HARD TIMES FOR MEDIA FREEDOM
A major relic of the colonial era in Nigeria was the use of some draconian statutes to suppress press freedom and freedom of expression basically because of the inherent power of the media of mass communication to serve as effective tool for mass mobilization against the colonialists seen largely as oppressors.
The then colonial masters became jittery when pro-independence campaigners like Alvan Ikoku, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ojike Mbonu, Kingsley Mbadiwe; and Obafemi Awolowo to mention only but a few, began gaining control of the local media in which they used it so well to preach nationalism and to enlighten the people on the essence of self government.
Azikiwe who was schooled in the United States of America returned during the colonial era to establish a chain of newspapers including the Nigerian Pilot that generated a lot of interest across the then British colony in West Africa. Awolowo was instrumental to the establishment of television stations in Nigeria and he was behind the establishment of Tribune group of newspapers that remains the longest serving privately published print medium in Nigeria.
From a work titled “African Nationalism and the struggle for freedom” published in http://www.pearsonhighered.com/we were told the simple truth why nationalism and anything related to it evoked fear in the ruling colonial elites before Nigeria gained independence in 1960.
According to this social historian “African nationalism is a subjective feeling of kingship or affinity shared by people of African descent. It is a feeling based on shared cultural norms, traditional institutions, racial heritage and a common historical experience”.
Soon after Nigeria gained political independence thanks to the vibrancy of the activities of locally run print media among other patriotic activities, the military struck and controlled the machinery of governance for nearly forty years and the first casualty was media freedom. The common denominator that linked these military dictators of post- independence Nigeria with the colonial rulers, who retreated back to Britain from Nigeria on 1st October 1960, was the resort to the use of many draconian anti-press laws left behind by the Colonialists to suppress media freedom.
The history of how the then General Ibrahim Babangida's regime persecuted and imprisoned some three Journalists for alleged treason is a notorious fact even as one of Nigeria's famous journalists Mr. Dele Giwa was killed by suspected/alleged State sponsored killer gang at that time for his fearless journalism practice which gave the military dictators sleepless nights.
In 1999 when civilian rule returned up until now, the expectation of most Nigerians is that freedom of the media and other fundamental freedoms enshrined in the constitution would be jealously guided, protected and promoted.
But the opposite seems to be the case especially with the current administration of President Goodluck Jonathan in which several instances of press antagonism from the armed security operatives has assumed frightening dimension.
Apart from the Nigeria police Force and the State Security Services (SSS), the federal government under the current dispensation has been accused of manipulating the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the National film and video censors Board (NFVCB) to suppress media freedom as against several constitutional provisions which ought to serve as safeguards against these types of primitive attacks by the Nigerian State against the media.
Before delving into the historical account of the many brutal encounters the media practitioners of different media houses have experienced over the last few months in the hands of the security agents, I will hereby state some of the fundamental constitutional provisions that specifically protects media freedoms.
Section 22 of the 1999 constitution (as amended) provides thus; “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”.
Chapter four of the constitution is replete with related provisions in which the basic freedoms of expression and the media are promulgated and are therefore binding on government to protect.
For the specific purpose of this reflection, section 39 of the constitution comes in handy and will remain relevant. That section aforementioned provides thus; “(1) every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference'.
But under the current dispensation, three ugly events have happened which signpost hard times for media freedom in Nigeria similar to the experiences of the founding fathers of journalism prior to the emergence of independence.
On Tuesday February 12th 2013, The Guardian of United Kingdom ran a story of the prosecution by the Nigerian police of three Kano-based Journalists for allegedly inciting murders of polio workers.
The reporters who anchored a live program on the privately owned Wazobia Fm radio Station in Kano State were picked up and charged to court for airing a program that was critical to the polio vaccination program of the federal government only hours before nine polio vaccinators were gruesomely murdered.
The killing of the nine women volunteers conducting the polio vaccination program in Kano state received national condemnation from a cross segments of Nigerians particularly because of the ugly fact that Nigeria is one of only three remaining countries in the World alongside war -torn Pakistan and Afghanistan where the wild polio still afflict children.
The National Broadcasting commission [NBC] swiftly clamped down on the Wazobia Fm radio station in Kano for allowing the airing of this program which linked the polio vaccination program wrongly with a so-called sinister plot of the Western powers to depopulate Northern Nigeria – whatever that means!
Significantly, the British media house-The Guardian widely interpreted the prosecution of these three reporters as another instance of government persecution of the press.
Opinion, is however split on this particular case, because of the obvious fact that precious lives of innocent women volunteers were ruthlessly wasted by terrorists.
The guardian of Britain saw the prosecution of the three Kano journalists in the following way; “The allegations against the journalists working for Wazobia FM illustrate the continuing struggle over free speech in Nigeria, a nation that only came out of military rule in 1999 and where simply taking photographs on the street can get a person arrested. Attacks on journalists remain common and unsolved killings of reporters still haunt the country.”
The three journalists so charged but later granted bail are Suleiman Gama, producer of the Hausa program; Sandar Girma, and Yakubu Musa; also, Mr. Mubarak Malam, a reporter with the same Wazobia Fm was also quizzed by the police.
