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Constitutional Safeguards for Journalists against inhumane treatments.

By Edikan Ekanem
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It is no longer strange news to people that journalists all over the world are frequently ill-treated, tortured and subjected to various forms of inhumane treatment. These unpleasant developments keep on intensifying, escalating and multiplying on a daily basis.

Sadly, in Akwa Ibom state, we have had several but serious cases of maltreatment, unlawful arrests and detention of journalists some of which have resulted in on-going court cases. These recent but vicious attacks on journalists often emanate from government and its agencies, politicians and even from private individuals.

Though not all of these infractions are reported, the little that come to light has made well-meaning individuals to ask relevant questions like: does it mean that there are no laws that protect the rights of practicing journalists in Akwa Ibom state and Nigeria at large? What shields and defences are available to the victims of these attacks? Does it mean there are no better ways of dealing with them if they are at fault?

This concise and pointed work will seek to expound on the constitutional obligations of journalists, elucidating the constitutional protections and safeguards of journalists and briefly enunciating the legal ways of seeking redress against unwholesome discharge of professional responsibilities in journalism.

Interestingly, section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended (herein referred to as the Constitution) has clearly provided for the establishment and obligation of the mass media in relation to Nigerian democracy.

The section states: “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 above stated provision has shown the pivotal role that mass media plays in running a successful democratic government in Nigeria. It goes further to state that media professionals should at all-time be free to discharge their statutory responsibilities which will enhance a smooth running of a transparent and accountable government.

Put it differently, people who are unleashing their vicious attacks on journalists are clogs in the will of transparency and accountability in governance. It is an undeniable truth that journalists have to a great extent helped in freedom fighting and emancipation of the masses from bondage of wicked and corrupts leaders. Is it not noteworthy?

Beyond the above, section 39 of the constitution has granted Nigerians (including journalists) the right to freedom of expression and the press. It states: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and part ideas and information without interference”.

To practicing journalists, the latter section of the law is an addendum to the former; they have dual advantage of exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression and press as any other citizen does coupled with the professional obligation that is bestowed on them by the constitution.

From the above, it’s ostensibly seen that unleashing attacks on a journalist is not only a slap on the victim but also a slap to our constitution. Courts have held on plethora of cases that the right of journalists though not conclusive should be upheld and respected, not being subjected to unfair treatments. See the case of Tony Momoh v Speaker House of Representatives.

Politicians, government agencies and public office holders should stop attacking journalists; they should stop eroding democratic principles; they should stop harassing, maiming and threatening practicing journalists especially upon investigating their unclean acts to the day light. Investigative journalism is a crucial aspect of journalism that cannot be done away with.

Adversely, it is also seen in recent times that some journalists have used their positions to attack, slander and libel personalities, invariably violating the ethics of the noble profession. But does that justify the vicious attack on these professionals? Can we use wrong to correct a wrong? Can two wrongs make a right? Absolutely NO.

It is heart-warming to know that there are options of remedies for the defamed individual to seek redress rather than resorting to taking laws into one's hands. Correlatively, the tort of defamation which may be either oral (slander) or in a written form (libel) upon determination by a court of competent jurisdiction has been put to birth.

Supreme court in the case of Benue Printing & Publishing Corp v Gwagwanda (1989) 4NWLR defines defamation as “words that consist of any imputation which may tend to lower the complainant in the estimation of the right thinking members of the society generally, cut off from the society or expose him to danger, contempt or ridicule”.

It is apparently seen here that an aggrieved individual who alleges and strongly believes that his reputation is endangered can approach a court of competent jurisdiction and ventilate his grievances, allowing the court to ascertain the veracity of his allegation, awarding necessary and deserved damages as observed above. It should also be noted that usurping the power of the court in this regard will not exonerate the defamed party of liability incurred during his usurpation.

Though defamation is regarded as a misdemeanour under section 373 of the Nigerian criminal code Act, it should also be borne in mind that Police arrest is not the only way to bring the accused to court for justice, there are alternative ways. Our people should not always resort to the Police Force which most times trample on the fundamental rights of journalists in simple cases that other dispute mechanisms would have taken care of.

When the victim of defamation resorts to police arrest, the way and manner in which the arrest is carried out should not be overlooked. If the laws governing arrest are broken and violated, and it amounts to violation of fundamental rights of the accused, Fundamental right action can be maintained concurrently for damages because the accused remains innocent by virtue of section 36(5) of the constitution until found guilty by a court of law. Thus, his fundamental rights must be upheld.

May we always remember that the tort of defamation seeks to protect an individual’s reputation from unjustified attack in the eyes of right thinking members of the society. Nevertheless, it is left for the court to strike an acceptable balance between protecting a person’s reputation and the interest in the freedom of speech and investigations of journalists, not victims of defamation taking laws into their hands.

With this article, i strongly urge the Nigerian Union of Journalists, Akwa Ibom State Council and Nigeria in extension to rise and take a firm stand with journalists who are victims to these inhumane and unscrupulous treatments, taking legal measures to deter prospective perpetrators.

To other concerned Akwa Ibomites and Nigerians, let us rise and fight against this miasma and deadly syndrome in mass media. Injury to one is injury to all, let us resist arbitrariness in journalism.

Edikan Ekanem is a contemporary writer and a columnist. He can be reached at 08130015006 or [email protected]