The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, Saturday in Abuja, made a robust case for freedom of the press and asked the judiciary to step up the plate and give consequence to citizens liberty through courageous and independent pronouncements and decisions.
Mr Dogara was speaking as a special guest at the conference on “Press Freedom in Nigeria – Rule of Law, Media and Violent Extremism,” to mark the 2019 World Press Freedom Day. The conference, which held at the at the Chelsea Hotel, was organised by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism in partnership with the Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption program of the British Council. It was funded by the European Union Mission to Nigeria.
“We need the judiciary to be truly independent and have the courage to make bold pronouncements if press freedom will find ground in our democracy. lawmakers can only pass motions which the executive can always ignore but if a judicial pronouncement is flouted, an independent judiciary can always enforce compliance,” he said.
In assessing the current state of government-press relations in Nigeria, Mr Dogara ran hard knocks on the government saying it is “anything but banal” adding that “we are all witnesses to recurring examples of coercion, threats, brutality, arrests, incarceration and media shut down perpetrated by the state against journalists and their establishments.”
He pointed at instances of what he characterised as “draconian measures adopted by State actors abound during the recent elections held in parts of the country and the General Elections” and remarked that such “attacks on the independence of the Press greatly inhibit effective media practice and does not augur well for good governance and democracy.”
Comparing Nigeria’s records on government-press relations to other democracies, the speaker said “governments’ efforts must never be to make our citizens docile and obedient” because, as he puts it, “that’s what repressive regimes do best, but our goal must be to keep our citizens active and informed with the skills to questions the questions and question the answers if they so wish.”
Democracies are built by refusing to censor the free press Mr Dogara asserted, stressing that “Ours cannot be different.”
Commenting on the expanded meaning of press freedom, Mr Dogara said “press freedom is not negotiable and direct violence to journalists is not the only threat. Those who attack the media as “fake news” or “enemy of the people” in order to erode the credibility of the press are as dangerous as those perpetrating violence against journalists.”
He isolated media outfits that uphold the ethics of fairness, objectivity, truthfulness and patriotism in their journalism as distinct and deserving the support of the legislative arm of government but he frowned at hate speech which he said is “not free speech and must not have a place in a democracy.”
Mr Dogara argued that while “speeches that elicit debates are welcome …speeches that incite to violence must be punished,” and with that, he took a guided review of the debate on how to regulate hate speech and the social media.
He said: “The amount of falsehood and incitement to violence unleashed daily in the Social Media may lead to unmitigated disruptive disaster one day if not checked. I guess the time is ripe for us as Nigerians to have a frank conversation on this issue.” But he rejected the view that this was the responsibility of the legislative arm of government.
“Maybe the solution and the debate should be led this time by the Media and Civil Society Organisations,” he said, laying a template upon which such debates will be conducted. “We must be honest enough to admit that there is no freedom without responsibility,” Mr Dogara stressed.
However, Mr Dogara pointed out that a debate to regulate hate news and misinformation must be erected on the vision of an independent judiciary and an independent media regime, in line with the spirit of the May 2016, Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Countering Violent Extremism proposed by the United Nation in Helsinki, Finland, which proposed that:
“Restrictions on freedom of expression must be subject to independent judicial oversight, [since] Anywhere democracy struggles, it will be because of a weak Judiciary.
“A key part of any strategy to combat terrorism and violence should be to support independent media and communications diversity.”