13 July 2013

Nigeria: Press Freedom and Nigerian Journalists


Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Media freedom and access to information feed into the wider development objective of empowering people.

This can only be achieved through access to accurate, fair and unbiased information, representing a plurality of opinions, and the means to actively communicate vertically and horizontally, thereby participating in the active life of the community.

This year's occasion of the World Press freedom day was globally marked as it coincided with its 20th anniversary. The 3rd of May was therefore set aside by the United Nations General Assembly to pay tribute to journalists/journalism, assess press freedom, celebrate press freedom and defend the media from avoidable attacks. It also aimed at raising awareness on the value of press freedom. This year's theme tagged: "Safe to Speak: securing freedom of expression in all media". The content of this year's theme was to put a spot light on the safety of journalists, combating impunity for crimes against freedom of expression and securing free and open internet as a prerequisite for "online safety".

Before the declaration of human rights and democracy, the practice of journalism was as difficult as walking on land mines. Reporters could not get stories out of sources, neither could they obtain government documents without being arrested and or killed nor write what they know without having the media house being shut down or ransacked. However, with the advocacy for democracy and the push for equal human rights, journalism is like walking on hot coal. It is better but it has not yet achieved perfection.

Press freedom is considered to be a cornerstone of human rights and a guarantee of other freedoms. It encourages transparency and good governance and it ensures that society enjoys the rule of true justice. Freedom of the press is a bridge of understanding and knowledge. It is essential for the exchange of ideas between nations and cultures which is a condition for true understanding and lasting cooperation.

The fuel that drives this engine is information and therefore access to information is critical. Freedom of information laws, which permit access to public information are essential, but so are the means by which information is made available, be it through ICTs or the simple sharing of documents.

Information can change the way we see the world around us, our place in it, and how to adjust our lives in order to maximise the benefits available through our local resources. Fact driven decision-making can significantly alter our political, social and economic perspectives. Therefore, open and pluralistic media are, perhaps, most precious when they simply provide the mirror for society to see itself. These moments of reflection are instrumental in defining community objectives, making course corrections when society or its leaders have lost touch with each other or gone astray.

The right to access information can be interpreted within the legal frameworks that support freedom of information as it applies to information held by public bodies, or in a wider sense to encompass both access and circulation of information held by other actors, where it becomes intrinsically linked to freedom of expression.

Freedom of information and the transparency it promotes has a direct consequence on fighting corruption, which in turn has a tangible impact on development. Former World Bank president James Wolfensohn often identified government corruption as the primary hindrance to development and an independent media sector as the number one tool to fight public corruption. This could be corroborated with the role the media and journalism played in Nigeria during the January 2012 fuel subsidy brouhaha. Indeed if not for the sacrifice made by the media, much progress could not have been achieved as it were.

Ensuring freedom for the media around the world is a priority. Independent, free and pluralistic media are central to good governance in democracies that are young and old. Free media can ensure transparency, accountability and the rule of law, promote participation in public and political discourse, and contribute to the fight against poverty, an independent media sector draws its power from the community it serves and in return empowers that community to be full a partner in the democratic process. For instance, the abortive 3rd Term plan of former president Olusegun Obasanjo in 2006 would have been realised but for the gleeful role of the Journalist in Nigeria. If indeed successes of democratic rule and values are to be written in the dustbin of history, Nigerian Journalist would remain revered in the global fora.

Freedom of information and freedom of expression are the founding principles for open and informed debate. New technology will continue to evolve and allow citizens to further shape their media environments as well as access a plurality of sources. The combination of access to information and citizen participation in media can only contribute to an increased sense of ownership and empowerment. The 2012 figures of victims/atrocities meted to journalists worldwide revealed that 89 journalists were killed (+33%), 38 journalists kidnapped, 879 journalists arrested, 1,993 journalists physically attacked or threatened, 47 citizen-journalists killed and 144 bloggers arrested.

Considering the above figures one can safely say that there is still a long way to go on the freedom of the press in the world entirely, not to talk of Africa where every system of government has its way of suppressing the press. In Nigeria, we are still facing the dilemma of threat, molestation, detention and even murder of journalists by government officials, or by people who feel they do not receive justice in the report of a story by a particular media organization or reporter.

Typical example of such was the killing of a photo journalist working with the Channels Television during the last year's gun duel by unknown gunmen in Kano and also the manhandling of another photo journalist by officials of a Lagos State Hospital morgue during identification of victims of the ill-fated Dana Airline that crashed on 3rd June 2012 near Lagos.

The threat and risk a Journalist in Nigeria of today is facing is a serious matter of concern, especially taking into account the security challenge the nation is experiencing. As Mahmud Alqad would say "he who writes has exposed himself to criticism/attack", I wish to use this medium to appeal to the journalists of this world and Nigeria in particular not to despair in their desire to make the society free from clutches of exploitation, oppression, dehumanization, intimidation and total disrespect to the rule of law. If this desire is achieved, we the potential journalists in the making would have no cause to regret reading the art and science of journalism in the university. So help the fourth estate of the Realm!

Wakawa is a 300 Level Student of Mass Communication Department, University of Maiduguri, Borno State.

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