Press Freedom and Security, By Garba Shehu
Dele Giwa. Bagauda Kaltho. Enenche Akogwu. Zakariya Isa. Ikechukwu Udendu. Nansok Sallah. Bayo Ohu. These are the names of just a few of the brave Niger
ian journalists who have lost their lives as a direct result of their line of work. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) a total of at least 19 journalists have been killed in Nigeria since 1992 and countless others have been beaten, intimidated,kidnapped, and held for questioning – many of who havesince fled their homeland after repeated threats on their lives.
On 01 July 2014, yet another casualty of the press was reported as Thomas Thomas, editor of the Global Concord Newspaper, was handcuffed and thrown into a car by armed men in Uyo. Unyime Ekwere, chairman of the Global Concord’s editorial board, told CPJ that Thomas was being detained by the State Security Service in what is suspected to be retaliation for the publication’s recent criticism of alleged plans by the Akwa Ibom state government to assassinate traditional chiefs ahead of the 2015 general elections.
During the past six weeks The Nation, the Daily Trust and Leadership newspapers have reported infractions, in which military personnel have confiscated or blocked the distribution of newspapers reportedly containing stories negative to the regime or military operations related security in the country.
Repeated offenses against the press have only managed to undermine Nigeria’s long-fraught journey to peace, democracy and a better life for every Nigerian. Journalists remain the one entity capable of holding officials and organizations accountable to the ordinary Nigerians who are directly impacted by their actions.
There are many perpetrators to the freedom and security of the press in Nigeria. The militant group Boko Haram, considered a “predator of press freedom” by Reporters Without Borders, claimed responsibility for the 2011 death of Zakariya Isa, and followed up the attack with statements that it will attack news organizations that misrepresent its activities. It followed through on that promise, with the murder of five Nigerians at the offices of This Day in April2012.
Government entities are keen to support the narrative that most of these deaths and violations against journalists are merely journalists getting caught in the crossfire of Boko Haram violence, but a quick investigation into the locations and circumstances of these transgressions against the press would suggest otherwise.
Although terrorist groups remain a primary culprit in the various offenses against the freedom, safety and integrity of the press, the recent escalation in anti-press violence has not only been at the hands of Boko Haram. According to the CPJ the vast majority of journalists killed were, in fact,murdered in the interest of muting political dissidence.Furthermore, in 2012 there were 143 separate attacks on the press alone, of which only 16% were committed by terrorists. This speaks of organized and pervasive oppression of journalists beyond the threats and accidental “crossfire” killings surrounding the Boko Haram insurgency.
In today’s Nigeria, members of the media are frequently arrested, detained and questioned without trial. In April2013, two Leadership reporters were detained and interrogated by the police for unknown reasons. We are failing our brothers and sisters in the media and failing Nigeria in its plight towards just democratic governance.Journalists must be protected from harassment and violent attacks, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice.Since 2006, the murders of five journalists remain unsolved. This is a gross injustice to those in the media who serve our country as the eyes, ears and voice of the Nigerian citizens.
The role of the Nigerian press according to the Nigerian Constitution is to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.
The unfair and unjust treatment of the Nigerian media is an impediment to the growth of our democracy. To use money, coercion, threats and violence to sway the media is to abandon the principles of democracy. Without freedom of speech and expression, we regress into authoritarian rule because journalists are forced to practice self-censorship to protect themselves from threats of violence and detention.The members of the press are a vehicle for thedissemination of information and transparency and theirwork is a crucial part of our democratic society.
We have the foundation for a flourishing media sector. Nigeria has independent newspapers and an active press corps. What we must put our efforts toward is establishing a culture of true press freedom that shields the journalists from terrorists, political conspiracies and other forms of intimidation, which only serve to derail trust, accountability and the democratic vision for freedom of expression, speech and thought. In cases of violence and murder, witnesses must be guaranteed protection and killers must be prosecuted and jailed when guilty for the crimes. The press should be a trusted participant in the advancement of our democracy and development of our nation, respected instead of being attacked and persecuted.
With some guidance from our international friends, perhaps we can eradicate the element of fear from journalism, so journalists can observe and report the truth without risking their lives. The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity is one such guide that can help develop a safe path forward. It emphasizes the importance of a robust legal system, establishing partnerships between stakeholders, raising awareness and creating safety initiatives at multiple levels of society. A harmonized effort of cooperation between the government,security forces, non-governmental and international organizations, media industry and its association, and the civil society at-large can create an environment in which the press can operate with the constitutional freedom it deserves.
The President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Mr. Femi Adeshina, “pointed out that in order to move forward the police and the media need to engage one another by setting up a partnership that must be cultivated, adding that there must be a new thinking with mutual respect between the two parties”. If government and security resources are diverted from controlling the media and detaining reporters who disagree with the those in power, to protecting journalists in the field and addressing the violators of free speech in court, then the resulting free, fair and ethical system of journalism will strengthen the Nigerian democracy, economy and society.
The Nigerian people deserve the truth and they deserve to be heard, but we cannot realize this dream if the media continue to be considered a mouthpiece for those who use money, coercion and violence to suppress the truth.
Mallam Garba Shehu, veteran journalist and former newspaper editor, now practices as a political communicator and analyst in Abuja. He writes a syndicated column for Premium Times every Wednesday.