Nigeria’s Dilemma, Dialectics of Media Freedoms

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Emmanuel Onwubiko

“If you look like you’re expecting a fight, you will get a fight” – Richard Templar (The Rules of People)

Smarting from a weeklong popular ‘uprising’ by the young people of Nigeria, angry at the “insufficiencies”, “inefficiencies” and “rudderless” and ‘directionless” leadership techniques of those who wield political power in Nigeria, which culminated in the street protests under the aegis of #ENDSARS, the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration, rather then appear reconciliatory, is poised for a needless fight with millions of Nigerian social media users.

Freedom of Expression

The Buhari’s government through the bellicose Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has in the last couples of years been fixated with the exercise by Nigerians in their millions of social media freedoms and how to curtail them, just as the government generally appears unfriendly to the media and has done everything under the sun to undermine the enjoyment by Nigerians of the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of expression as encapsulated in Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution.

That provision of the grundnorm provides: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”.

Twice, the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led government in Abuja, had through their ‘Foot Solders’ in the National Assembly sponsored bills targeted at whittling down media freedoms, but on those occasions, the popular will of the Nigerian people overwhelmingly moved against those brazen attempts to muzzle the press.

Undeterred by the failure to railroad those bad set of legislations against media freedoms into law through the legislative processes, the government has now began using the backdoors typical of dictators, by falling back on the aftermath of the violence unleashed by sponsored misguided criminal elements who disrupted the peaceful protests by the Youths of Nigeria, in a bid to check the exercise of the constitutional right of media freedoms and duty imposed by the Constitution on media workers by virtue of the Supreme Law on the running of a free press in Nigeria, as captured in Section 22 which states thus: “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 highlight the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people”.

Muzzling the Media

So, in the wake of the issues that came up during the nationwide #ENDSARS Protects, and especially the broadcast via the social media by some victims of the unprovoked violent attacks on peaceful protesters on October 20th, 2020 at the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos by the Army, the government slammed heavy sanctions against African Independent Television (AIT), Arise Television and Channels TV, for airing the violent attacks on the protesters, without editing out any aspect. What President Muhammadu Buhari tried to achieve by muzzling the media is nothing short of extinguishing the oxygen of democracy, because a democracy without the freedom of expression and media is a vulnerable democracy, states Sarah Nyakio is a well written essay.

She wrote as follows: “As the world celebrates the 26th edition of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2019, there will be many opportunities to reflect on the state of the practice of journalism. Media, since time immemorial, has played a crucial role in bringing the dream of democracy within reach, ensuring the realisation of a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Media platforms across the globe have played a crucial role in fostering a democratic and just society through independent, factual and well-investigated reporting. Despite the utility of media not being in question, government and an uninformed society have presented hurdles. Governments, in developed and developing countries, have opted to silence the media, more so, in situations where underhand activities thrive”.

The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi brought into sharp focus a harsh and sad reality, in which the media and its freedom is curtailed by forces that appear to have no limitations.

Crippled by internal and external factors, the media in Africa has fallen short of its objective to consistently champion the truth, and has inadvertently contributed to the state of failed nations across the continent.

Many African nations have endured authoritarian rule for decades, with such governments extending their tentacles into media operations. Exclusion, diminished space as witnessed in South Sudan where journalists have disappeared, and the media are weak and incapable of standing up for their rights. In Kenya, the government barred the media from broadcasting the opposition party’s self-appointment into the Presidency. Four TV channels were shut down at the start of 2018, for defying the President’s ban on live coverage of opposition leader, Raila Odinga’s mock inauguration as the people’s President.

Hatred for journalists has degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear, according to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders (RSF). The number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work freely and safely, continues to decline, while authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media.

Such governments have tried to limit freedom of expression, and to control information that might portray them in a negative light. In March, Burundi extended the ban on Voice of America and BBC.

Policies, such as a tax on social media in Uganda, have negatively impacted the media, as financial constraints have constrained the ease in which information is gathered and disseminated. The lack of financial independence, also leaves the media at the mercy of financiers. Financial instability has crippled media platforms and adversely affected aspects such as independence.

Governments whose media freedom credentials do not pass, muster together with a media illiterate society; have flowered the rise of impunity, lacklustre and an unreliable media. Society plays an important role, in ensuring accountability over the content delivered. An informed society can vet the legitimacy of various media sources, and by so doing, push aside false news. The public should rationally weigh in on the accuracy of published data, by condemning false news. The future of democratic pluralism and the defence of human rights, are dependent on the right of all citizens to receive reliable and useful information.

Importance of the Media

Channels such as African Uncensored and The Elephant, continue to pioneer pathways towards independent and credible reports that show that independent media are alive and well. Documentaries such as the ‘Profiteers’ and ‘Inspector Fisi’ have spearheaded the path towards a brighter tomorrow.

