Nineteen years of unbroken democracy gives the impression that Nigeria is making progress with civilian governance.
However, it is necessary to examine how far the idea of press freedom has helped to deepen or hinder democracy.
While acknowledging the role of the press in sustaining democracy, former U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, once said, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter."
Many have also argued that without a free press, democracy would not be sustained in any country.
On May 29, 2010, Nigeria celebrated 11 years of uninterrupted democratic government. Recall that the military interregnum had aborted attempts at democratic governance in 1966, 1983, and 1993.
However, uninterrupted democratic governance in Nigeria today has run for about 19 years.
Section 22 of 1999 constitution endows the media with the duty not only to discharge its normal watchdog role in all aspects of governance and in guarding and advancing the frontiers of the people's liberties and freedom, but is also mandated to regard itself as "the policing institution over the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy as well as the citizens' fundamental rights."
The media, unlike the executive, legislature and judiciary, is rarely mentioned, yet many have argued that modern democracy conceives the media as a force and as an institution similar to the three tiers of government.
By virtue of its watchdog status, the media assumes the role of a legal representative in directing the affairs of both the government and the governed. This function undoubtedly gives the media the challenge of curtailing the excesses of government.
The question remains, has the press really been free to carry out its mandate in the past 19 years of democratic governance in the country?
Seasoned media professional and former Director General of Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), Dr. Tonnie Iredia, described freedom of the press in the 19 years thus, "I will look at freedom from two angles: the angle of the law and the practical angle.
A close look at both shows that Nigerian media is not actually free.
In the history of law, there is no legal empowerment for the press but only a legal mandate. The constitution does not provide freedom for the press but a mandate."
On the practical aspect, he said, it is difficult to describe the press as free as cases of journalists being molested are on the increase, adding, "even at events, journalists are seen as adventurous group of people who have no business at the event; hence law enforcement agents push them away."
Iredia lamented the inability of different bodies set up to protect the press such as Nigerian Press Council and Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, saying they have failed in carrying out their functions.
As a way forward, Iredia, who is also Chairman, Committee on Publicity for International Press Institute World Congress scheduled to hold in Abuja from June 21 through 23, said, the media must do more investigative journalism to bring out facts and figures, rather than just repeating and recycling stories.
According to him, "The opposition media needs to rise and do more than surface reporting. Let me give you an example of a certain senator that was said to have jumped out of a moving vehicle when he was arrested.
Till today no media has told us what the senator himself said about the incident; no body has told us whether it was true, because all the media seems to be reporting from one angle.
There was some level of negativity in the story that created a gap, proving that it did not happen."
Director of International Press Centre (IPC), Mr. Lanre Arogundade, stated that the media has provided robust coverage of the political and electoral processes and helped to identify deficiencies in the system.
"News mediums, media support groups and CSOs have partnered to expand the frontiers of transparency and accountability by, for example, successfully fighting for FoI Act," he noted. "The media has contributed enormously in promoting anti-corruption wars."
Arogundade, however, stressed that the media has not been as free as it ought to be under democracy, adding, "Journalists are still being killed, arrested, detained and assaulted. State broadcast media are not allowed to give equitable access to parties and candidates. Opposition is usually shut off.
There is poor attention to journalist's welfare, which constitutes threat to media independence and journalistic freedom."
Former Minister of Information and Chairman, Governing Council, University of Jos, Prince Tony Momoh, described democracy as the only system of government that provides more freedom, adding that freedom of expression is what anchors democracy, as guaranteed in Nigerian constitution.
"The press has all the freedom it needs," he said. "The press is the Fourth Estate of the Realm by constitution. Section 2 states that sovereignty belongs to the people.
The press is the organ of the people. In our constitution, nobody can stop the press from monitoring government.
Section 22 says the people give monitoring of governance to the press. The traditional role of the media is agenda-setting.
The press is not doing badly in Nigeria except on a few occasions that press carries freedom to some level of irresponsibility."
He pointed out that government's mission is to keep its information secret and "that is why the media must do all it takes to get these information through their contacts. Because freedom is not given but taken."
In cases where journalists have been detained in the course of discharging their duties, Momoh lamented the development, saying no law enforcement agent or agency has the right to detain any journalist, as there are procedures.
Professor of Mass Communication, Lagos State University, Lai Oso, commended the media for giving expression to the different views of the political ruling elites, saying, "Though there are some elements of unnecessary hipping of stories, some sensational stories that should not be of importance.
For example, last weekend, almost all the newspapers gave their front page headlines on Obasanjo."
Oso said the issue of ethnic composition, with the media not giving prominence to a particular group and leaving others out had helped in deepening democracy in the country.
"An example was during PDP crisis," he said, "the media kept talking about the need for the party to resuscitate itself as the country needed an opposition party in a democratic government."
The communication's don empahsised the need for media practitioners to be professionals by creating a distance from the political class as well as allowing the voices of the masses to be heard, and not just the elites, adding, "This can change the agenda of the real issues in the country."
ALSO, a keen watcher of the political space, Mr. Onyeka Onyeibor said democracy is built on choice and the quality of choice depends on access to information, quality of information, values and opportunity cost.
According to him, "The media plays a substantial role in at least the first three factors affecting choice. The capacity of the Nigerian media to provide information is not in doubt. This is a great service in advancing the democratic process.
The disservice is in the conscious filtering of information to suit a preconceived economic, political, religious or social agenda. Where the press moves from providing unbiased facts to influencing decisions in ways that further divide us, democracy is weakened."
On the issue of press freedom, Onyeibor said, "When we talk of press freedom, we think of external institutions that prevent the press from carrying out constitutional duties.
Perhaps, we should also look at the issues in social injustice that make willful compromise desirable and possible. How free is an underpaid journalist? An envelope (money) overrides reason.
How free is a journalist without a safety net or social security? The fear of an uncertain future provides the incentive to suspend good judgment.
Inequitable distribution of resources, opportunities and privileges are as big factors as institutional interference in press freedom."
While describing how the media has helped in deepening or limiting Nigeria's democracy in the past 19 years, political analyst, Mr. Patrick Efagwu, said the media has been involved in shaping the direction of democracy.
He also pointed out that the media has received its fair share of criticisms and scrutiny from the public due to biased reporting.
"The media serves a huge influence for driving the sentiments of the populace, especially during elections," he said.
"But it is sad when the media allows itself to become a political tool in the hands of mischievous politicians.
During the last presidential elections, some media publications were mere propaganda bereft of any form of truth."
Efagwu lamented the media's failure to ensure it remains the conscience of the common man as it is easily manipulated because of temporary rewards, adding, "The media needs to be truly independent and must be purged of the new media syndrome of fake and illegal outlets churning out fake information."
He, however, posited that the media has been relatively free, "especially when you compare now to what it was in the 1990s, where the media was oppressed and compelled to align with the will of the military leaders.
We, therefore, expect more sincerity and a more purposeful media built on conscience and a will to ensure that it becomes the true guardian of our democracy!"