Press Freedom And Democracy

This story readily comes to mind. That of a fierce and fine Nigerian journalist, Dele Giwa, who faced several assaults from the Nigerian government for always speaking the truth to power, and was subsequently killed with a mail bomb on October 19, 1987. It is still fresh in our memories. We may never have forgotten such a tragic and momentous event. This event, coupled with its seemingly conspired intrigues, de facto, points to the long-standing state of the press and the victimization of journalists in Nigeria. Well, one may be tempted to safely conclude that the deplorable act happened largely because we were at that time under the military regime which wields power without leniency on its perceived dissident elements. But I disagree. One must also admit it is, however, still the same narrative — even under democracy that we are now in and that we claim to have enjoyed over the past 20 years. Sadly, more journalists continue to get victimized, arrested and jailed during the course of carrying out their duties. Indeed a rather disturbing narrative this has been for the Press!

Let’s take a few instances. In 2017, over 22 attacks were recorded. Premium Times’ head office in Abuja was raided. In fact, the Publisher of the media house, Dapo Olorunyomi with Evelyn Okakwu, the online paper’s Judiciary correspondent were arrested on the 19th of January, 2017 over a story exposing the irregularities of the Nigerian Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai. Worse still, there is also the case of one Samuel Ogundipe of the Premium Times who was unjustly detained by the DSS for failing to reveal the source of his news report. Even when one of the foremost investigative journalists in Nigeria did an undercover investigation to reveal the rots and corruption in our criminal justice system, there were allegedly plans to arrest him and charge him for espionage, thereby forcing him into exile. And just more recently, two young Nigerian journalists, Olufemi Alfred and Gidado Yushau Shuaib were charged to court by the police over an investigative report exposing a Kwara agro factory where the smoking of Indian hemp is legalized. These events, inter alia, cannot but glaringly mirror the plight of the Nigerian journalist under the democratic state to a considerable extent. And by implication, the ripple effect is already having its toll on the starched fabric of our democracy. If this is not a democracy sitting comfortably on the keg of gunpowder, then I wonder what is.

As a matter of fact, the reason for the truculent victimization of journalists cannot be largely disconnected from the proclivity of those in the corridors of power whose goodwill are often affected by the stands and exposé of the press against oppression and injustice in the society. This is within no province of doubt. Journalists are and will always be responsible to the masses — the ones they are committed to serving.

It is crystal clear that freedom of the press under democracy is nothing to write home about. Journalism is almost becoming an endangered profession. We are in a country where there is no system that prompts the accountability of governments. Even though it is enshrined in the Section 22 of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigerian (1999 as amended) that “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter, and always uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”

Moving on, to uplift the press under democracy, we need to have a safe environment for journalists to practice. There needs to be an independent commission to protect journalists who maintain the integrity of their work, and also stand up for them during times of attacks and precarious situations. A good example is the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that is committed to promoting press freedom worldwide by defending the rights of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisals. In addition, this organization also advocates the rights of journalists to access independent sources of information and protect them if need be. I’m view of the foregoing, this will surely go a very long way in keeping in check the incessant assaults of those in the fourth estate of the realm, and mount pressure on the government to desist from such acts. If there is indeed no conducive environment for effective practice of journalism, at least, there should be a body in place to guard their interests, as they continue to serve the interest of the people.

Furthermore, ipso facto, there is an exigent need for a press that’s free from state control and fearless. A press that not only always serve as the watchdogs of authorities, but also as the conscience of the people and agents of societal and national change; a press that strengthens and sustains democracy and most importantly, a press that is objective in keeping the public informed on critical issues and exposing the rot in our institutional systems through news reports and investigative stories — with sustainable impacts in the end view.
In conclusion, indulge me to borrow a leaf of wisdom from the marbled words of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The freedom of conscience, of education, of speech, of assembly are among the very fundamentals of democracy, and all of them would be nullified should freedom of the press ever be successfully challenged. Thus, it is high time — we averted our consciousness to the fact that the press has a very critical role in democracy. And its freedom to play this role should not be limited in any way.
Ayomide Agbaje,

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