Quite fittingly, President Muhammadu Buhari’s message of solidarity to the Nigerian freedom of expression community on the occasion of today’s 30th anniversary of the World Press Freedom Day has stressed the theme that a democracy without flourishing press freedom is a misnomer.
In the challenging march to build an enduring democracy, the world has finally come to a full awareness of the centrality of a free press. At least in a theoretical sense. From all corners of the globe, a head count of progress in building democracies has been matched by interesting developments and significant shifts in media freedom regimes. The once blatant attacks, the rapacious murders of journalists, the arbitrary closures of media houses, and the drenching announcements of restrictive legislations constraining media freedom, in the seventies and the eighties, have systematically transformed. What we encounter these days are more tempered constraints in the behaviour of enemies of the press, especially among state actors.
This year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the global body that keeps watch on the state of press freedom, says information as a social good, is the identifier and slogan that matches the spirit of the day. This way, the world body is helping to promote the important role of information as a public asset and force multiplier for democratic accountability, public health development and the remaking of a media ecology that promotes sustainable development.
Nigerians need not be reminded of the values of a free press. The struggles for the country’s independence, the effort at terminating the more-than-three-decades of a ruinous military dictatorship, the ongoing support to deepen our democracy, have positive imprints of an active, independent press. But the times are changing, and the expression of a free press today confronts newer realities that are probably far more nefarious than in the worst times of its history, like the stormy years between 1985 to 1999, during which military autocracy sketch the worst excesses of abridging our traditions of liberty. At one point, a law in this country actually got journalists into jail for no infraction than for reporting the truth because the military authorities considered the story embarrassing.
The times have changed. Yes. We now have new threats to the freedom of the press. The economic models that sustain a virile and independent press have atrophied and the sustainability of such a critical ecology that provides useful information for development and democracy is now in dire straits. Added to this is the pounding punch of the coronavirus pandemic that literally flattened the already agonising landscape. We must admit that arrogant newsroom cultures and ethical lapses in the industry have not helped matters too, making what we must admit in Nigeria has made a subtle state capture easy, particularly in the broadcast sector where this administration has been the most effective in controlling an overwhelming reach of the broadcast sector, where it also imposes a itchy regulator with a temperament out of sync with the freedom of expression.
To make press freedom significant in Nigeria therefore, the horde of restrictive legislations still in the books or crawling to become laws in parliament must be thrown out. With the payload of restraining legislations in the books, President Buhari’s admonishment to the industry to wield its freedom with responsibility sounds oddly bizarre, like shackling a man and urging him to groan pleasantly.
All reporting bodies on freedom of expression have systematically scored Nigeria poorly since the current administration came to office and between 2018 and 2020 alone, according to the Press Attack Tracker, Nigeria has recorded 72 physical attacks against journalists, 38 arbitrary arrests, 13 equipment seizures or damages, 12 denial of access and 7 cases of harassments. These are failing grades by all standards and the administration can help move the needle to a better grade.
On the whole, for a day like this, we can remind ourselves also that public access to information and fundamental freedom are the new normative definition for a free, pluralistic, independent media, and the safety of journalists are the basis for peace, development and progress in the land. In this task, citizens, state actors and professionals have to work in concert.
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