Between Press Freedom and State Security in this digital journalism age!

By Emmanuel Onwubiko

When will there be relationship and mutual trust?
Who will manage frogs in a wheelbarrow?
How do we touch base and stay in touch?
Being a keynote by Martins Oloja, former Editor, Abuja Newsday, The Guardian and Executive Head, Editorial Board, The Guardian on 28 January, 2019 in Lagos.

Thank you HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA (HURIWA) and its partners for the invitation to address this bad ulcer that continues to thrive on the medications applied to it under the theme: ‘Partnership Between The Media and Nigeria’s Military for Responsible Security reporting’. I have shortened my topic to: ‘Between Press Freedom and State Security in This Digital Age’ for simplicity.

The news media have a powerful influence on how people view the world. Newspapers, radio, television and the new media (social media) dominated by citizen journalists are frequently the only link to events happening outside of one's neighborhood. A reporter's or citizen journalist’s story on a conflict can be the sole information available to his audience. The way way the reporter frames the conflict can cause bias (in the audience) in favour of one party, or one solution over another; it can escalate the conflict, or defuse it. That is why it depends on a critical factor: management.

When you think about it, most news is "conflict" and journalists are participants in the conflicts they cover. Though they usually make every effort to be "objective," – to fulfill social responsibility to one’s nation, this is most times difficult and controversial.

Sometimes attempts to present both views equally is actually favouring one over the other, if the story doesn't illustrate that one view is much more predominate, or another, while commonly believed, is incorrect.

Complex conflicts are full of pitfalls for journalists, but the more one understands what is really going on in a conflict, and the role of the conflict journalist, the better coverage one can do. In other words understanding what is going on in a conflict zone is critical in managing this often complicated relationship.

Many difficult and intractable conflicts involve whole communities or nations. People get their information about what is going on in these conflicts through the media, so the media plays a critical role in how these conflicts develop and change.

The Partnership Between the Media and Nigerian Military for Responsible Security Reporting

History of distrust
In a seminal paper on ‘conflict reporting’ by Dr. Jide Jimoh, of Lagos State University, there is a long history of distrust between the media and successive governments in Nigeria. A measure of adversarial relationship between media and government can be gauged by accusations of bias, mischief, sensationalism, lack of objectivity and general irresponsibility leveled against the media by various government officials during military and

civilian governments.
This is a constantly used illustration of the colour of the suspected distrust: Few months into his appointment as the National Security Adviser (NSA) to President Goodluck Jonathan, Col. Dasuki Sambo (Rtd.) commented onthe role of the Nigerian press in the several violent conflicts ravaging Nigeria in his time. His words: “My experience with the media has so far not been a good one… In most of the places I visit, the media have been one of the problems and it is all this idea of sensational journalism that everybody wants to publish a story that is not necessarily a story, to make good headlines.” (The Punch, July 6, 2012:1-2)

Dr. Jimoh also noted that similar statements could be found in pronouncements of other government officials from the colonial administration to the current Fourth Republic.

On the other hand, the media see themselves as doing a professional job by reporting what government officials and security authorities would like to hide. And classical definition of news is this: what somebody, somewhere is trying to hide, the rest is advertising…

Interestingly, civil society and some prominent members of the public also sometimes blame the Nigerian media for unprofessional conducts. Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah in an interview with Nigerian Tribune noted that, “the media are constantly misleading people about Christians bombing churches or Muslims bombing mosques. The denomination of the person who is involved in a crime is not important.” (Sunday Tribune, March 18, 2012).

‘Understanding legal responsibility of the news media’

Despite all these challenges, it has been difficult to get many stakeholders in the developing world to understand that the press/ the news media is actually the fourth arm of government. That is why it is called the Fourth Estate of the Realm. Sections 22 and 39 of the 1999 Constitution legalise that. Other powers need to know that the mass media practitioners do not need to have constituency offices and agencies or executive, judicial or legislative bodies as other arms before recognizing the role of the press as a constitutional one.

‘Between Press freedom & State Security: understanding the times…’

Recent strain between a section of the press and military authorities arising from reportage of military operations in North East in the last few weeks has necessitated another debate of the age-long intricate relationship between press freedom and state security. Specifically, it is quite relevant for today’s event. Which triggers a critical question: will there be an end to this despite so many seminal papers on conflict reporting?