The media, despite the harsh conditions they are forced to operate in, still have the potential to independently spearhead the realisation of a democratic society. Such steps by channels such as Africa Uncensored, continue to breathe hope into the lungs of a society struggling to live in a not so democratic environment.

Today acts as a reminder to governments, on the need to respect their commitment to press freedom, and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom. Just as importantly, World Press Freedom Day, is a day of support for media who are targets for the restraint of press freedom. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story.

It is in all our interest to build societies that fight for freedom of expression, and that of the media. If in the next 10 or 20 years journalism diminishes as the State would prefer, it will undermine democracy and promote dictator governments.

When freedom of expression and safety of journalists are protected, the media will play an important role in preventing conflict and promoting democracy. SDG 16.10 on public access to information and fundamental freedoms, cannot be achieved without an independent media which can help in achieving all SDGs.

Legal Scholars have rightly held that, one key tenet of a liberal democracy, the dominant form of government today, is the separation of powers into the various independent branches of government, usually in the form of the legislature that makes the laws, a judiciary that interprets and applies the law, and an executive that carries out the administration and operations of governing.

These intellectuals argued that societies in the past were relatively small and citizens were able to engage face-to-face or via handwritten messages, in their deliberation and decision-making process.

Then they stated that as populations grew larger, participation in a democracy required mediation, that is communication is now mediated.

The scholars who wrote extensively about media and DEMOCRACY stated thus: “The earliest mass media was the newspaper, followed by the radio and television, and today, the Internet. Because of its emerging function as a watchdog that monitors the running of the nation by exposing excesses and corruption, and holding those in power accountable, the media was regarded as the fourth estate, supplementing the three branches of government by providing checks and balances”.

Also, these intellectuals are in agreement that the media also plays a more basic role, as a provider of information necessary for rational debate.

Hear them: “A healthy functioning democracy is predicated on the electorate making informed choices, and this in turn, rests on the quality of information that they receive. The media, as an institution, has for a long time enjoyed the position as a trusted primary source of news and information. Due to the enlarging population, it has become no longer possible for every citizen to participate directly in the democratic process. This led to the representational form of democracy, where representatives speak and act on behalf of individuals. The media, in this environment, took on the role of being a voice of the people to those in government”.

This evolution of the media into a place where the public can participate in the democratic process, prompted Dahlgrens (1995) to separate the mediated public sphere into four dimensions, in order to understand it better.

Still on the import of the media of mass communication and how the fourth estate of the realm advances democracy and human rights, scholars state that: “The media can be studied as an institution. Is the media independent or State owned? Do they serve the public’s interest, or a narrow range of interests belonging to the owners of the media? Are government funded and government regulated media institutions used for public service, or are they propaganda mouthpieces? When private corporations own the media, are they furthering their own commercial interests or the public’s?”

Then they responded that in the face of these developments, questions have also been raised about the media’s representation of the public. Because journalists, and by extension the media, are seen now as a representative of the public, questions are raised over whether there is a wide enough range of opinions to represent the public’s interests. As the media becomes increasingly commercial, there are also questions about the quality of the news and information, which may be compromised when the media focus more on entertainment to retain their audiences’ attention. Entertainment is often seen as emotive and the antithesis of rational discussion. There are also concerns that the role of the citizens are now reduced to a passive observer, whose only democratic function is to cast the final vote.

The Scholars said: “In the face of these developments, Dahlgren questions the general social structure that is now evolving, and the role media play. What are the relationships between the public and the existing social structures? How do the newer, alternative media forms fit into the present environment? What is the relationship between them, and the traditional media?”

“Finally, Dahlgren highlights the issues pertaining to the decline of face-to-face interaction. With the media taking over the space where people used to meet face-to-face, is the traditional social practice of people assembling together threatened? In the face of globalisation, people are more dispersed. Can the media mitigate the loss of this human link? Is it essential that this human link be maintained?”

Under this section, democratic legitimation through the formation of publics and public opinion is discussed. This section will clarify “who is the public?”, as well as an introduction of the fundamental model of Habermas’ public sphere.

The last two paragraphs ,already draw the attention on the media’s role in democracy. What role should the media ideally play, in your opinion?

In contrast, what role is the media fulfilling now? REFERENCE-: Dahlgren, P. (1995). Television and the Public Sphere. London: Sage. Dahlgren, P. (2001). The transformation of democracy. In Axford, B. & Huggins, R. (eds.). New Media and Politics. London: Sage. pp. 64-88, as assembled by scholars in www.opentextbc.ca.

Emmanuel Onwubiko, Head, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA)