Soyinka: Buhari Now Respects Freedom of Expression

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Wale Ajimotokan in Abuja

Nobel Laureate, Professor C has commended President Muhammadu Buhari, saying the latter now respects freedom of expression in Nigeria.

Soyinka, however, derided former President Olusegun Obasanjo as a hypocrite and the least worthy of former Heads of State to champion the political recovery process of the country.

He expressed the view during a special interview at the Gala Night of the International Press Institute’s 2018 World Congress in Abuja. He said Buhari, who declared the IPI congress open on Thursday, was now attempting, mostly successfully, to respect freedom of expression in Nigeria after he expressed intent to tamper with press freedom “not along ago”.

Soyinka congratulated Nigerian journalists for bringing the IPI congress to the country for the first time, saying the timing was remarkable.

“The timing is remarkable in the sense that IPI is being hosted by a nation whose current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is somebody I refer to as born-again Democrat. Not so long ago, as a military leader, he came out openly that he will tamper with the press freedom and he matched his words with deeds. He jailed a couple of journalists for sticking to the ethics of their profession.

“Here you are today, that same president is now actually trying very hard, and most successfully, to respect the freedom of expression. It goes to show that all is not lost in this nation,” he said

The 1986 Nobel Prize winner in Literature said he would soon launch a book where he articulated his claims and also made a call on the need for the younger generation to take over the reins of the country.

Soyinka stated, “I have brought out a publication which title is in Latin but it means ‘Who watches the Watchmen’. That publication is coming out simply because I will like to see new blood in government in this nation.

“I think this corrupt and hypocritical geriatrics should stop recycling themselves. They should stop trying to co-opt their former cronies to take over the reins of governance in this country.

“On July 4 at Freedom Park in Lagos, the pamphlet will be unveiled and will confront Obasanjo with his crimes of the past which incidentally are not being newly articulated.

“I say again that people are their own greatest enemies, because they forget very fast. Obasanjo is the greatest hypocritical leader this nation has ever produced.”

The Professor of Literature said contrary to claims by some people, he had “nothing personal against late Sani Abacha”, a former military Head of State.

Soyinka was responding to a questioner who wanted to know why he always displayed open hatred for Abacha.

He said, “You say I don’t leave Abacha alone even after death, it is not true. If I am walking through the street, and I see a structure raised in honour of a torturer, a murderer and a thief so recognised by the entire world that we are still chasing his loots all over the world, I cannot keep quiet.

“If I see a structure or monument in honour of that person, I have the responsibility to tell whoever did so that you cannot be serious with fighting corruption.”

Soyinka rated the Buhari administration 55 per cent in press freedom and freedom of speech.

To improve on the rating, he suggested elimination of “secret, subtle and self-censorship” as well as frequent submission to pressure.

“For instance, we cannot continue to hide under the subtle threat of – do not heat up the polity – even when we know that the polity deserved not just to be heated up, but to be fired.

“If we disregard that, which is a grey area, I am optimistic that we will in a couple of years attain 75 per cent guarantee in freedom of speech,” he said.

Soyinka also called on journalists to continue to discharge their role with courage and improve on investigative journalism. He added that the whistle blowing policy should be sustained so that the criminal elements will understand that the hiding zones are shrinking every day.

He also expressed hope about the future of press freedom in Nigeria.

During the interview anchored by IPI Executive Board Vice Chair Woosuk Kenneth Choi, Soyinka also offered a rousing defence of press freedom and free speech, blasting the “arrogance and presumption” of those who seek to control “the right of individuals to freedom of speech”.

He used the example of a fatwa issued several years earlier calling for the death of a female Nigerian journalist for offending religious sensibilities to illustrate what he described as the threat to press freedom emerging from “quasi-state” entities. “The government did nothing to protect her,” he said. “That is the way fascism arises, in the most unexpected places.”

Soyinka talked about the role of social media in the information ecosystem. While conceding social media’s disruptive potential, he emphasised that the Internet had been “responsible for some very valuable changes” and offered “new channels where people can propose alternatives” to the political, social and economic status quo.

This dynamic process, he said, could ultimately provide the tools to repel the growing efforts to smear independent media, including by U.S. President Donald Trump.

The Nobel laureate also expressed concern about attempts to criminalise so called hate speech in Nigeria and elsewhere without defining the term.

Buhari had previously singled out hate speech as a key challenge in Nigeria in his opening remarks to the congress. “In a world where the borderline between hate speech and free speech has become blurred, good journalism matters,” he said, in reference to the World Congress’s theme, “Why Good Journalism Matters”.

A long time victim of persecution and harassment by various Nigerian governments, Soyinka was asked by a member of the audience for his views on forgiving those who attacked journalists and others exercising their freedom of expression.

“Those who commit crimes have to forgive themselves,” he answered. “We go on doing our business”.