The need for this evaluation rests on the truism that development and peace can only take place when there is security, just as there can be no freedom where there is no state.

Let’s face it, events such as reported clampdown on and arrest of suspected members of the Nnamdi Kanu-led Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), harassment of and destruction of property belonging to members of the Abia State chapter of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) as well as reports from Amnesty International indicting the Nigerian Army of suppression of freedom and human rights violation, provide the context for critical appraisal of this complex relationship.

As human rights watchers have observed, the tension playing out in Nigeria is consistent with a growing global trend by state authorities to use anti-terrorism laws to punish journalists and gag the press under the pretext of state security. According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, since the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States, 144 out of the 195 countries in the world have passed new counter-terrorism laws; laws which permit searches, arrests and detentions without warrants. For Nigeria, which has also passed and amendment the anti-terrorism law, this is a dangerous addition to the Official Secret Act of 1962, which forbids public disclosure of classified information or any information prejudicial to the security of the country.

FOIA, not helpful?
Sadly, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA 2011) does not in any way repeal the Official Secrets Act provision in the 2004 National Security Act.

And so, since the present democratic dispensation, both the Official Secrets Act and other State Security Laws have been used to crackdown on journalists, invade settlements and violate the rights of people. An instance to recall is former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s infamous invasion of Odi in Bayelsa State and Zaki-Biam in Benue State as well as the former president’s indiscriminate public humiliation of perceived critics. The brazen impunity with which public office holders treat subordinates and citizens, and the manner state governors have selectively construed state security with the intention of emasculating perceived adversaries, are all odious manifestations of the abuse of state security laws. All these clearly contravene the right to freedom of expression and the press as stipulated in Section 22 of the Constitution.

However, whilst the Official Secret Act puts a check on the irresponsibility resulting from unbridled and reckless use of this right, glaring cases of official conspiracy, unjustified silence and disregard for people’s lives and property place a heavy burden of truth-telling on the news media.

When facts on the ground conflict with interpretations provided by military intelligence, especially in an age when social responsibility of the press has been markedly challenged by the emergence of the social media, it becomes difficult to conceal even inconvenient truth.

Authorities everywhere should note that it is even morally despicable for journalists who should cover events in public interest to cover up such state of affairs.

Furthermore, the ambiguity about what constitutes state security has put the press in a perplexing state of moral judgment. On one hand, military authorities are more assiduous in intervening in incidents that are perceived to infringe on state security, whilst on the other hand, they tend to overlook other horrendous events, which are capable of breaching the peace. In a situation whereby the government of the day is suspected of using the military to promote an inscrutable resurgent colonialism through religious bigotry and fractious ethno-cultural relations, the citizens cannot trust such a government enough to define security for them.

How can a journalist understand what state security means when there are varied interpretations to mismanaged security issues in the country?

This is where synergy between the military and the press comes in.

Since information is not only a fabric of human existence but also a necessity for mankind to be free and self-governing, the military should endeavour to give information that should lead to trust building, provision of peace and rest of mind.

As auxiliary guardians of the state, they should ensure that, loyalty in terms of communication is not solely to the powers that be, but primarily, as it ought to be, to the people whose territorial integrity and internal security they vowed to safeguard. The implication of this information-disseminating function, which duty imposes on the military in times of war and crises, is that the military owes its first loyalty to the citizens, that is, the civil populace.

Owing to this fundamental loyalty, managers of military information are obliged to tell the truth when relating with citizens; yes, truth that should be managed with utmost sense of responsibility bearing in mind the common good. In this regard, they would need to be predisposed to civility and decency, as well as careful selection of the wording of their language when informing the general civilian populace about state security matters.

All this suggests the need for capacity building for persons managing information in the Nigerian military to purge them of the condescending expressions and dismissive posture characteristic of military language. We are in a democracy and that is classically the government of the people – from whom government derives sovereignty.

Far from being one-sided, the capacity building procedure should also involve educating the press about the world of the military.

Because journalists and other arms of the media over-rate the empowering role of news-telling and information dissemination, they tend to see the world from only their professional lenses and arrogate unjustified powers unto themselves and their profession. Often this leads to clashes of interest in their perceived roles in the state.

The power of relationship building beyond periodic briefings:

Aside from periodic sessions with editors and senior managers of public information, embedding journalists into military beats and operations should be greatly encouraged. This is a normal global best practice to build relationships and trust in operations.

