United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard; Human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN; media icon, Mr. Ray Ekpu and other media stakeholders, yesterday, commended the Media on its role in Nigeria's development and listed how to deepen the country's democracy.
They spoke at the South-West Town hall meeting of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE held in Alausa, Lagos.
Sponsored by the U.S. Mission in Nigeria, the meeting was themed: 'Assessing Media performance in Consolidating Nigeria's Democracy: Citizen's Verdict and Outlining an Agenda for the Future.'
Following the Lead Speech delivered by Mr. Falana, the meeting was dominated by views on the outcome of the EndSARS protest panel report and the White Paper produced by Lagos State, which rejected most of the recommendations of the panel.
Mr. Ekpu, a former President of the NGE, who moderated the event recalled the exploits of the media and urged journalists to be more courageous, read widely and continue to practice effective journalism to deepen and entrench democracy in Nigeria.
After NGE President, Mustapha Isa; and Secretary, Iyobosa Uwagiaren acknowledged the support of the US government for the event and outlined the challenges of practicing robust journalism in Nigeria, Ambassador Leonard said the U.S. Mission in Nigeria was proud to partner with the NGE to promote the importance of freedom of the press in a democracy.
Leonard said the NGE, the media at large, labor unions, bar associations, and other stakeholders are all vital players in Nigeria's democracy, and "working together, you take bold stands on transparency and accountability, inclusivity and equity, rule of law and fundamental freedoms."
Challenges Nigeria, others face
According to her, today, Nigeria and other democracies in the world face challenges in four key areas, namely: "the disturbing rise of authoritarianism and self-censorship; the lack of public trust in government institutions; the public's growing and parallel mistrust of media; and finally, what democratic governments can do together to halt or reverse these disturbing trends.
"Authoritarianism has no place in 21st century politics, and yet we see examples across Africa, Asia, and even in parts of the West where dissenting voices are ignored or suppressed."
She noted however that Nigeria has been consistent in calling for the respect of presidential term limits, and condemning military coups in West Africa and the rest of the continent.
On the challenge of lack of public trust in democratic institutions, she said: "Patronage politics, corruption, inequality, and the failure of many democratic governments to deliver for their citizens, fuel public and media doubts about the democratic model, causing them to lose hope and accept the status quo as normal. This only further emboldens leaders to act even more autocratically. We must put these problems out into the open and work together to solve them.
"That has always been democracy's greatest strength: the ability to improve upon and reinvent itself. When the citizenry's belief in democracy, good governance and elections are restored, invariably they will want to be a part of that system and will defend it.
"Nigerians believe in free and fair elections. Just last month we congratulated the people of Anambra State for the peaceful conduct of their gubernatorial election, reflecting the will of the people. Elections should be a cause for community celebration, where all the members of society, especially independent media, are welcomed to participate, express opinions, and to have their voice and vote count.
Media tasked on nation building
"When you all execute your journalistic roles thoughtfully, impartially and with accuracy, the reverberation of your words lingers. When you uncover stories that others have tried to hide or deny, inevitably prosecutions follow, and accountability is attained through the voice of the people at the ballot box.
"As we approach the governorship elections in Osun and Ekiti early next year, and even as we look toward the 2023 presidential elections, youth must be inspired to be part of the solution. Teachers, civil society, entrepreneurs, and above all, the media must play a constructive role. Media coverage of elections could encourage turnout if all outlets focus on the issues that affect the daily lives of constituents. Too often elections are personality based and lose focus on critical issues such as unemployment, inflation, and lack of health care. The media can hold the candidates accountable for discussing issues. The media can ensure that citizen voices are heard and this, in turn, may help reverse voter apathy...
"Let's start today with renewed vigor to promote positive democratic practices in Nigeria, with all the challenges to face. You play an important role in pushing this country toward peace and prosperity."
Speaking on the theme of the meeting as lead speaker, Falana said no fewer than 99 people died during the protest and decried alleged attempts to cover up the killing of the EndSARS protesters.
Recalling the various stages of the protest until the military was invited, the earlier comments of the Lagos State Government, Lekki Concession Company, LCC, which condemned shooting of peaceful protesters, Falana picked holes in Lagos State Government's rejection of most of the recommendations of the Judicial panel and raising of White Paper Committee.
His words: "In a bid to discredit the findings of the Lagos State Judicial Panel on Restitution for victims of SARS-Related Abuses and Other Matters the White Paper Committee acted ultra vires by advising the Governor to accept, reject or refer the recommendations of the Panel to the Federal Government. Thus, the State Government arrogantly stated that the claim that nine people died at LTG on October 21, 2020, from gunshots fired by the military are based on assumptions and speculations". The Government said that the finding of the Panel "is therefore irreconcilable with the evidence of Prof. Obafunwa said that only one person died of gunshot wounds at 7:43pm at LTG on October 21, 2020". It is curious to know that the name of the only one person who "died of gunshot" is not contained in the White Paper. Similarly, when the Governor disclosed that 2 protesters were killed he did not name them.
"It is pertinent to note that Professor Obafunwa did not say that the bodies of the 2 slain protesters were part of the 99 dead bodies dumped in the morgue. Similarly, the Head of Service who gave evidence on behalf of the State Government did not link the bodies of the 2 protesters with the 3 bodies dumped in the Ikeja morgue. The implication is that the casualty figure compiled by the Lagos State Government in Lekki is not less than 5. Even though the Government found it convenient to rely on the evidence of Professor Obafunwa that "only one person" was killed the White Paper is silent on the unchallenged evidence of the family members of some protesters that were killed and the 27 victims who were visited in the hospitals by the Governor. How could the White Paper have attempted to discredit the evidence of the three protesters whose legs were amputated after the Governor's visit?
He added that "since the Lagos state government has refused to accept the truth pertaining to the tragic incident of October 20, 2020 the victims and the family members of protesters that were killed are entitled to demand for justice in local and international courts."