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Imprisonment of Press Freedom in Nigerian

By: Churchill Okonkwo.
 Published May 4th, 2010

May 3, 2010 was World Press Freedom Day. The day represents an opportunity to commemorate the fundamental principles of press freedom around the globe and to pay solemn tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States (1801-1809), once said he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers. In America they say freedom of the press is democracy. With more than 100 national, local, and state-owned newspapers and publications; print media in Nigeria is one of the most vibrant in all of Africa.  While on a superficial level, it appears the media in Nigeria enjoy a considerable freedom, in reality however, independent journalism is not as common as it may appear.

Despite the transition from military to civilian rule in 1999, clampdown, assault, beatings, unfair arrests and police raids against producers of print media has continued. Between June 2002 and September 2003 alone Media Rights Agenda (MRA), a Lagos based nongovernmental organization which promotes press freedom and freedom of expression, recorded more than fifty cases of reported abuses against journalists and other violations of freedom of expression.

The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders had just listed Nigeria Police Force as the leading abuser of journalists’ rights. On Saturday, April 24, 2010, Edo-Ugbagwu, a judicial correspondent of The Nation newspapers was murdered in Lagos. Also, Godwin Agbroko and Abayomi Ogundeji of Thisday newsapeprs, Omololu Falabi and Bayo Ohu of The Guardian were all brutally killed in Lagos by unknown gun men recently.

All these killings and the reluctance of the national assembly to pass the Freedom of Information Bill have further raised the question of press freedom once more in Nigerian democracy. The assault on the press is a fundamental breach on democratic norms. Proponents of free press believe it is uncalled for and serves to remind Nigerians of the dark days of impunity during the Military era. 

Nigeria is operating now as a democracy so the freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions, receive and impart ideas without interference should be a fundamental right guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the African Charter On Human and Peoples Rights, (ACHPR), the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 and other regional and international treaties to which Nigeria is a party. Moreover, Section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides: Every person shall be entitled to freedom to hold opinions and impart ideas and information without interference.

There is a reason why press freedom is included in the Nigerian constitution. The idea behind freedom of the press is that an informed public has a fighting chance against any government who will like to possess complete power over them. According to established human rights provisions it is quite clear these acts of intimidation and harassment are unconstitutional, an abuse of due process, and a negation of the gains so far made in Nigeria’s fledgling democracy. Democracy flourishes under a free press. It is a system that provides for the right to freedom of expression. And it is the foundation upon which rests other freedoms.

Media owners say that if politics is about development and the ultimate goal of any political system is to ensure the improvement of the security and welfare of the citizenry, then the resort to assault on the Media negates fundamental rights and the rule of law. It merely demonstrates impunity, and intolerance to alternatives views. The brutal murder of Dele Giwa should specially be remembered this day and the question repeated: who killed Dele Giwa? The prime suspect in the murder, Ibrahim Babangida, should be made to answer this question as he prepares to run for the presidential election.

When it is impossible to retort through the media, any injustice occurring against the people by those they supposedly voted in to advance their wellbeing, it means the country is headed down the road of totalitarian rule. In the last 10 years since the return of the country to civilian rule, the Nigerian Press has been under serious threat by Law enforcement agencies and other government organizations.

It should be noted that the media in Nigeria is also tainted with corruption with many journalists expecting to receive payments before agreeing to report or not to report an event. Deals are struck with politicians as in many other countries on whether or how to report an event. The result of these is that government then has a level of how media represents an event.

When Channels Television as closed in 2008, the CEO John Momoh apologized to the government but the initial suspension of its license over a story on the purported plan of President Umaru Yar’Adua’s resignation is a sign of an unspoken threshold beyond which criticism is not tolerated in Nigeria. (Who knows what that purported resignation would have been the best of the sick president?)

I’m using this opportunity to call on the Senate as a matter of necessity to pass the Freedom of Information Bill (FOIB). The bill will when fully implemented will assist in strengthening democracy, ensuring transparency, accountability, good governance and the rule of law in Nigeria.

All media houses and indeed all Nigerians must be vigilant, remain resolute, and continue to resist any attempt to infringe on their constitutional rights. Law enforcement agencies should also cease the indiscriminate abuse and violations of the rights of Nigerians. They are urged instead to be the primary role of providing security for all and sundry irrespective of their political beliefs.

The place of free press in Nigerian democracy is a good test of the much-touted rule of law and due process posturing on the present administration Goodluck Jonathan.

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