Professionally, this would forge mutually benefiting discussions about how to recalibrate the balance between state security to which the military is committed and the ideals of human rights, which inform journalistic practice in this democratic age.

Besides, it would enable the press to understand the perspectives of the military when interpreting observable facts and properly manage truth in the interest of the common good, which both professions serve.

Military invasion of Daily Trust as a case study.

Despite the conciliating reactions of some commntators to the invasion of the Daily Trust newspapers by soldiers the other day, it needs to be stated in unequivocal terms that the way soldiers raided the newspaper was needlessly ruthless, ill-advised and illegal. Such bully tactics, which came without warning, was an infringement of the rights of firm and persons involved and such can only enhance hostility.

Since the arrest of the regional editor of the Daily Trust, Uthman Abubakar and reporter, Ibrahim Sawab, in Maiduguri, Bornu State, as well as the raid of, and seizures of equipment, in the Maiduguri and Abuja offices of the newspaper, the military had received more condemnation than sympathy for their alleged action. Long before a Boko Haram attack on the agricultural town of Baga, in Bornu State, Daily Trust had published a scoop of an “impending’ Boko Haram attack on that town. As it turned out, the attack was carried out to the surprise of the military. Shortly after, the military descended on the newspaper and then came the jibes.

In its denial of the allegation of muzzling the press, Director of Army Public Realtions, Brig-Gen. Sani Usman, stated that Daily Trust newspaper had revealed details of planned military operations against Boko Haram insurgents, a classified military information whose disclosure undermined national security. Did Daily Trust publish classified military information as the army claimed? Do the military authorities have evidence of this claim? The answers to this question could be blowing in the wind because the story in question contained interviews with military authorities, among others.

The import of the condemnation of the raid does not lie in the support for the Daily Trust reportage, but rather in the assault on press freedom and in the impunity with which the military brutalize people and their estate.

In a new world order that recognizes the autonomy of an individual’s moral choice, press freedom has availed itself as a pillar of democracy. Riding on the crest of this privilege, the press has assumed the ombudsman of the state. Appropriately tagged as the Fourth Estate of the Realm as constitutionally protected, the press has opened itself up as the most reflective organ in society to hold other arms of government to account. The same organic law empowers the press to monitor governance at all levels. As a watchdog of sorts it could be the last bastion of security, when it checks intra-government conspiracies against the people.

Besides, it is unacceptable for soldiers to wantonly attack a business outfit without recourse to the law of the land. If the military felt offended by the report of the newspaper, all it needed to have done was to seek legal action though the Attorney General of the Federation. On the other hand, if the military establishment wanted to be nice, its officials could have contacted the editors to address the matter professionally.

However, that the press provides information for people to be free and self-governing, should not make journalists rivals and soft targets to constituted authorities. There should not be any fear of the press speaking truth to power and holding state authorities accountable to the people who elected them.

Don’t get it twisted, news media managers recognise the fact that national security is of primary importance in safeguarding the integrity of a country.

Irrespective of the differences in interests, languages, religions, customs and traditions of the many people, which make up the country, these differences do not run at cross purposes with the people despite the fragile nationhood we live with. It is indubitable, therefore, that a country’s military occupies a very vital position when it comes to maintaining national security. As auxiliaries in the state, the military have the liberty to operate in a world within a world, with their own philosophy and paraphernalia of existence, out of which comes their ideology, strategies, mode of operations. Being guardians of the state in a certain respect, they occupy a space in state administration that must be guarded jealously for fear of compromise. The media recognise all these elements but there has been poor management of relationship.

Owing to this pivotal role of the military in the defence of the state, it would be irresponsible of any journalist, who in search of news, sniffs around for classified military information and publishes same just because he wants to inform the public. That journalists also play a prominent role in informing the public should not provide any licence for irresponsibility and unprofessional conduct that would undermine national security.

‘In this disruptive digital age’

This is not the first time that matters of press freedom and national security have put journalists and soldiers at loggerheads in service of the nation. Given the complexity of the global information order and the techniques of the new media, the nature, flow and management of information have become so fluid and multidimensional. Notwithstanding the threat of ‘fake news’, the new media have made information flow seamless, swift, unfiltered, more detailed and more efficacious. It is this complexity that should concern journalists and soldiers, who are desirous of managing information in war and crisis situation.

