Pius Kene Nwankwo
Recent Cases of Abuse of Press and Speech Freedom Currently, Nigerian Constitution protects speech and press freedom, but the basic question remains: Is press and speech freedom actually in practice in Nigeria?
From the military era to the current democratic setting, Nigerian journalists and media houses have been under attack, for doing their legitimate jobs of reporting the activities of the government.
Agba Jalingo was subject of one of the recent cases of the government`s attack. Jalingo is the Nigerian-born online publisher of Cross River Watch, from Calabar in Cross River State. Jalingo was arrested on August 22, 2019, by Cross River State government. What was his crime? He was arrested for asking Prof. Ben Ayade, the governor of Cross River state, about the 500 million naira meant for Cross River Micro Finance bank.
According to a copy of his charge, he was accused of disturbance of public peace and treason for his writing which was published on July 12; and for social media posts. If found guilty, he may be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Also, he was charged with terrorism, for alleged plans to work with Sowore – an online journalist and convener of #RevolutionNow- and cult members, to unseat the governor.
When he was arrested, many individuals and organizations called on both the state and federal government to release him and discharge the case against him. Isa Sanusi, the Media Manager of Amnesty International Nigeria, called Jalingo’s arrest, “a stain on the image of Nigeria. His case shows just how far authorities can go to silence critics.”
Similarly, Angela Quintal, of Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) – a New York based nonprofit organization, that monitors press freedom globally, – said that, “authorities in Nigeria should release CrossRiverWatch publisher Agba Jalingo and drop the charges against him, release him from detention, and stop using the country`s state security laws to harass government critics.”
Amnesty International said that; “the flawed charges and sham trial of Agba Jalingo have exposed the inadequacies and manipulation of the Nigerian criminal justice system and an unacceptable contempt for human rights and the rule of law.”
Gov. Ayade in an interview he granted to news reporters after meeting with President Buhari, on January 27 at Abuja, denied being involved in the arrest and trial of Jalingo. He said on his official Facebook page that, “the case is between Agba Jalingo and the federal government of Nigeria,” because of his involvement with Sowore.
Of course, the public took it with a pinch of salt.
Whenever journalists ask a democratically elected government questions, what they expect are answers, not incarcerations.
In one of his interviews, Jalingo described some of his experiences while in prison to Arise News Tv. He was treated as a terrorist, always hand-cuffed and chained in the leg unless he wanted to use the restroom. Jalingo was asked to sign a document called Terms of Settlement to regain freedom.
The settlement was for Jalingo to accept the sum of hundred million naira, if he would stop criticizing the government. Of course, he didn’t sign it.
He was in detention for five months and was denied bail twice. Finally, Jalingo was granted bail on February 13, 2020, by Justice Sule Shuaibu of the Federal High Court in Calabar.
Omoleye Sowore is another example of media attack by Nigerian government. Sowore, a U.S based Nigerian journalist, was arrested on August 2, 2019, by the Department of State Security Service (DSS), for organizing a nationwide protest against the federal government.”All that is needed for a #Revolution is for the oppressed to choose a date they desire for liberty, not subjected to the approval of the oppressor,” he tweeted.
Sowore had founded a political party, the African Action Congress (AAC), was their presidential flag bearer in 2019 general elections.
Sowore, who lived with his family in New Jersey, is the owner of Sahara Reporters, an online media platform. He started a movement called #RevolutionNow, which demanded an end to what he called certain evils in the government, like anti-people economic policies; and special privileges for ruling class. Instead, he called for, a return of political power to the public.Sowore was arrested by the DSS on the early hours of August 3, 2019, in his hotel room, ahead of a planned nationwide #RevolutionNow protest on August 5. He was charged with“conspiracy to commit treason and insulting President Muhammadu Buhari.”Twice, he was granted bail by two different courts, but the DSS ignored the court orders. In the first week of December, he was released; but rearrested barely 24 hours later while he was still inside the court, before a judge.
It took the interventions of some international organizations and persons; for the government to release him on December 24.“Sahara Reporters must be permitted to keep the Nigerian public informed without intimidation,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator.
