross River State Government. Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River was angry with the journalist for writing an article querying the whereabouts of the N500 million allegedly released for floating the Cross River Microfinance Bank. Jalingo spent some months in detention.
Similarly, in May 2019, a freelance journalist and strong critic of Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, Steven Kefas, was arrested and dumped in Kaduna prison for about 162 days. His offence was making some critical comments against the state on Facebook. The publisher of the Bayelsa-based Weekly Source newspaper, Jones Abiri, spent two years (July 2016 to July 2018) in detention without trial.
These are sad reminders of the brutality journalists faced during military regimes in Nigeria. Then, newspapers were routinely shut down for months. Journalists were detained and tortured, some paid with their lives just for simply doing their duties. Bagauda Kaltho of The News magazine was a typical example. He died in detention in 1996 during Sani Abacha’s dictatorship.
Fortunately, this type of repression has not cowed the Nigerian media. The over 100 independent newspapers and other media outlets have played a significant role in nurturing the nation’s democracy. On the occasion of this year’s Press Freedom Day marked on May 3, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari acknowledged and hailed the good work of the Nigerian media, especially in the fight against COVID-19. The President, however, decried the damaging effects of fake news and hate news especially from the social media. “They don’t mean well for us, and no country can afford to close its eyes to the evil disinformation they can cause,” he regretted.
We appreciate the President’s concern. But it is imperative to note that one major way to stop disinformation is for government to encourage open society. Though there is the Freedom of Information law, politicians and government officials often deny journalists access to information. Sometimes, the 2015 cyber-crime law is arbitrarily used to prosecute journalists and bloggers.
Stifling of press freedom is clearly against the spirit of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). It is also against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Section 22 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended) spells out the role of the media in Nigeria’s democracy. Among others, the Constitution empowers the media to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people without any encumbrance. Section 39 (1) of the Constitution protects the freedom of expression in Nigeria.
Unfortunately, the judiciary, sometimes, allows itself to be used against this freedom of expression. There have been cases where detained journalists and activists were denied bail or given stringent bail conditions.
This notwithstanding, those who feel aggrieved against the media should always seek remedies through the laws of the land rather than resorting to extrajudicial measures. The law against libel is still available. On their part, the media should realise that there is no freedom without responsibility. They must crosscheck facts before publication and refrain from abusing their powers.
At all times, government should protect the freedom of the press. It should prevail on security agencies to refrain from harassing and intimidating media professionals. There cannot be a free society without a free press. As President Buhari, who has pledged to recommit himself to the ideals of press freedom, put it, democracy thrives better in an atmosphere of transparency. We fully agree with him.