On March 10th 2013, local media reported the arrest from the state owned radio Nigeria station in Kaduna by the Kaduna police command of the opposition Senator from Zamfara state and former governor of that North West State of Zamfara – Mr. Ahmed Sani Yerima.
Senator Yerima, who was a guest was on the radio programme was reported to have said if the Independent National Electoral Commission failed to register the newly formed All Progressives Congress, leaders of the party would embark on a peaceful protest to the Eagle Square, Abuja until INEC registered the party.
The statement drew the ire of the state Police Commissioner, Mr. Olufemi Adenaike, who stormed the radio station with his men and whisked Yerima away to the police headquarters where the former governor was held for three hours.
It was learnt by the local press present in Kaduna state that supporters of the Senator later mobilised themselves to the police headquarters but were resisted by the policemen on guard even as Yerima was however released after being interrogated by the police.
At the police headquarters, the former governor was made to write a statement on what he said during the radio program.
The statement as reported by Journalists read in parts: “My name is Senator Ahmed Rufai Sani former Governor of Zamfara State, a Nigerian and now a distinguished Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria Kaduna invited me for a phone-in programme which took place today March 9, 2013 at 10am and ended at 12pm. I was asked if there is any move not to register our new party, APC, what can we do? And my response was that if we met all the legal requirements and INEC refused to register us, we shall embark on peaceful protest to INEC until we are registered. Then, the moderator asked me what I meant by peaceful protest? Then I responded by saying just like it happened in Egypt.
“We can go to Eagle Square together with Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, Sardauna Kano, Alhaji Ibrahim Shekarau, and others to mobilise people without using any weapon for a peaceful protest until our party is registered.”
The arrest of this politician is a clear infraction by the police of the freedom of expression of this Nigerian citizen and this is also another grave attempt to muzzle press freedom.
As if the above instances of media repression were not sufficient to warrant change of heart by the government officials, the local press has also reported the alleged ban by the Nigerian film and video censors board of a 30 – minutes innocuous documentary program on the devastating effects that theft of fuel subsidy fund by the powerful cabal with links to government has wrecked on the nation's economy.
Titled “fueling poverty”,the documentary film titled “fueling poverty” in the considered assessment of open society foundations, a United States – based Non-Governmental organization, is an attempt to examine the corruption and mismanagement of oil wealth in Nigeria.
Mr.. Ishaya Bako's film “fueling poverty” was set against the backdrop of the January 2012 protests after the removal of the fuel subsidy.
According to Open Society Foundations, the documentary is a story that brings to life the plight of every day Nigerians, caught up in the reckless policies of a government where corruption is the norm, rather than exception, and impunity reigns. This is a home truth.
The reported ban of this beautiful documentary which I have watched with admiration on the internet[YouTube] is not only an attack by the Nigerian state against press freedom but also a negation of the constitutional duty incumbent on government to fight corruption.
Section 15(5) of the Nigerian constitution obliges government to fight corruption in all its ramifications and by all means possible including production by both government and good citizens of Nigeria of any enlightenment media program that will generate interest among Nigerians to fight corruption.
That provision aforementioned stated specifically that; “The State shall abolish all corrupt practices and abuse of power.” This film by citizen Bako is a sincere attempt to expose corruption.
Lastly, the recent arrest and detention by the police of four reporters of the Leadership Newspaper over a story on a presidential directive which was repudiated by presidency officials, is a return to suppression of the media reminiscent of military dictatorship.
The Police Force Headquarters said the three reporters that anchored the story and the Group News Editor of the Paper were required to appear before the Deputy Inspector General of Police for interrogation on Monday April 8th 2013 but when four reporters from Leadership Newspapers responded to the police summon they were immediately clamped into detention for failing to disclose the source of their information on the said Presidential directive.
Following public outcry and a claim by the publishers of Leadership Newspaper that the arrest and detention of the now freed four Journalists was on the instruction to the police by President Jonathan, the presidency denied but insisted that the police did the right thing.
The presidential Adviser Dr. Reuben Abati had defended the police thus; “... President Jonathan did not have to issue any order before those who have as much constitutional responsibility as the media, the police to see the need to act in the public interest”.
But the sacred fact is that Nigerians roundly condemned the police harassment of the leadership Newspapernot necessarily because the media is above the law but because police arbitrary intimidation of the media and the use of psychological torture to extract confessional statement from citizens are fundamentally unconstitutional, illegal, and tyrannical and must be eradicated if Nigeria's democracy is to advance.
The presidency's erroneous comparison of the Lord Justice Leveson inquiry in the United Kingdom in the phone-hacking scandal of 13th July 2001, with the recent arrest and illegal detention of the four journalists in Nigeria is inherently faulty even as the fact remains that unlike in the United Kingdom whereby the Metropolitan police used civilized and rights – based approach to obtain statement from the British Journalists indicted for breaching privacy laws in their reportage, Nigeria police operatives believe and indeed practice the use of crude tactics of psychological torture to compel confessional statements from persons allegedly in conflict with the law.
As a signatory to the universal Declarations of Human Rights [UDHR], and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, and as a candidate for consideration to join the United Nations Security Council [UNSC], Nigeria is obliged to respect media freedom and the police must be compelled to use fair means to investigate alleged breach of extant statutes by Journalists.
* Emmanuel Onwubiko is head, HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS' ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA and [email protected]