Two New Jersey Senators condemned the government`s act. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey said that, for Nigerian government to ignore two courts orders, led him to conclude that; “either Nigeria no longer respects the rule of law or President Buhari is woefully out of touch with what his agents are doing in his name.”
Sen. Cory Booker said that the re-arrest of Sowore is a “shocking affront” on Nigeria`s rule of law.“Nigeria must cease its dangerous attacks on freedom of expression,” he said.
Here is the link to Booker`s press briefing: Sowore’s Re-arrest : Expect Sanctions Soon, US Senators Tell Buhari
Sowore’s Re-arrest : Expect Sanctions Soon, US Senators Tell Buhari
Seun Bakare, Programmes Manager of Amnesty International Nigeria, issued a statement, saying, “We consider Sowore, Jalingo and Bakare to be prisoners of conscience detained solely for exercising their human rights. The Nigerian authorities must drop all charges against them and release them immediately and unconditionally.”
Hegelian Dialectical Method
Nigerian government should not be afraid of criticisms. They are part of the democratic process. The media operate as the fourth arm of the government; hence, they should be independent. Until, the government begins to appreciate the job of the media and stops abusing them, the media space will continue to shrink. If speech and press freedom are fully respected, it will be a good test for democracy.
The dialectical method of thesis, antithesis and synthesis of German philosopher, George Hegel (August 27 1770-November 14 1831), should be adopted and put into existence by the Nigerian government. Hegel proposed A dialectic method of historical and philosophical progress that postulates (1) a beginning proposition called a thesis, (2) a negation of that thesis called the antithesis, and (3) a synthesis whereby the two conflicting ideas are reconciled to form a new proposition. Although this method is commonly referred to as the Hegelian dialectic, Hegel attributed the terminology to Immanuel Kant.
Applying this to Nigerian setting, the Nigerian government should be open to criticisms, especially constructive criticisms from journalists. Rather than labeling journalists as enemies of government, the government should welcome their criticisms, blend them with theirs and find a better policy for the society. The media should not be seen as enemies of the government. On the other hand, journalists and media houses should be ethical and investigative while doing their jobs. But how can they be ethical in a country that does not respect democratic principles? How can they be ethical and investigative in a country where there is no conducive atmosphere for proper reporting?
Nigerian Constitution and other Documents
Interestingly, two sections in Nigerian Constitution protect the freedom of speech and press. Chapter Four, section 39 (1) of the Nigerian Constitution states, “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”Its subsection two states that, “Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions: Provided that no person, other than the Government of the Federation or of a State or any person or body authorized by the President on the fulfillment of conditions laid down by an Act of the National Assembly, shall own, establish or operate a television or wireless broadcasting station for, any purpose whatsoever.”
The implication of the subsection (1) is that while individuals reserved the right to their opinions; they are entitled to express these views to the public. And subsection (2) complements it by adding that individuals can express their thoughts to the public through any medium authorized by the President or any person or body designated.
Similarly, Chapter two, section 22 of Nigerian Constitution, states that, “the press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
The import of this section is that the press has a major role to play both in the government and to the public. The press should be able to uphold the objectives of the Constitution; by doing so they (press) uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people. Simply put, the press should be a watchdog to the government. When Public servants are reckless with powers given to them, the public expects the press to step in, and put them back on the right track.
Another major support to speech and press freedom is the Bill on the Freedom of Information Act (FIA), which was assented to by President Goodluck Jonathan, on May 28, 2011. The no 1, section (1) of the bill, states that, “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other Act, law or regulation, the right of any person to access or request information, whether or not contained in any written form, which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution howsoever, is established.”
This is an Act that grants permission to information held by public authorities. In a country where this Act is functional, the citizens can request for information. Age, sex and size are not an obstacle. With this, the press or any person has right to demand for information from any government agency. For instance, individuals can demand for the proceedings of the National Assembly.