As it has often been stated on this issue, there is need for conflict-sensitivity and capacity building from both ends to harmonise the objectives of the military and those of the press through stringed interactions between the two institutions. In crisis or war situations, more regular sessions with reporters, editors and senior managers of public information and embedding journalists into military beats, would enable each party to understand the other’s world.

The effect, as stated earlier, would be this: “professionally, this would forge mutually benefiting discussions about how to recalibrate the balance between state security to which the military is committed and the ideals of human rights, which inform journalistic practice in this democratic age.

Similarly, that will enable the press to understand the perspectives of the military when interpreting observable facts, and properly manage truth in the interest of the common good, which both professions serve.

It should be clear that soldiers are primarily civilians who have chosen to be in the armed forces. They are persons with civility before becoming soldiers. It is not for nothing that the word ‘civilian’ shares the same root-word with civility. The common value of civility should be brought to bear in the resolution of the perennial tension between the military and media organizations over matters of press freedom and national security.

Checklist of things to consider when covering conflicts

Do you really understand what is going on? Deep-rooted and intractable conflicts tend to be very complex. Good journalism requires that you do a conflict assessment to understand who all the parties are and what role they are playing in the situation.

What are the underlying causes of the conflict? Disputants often frame the conflict in relatively simple (and often self-serving) terms. Very often the sides see the underlying causes as very different. Sometimes they don't even know what they are, as the conflict has gone on so long and become so embedded in the culture, that raw emotions: fear, humiliation and anger overlie earlier substantive concerns. Good journalists will explore both the superficial, but also the underlying causes of the conflict from all points of view.

What are the full effects of the conflict on different constituency groups? Conflict participants, particularly those most directly involved in the struggle, often don't really understand the full cost of the conflict and the potential benefits of settlement or resolution. Doing an assessment of the human, as well as monetary costs, of the conflict on primary parties, the bystanders (people caught in the middle) and on allies and neighbours of the disputants often reveals an overlooked picture of the conflict situation.

Where are you getting your "facts?" Factual disputes are rampant in complex, intractable conflicts. Sometimes this occurs because facts are hard to obtain or understand; sometimes it occurs because each side claims different "facts" are true and the opposing sides' facts are false. Journalists should take care to do balanced and careful fact finding before believing any facts about what is or has been going on.

Are your stories contributing to conflict escalation? Media coverage often contributes to escalating a conflict. Sometimes this is desirable; constructive escalation is sometimes the best way for lower-power groups to gain power to effectively advocate for themselves. But often, escalation gets out of control, and leads to increasing polarisation, violence and costs to all sides.

What can I do to help de-escalate a conflict? Though media coverage often serves to escalate conflicts, there are ways that journalism can be used to de-escalate conflicts and make them more constructive.

Conclusion and closing remarks:
There should be genuine relationship in marketing this model. There should be sincerity of purpose in understanding the importance of each other’s role in nation building. To attempt to arrest reporters of conflict because the reporter is not conflict sensitive will engender more hostility. There should be ways of resolving conflicts too. National security reporters should get out of their cocoon too to build relationship. They should carry themselves respectfully not as beggars. In the same vein, the authorities should not build relationship through periodic meetings. That should be in and out of season. Do simple but significant things: mark birthdays for your friends in the media. De-emphasise cash transactions…More important, give data and facts, let the defence reporters and editors have knowledge of the system as authorities such as Juliet Ukabialas, Madu Onuorahs, Ben Akparanta, etc of this world on the old defence and police beats. They should borrow from modern managers who have been telling modern leaders to find wisdom from even semi-literate farmers who know how to keep frogs in a wheelbarrow without allowing any of the frogs to jump away. Learn to sustain relationships in a way that we become each other’s brand ambassadors. Please, take this away, the social media has come to stay and it is helpful as it enables the people to wield some powers that editors used to keep exclusively as gatekeepers. Let’s learn, unlearn old ways of dealing with the media and relearn new ways of managing journalists in this digital age. Let’s all stakeholders note what Alvin Toffler, a sociologist turned digital age management expert said to us the other day that:

‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn’.

Let’s therefore go back to school of the digital media and learn how to strengthen relationship in pursuits of development goals in our great country. Let’s manage our relationships better as we keep our country more secure! Let’s touch base every day. Let’s stay in touch. That is the new strategy. It’s simple but powerful.

God bless you for listening! God bless Nigeria.

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