Clearly, the above quotes support the speech and press freedom. They encouraged individuals to demand for their rights to express their thoughts, likewise, express them through any means. But the basic questions are: Are these quotes truly applied? Are sections 22 and 39 of the Nigerian Constitution, enough to guarantee press freedom? For me, the answer is no, something should be added to it. 1st Amendment of United States has it that, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”
Something like this should be adapted to the Nigerian Constitution.
The fact here is, in principle, the Constitution encourages speech and press freedom, but in praxis, we see the opposite. The question of press freedom is respected, only when you overlooked the government abuse of power. But, when you attempt to swim against the current, you will be tagged an enemy of the government, hence, your reporting is illegal.
The Committee to Project Journalists, once observed that, “although a new Constitution was promulgated on May 5 1999, it was modeled largely after 1979 Constitution (Military Regime) and offered the media no specific protection.” The group noted that 20 anti-media decrees were identified in the amended Nigeria Constitution of 1999.
This calls for a serious review of this section of the Constitution, to guarantee the safety of the press who struggle to help the public to participate in policy decisions.
Furthermore, the Law of Defamation as seen in the Nigerian Criminal Code is defined as, “a matter that is likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or likely to damage any person in his profession or trade by an injury to his reputation.” Thus, the main task of Law of Defamation is to protect individual`s reputation.
Inasmuch as defamation is something positive, government has twisted its meaning to their favor. Defamation is interpreted by government as treason, disrespect, non-patriotic, causing confusion in the land etc. This means that, any journalist who criticized the government or exposed to the public, some malpractices in government, would be labelled with one or more charges named above – like seen in the cases of Jalingo and Sowore.
Nigerian government have used the case of defamation, to arrest and abuse journalists, who are out there doing their legitimate jobs, helping the public to make better decision in public policies.
Defamation should be one of the guiding stars to journalists, it will help them to stay in line. But the Nigerian government has turned it to their own advantage and twisted its meaning to suit and protects them against exposure by journalists.
Hate Speech and Social Media Bills
Unfortunately, two bills are currently in the process of being passed into law. And if that happens, will shrink the little press and speech freedom space left. They are: National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech, and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and other Related Offences. The Hate Speech bill was sponsored by Sen. Sabi Abdullahi. This bill states that anyone found guilty of hate speech is liable to life imprisonment and if it leads to the death of another, the guilty party should be sentenced to death by hanging. On the other hand, the Social Media bill was sponsored by Sen. Sani Musa. This bill is meant to curb the spread of fake news on social media. Interestingly, we already have Cybercrime Act 2015, which covered these bills. So, why trying to introduce these bills? Why the multiplication of bills?
Apparently, these bills were not widely accepted by the House, as they met some opposition from senators like Chimaroke Nnamani of Enugu East Senatorial District and even members of the House of Representatives, like Dachung Bagos of Plateau State, condemned their effects on our democracy.
These bills are meant to criminalize some journalists who criticized and exposed government malpractices, with punitive measures like fines and imprisonment up to three years for Social Media bill, and life sentencing or death penalty for hate speech. What a wicked and crazy society!
Seun Bakare, Programmes Manager, Amnesty International Nigeria, said on December 4, 2019, that, “social media is one of the last remaining places where Nigerians can express their opinions freely.” These bills supported by Nigerian government, is just an attempt to punish social media users, for expressing their right to free speech.
Time has come for sections 22 and 39 of Nigerian Constitution to be reviewed. The review should be done in such a way that lawmakers will not tamper with the speech and press freedom, by introducing any bill that will hinder press freedom. The United States First Amendment has it that, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press,” something like this could be used to review the two sections mentioned earlier. If this is done, bills like Hate Speech will not come up.
Finally, the attitude of government towards press and speech freedom have continued to reflect on the position of Nigeria in the yearly index ranking of Reporters without Borders – an organization that present data of press freedom in 180 countries. Nigeria`s position for 2020 index ranking is 115 out of 180 countries. Government should do something now.
Pius Nwankwo is a Catholic priest of Onitsha Archdiocese, Nigeria. Currently, he is pursuing his M.F.A in Digital Media at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, United States of America.