Scores of Nigerian journalists gathered this week in Abuja to discuss the state of press freedom in the country and the ethical codes of conduct that guide their practice at a three-day training event organised by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) Foundation.
The training, facilitated by leading media, academic, legal and civil society professionals, saw intensive discussion around laws hindering press freedom; the use of defamation as a tool of suppressing press freedom; public perception of media and press freedom as well as guiding principles of code of conduct and code of ethics for Nigerian journalists. The training drew participants from the print, online and broadcast media across the six geo-political zones of the country.
Participants went through the theoretical and historical contexts of why it is evident that to build a healthy democracy, the media must enjoy unbridled freedom to do its job. It must be able to hold everyone, and particularly the government, accountable without restrictions from state and non-state actors. They were guided through the context of continued violations of media rights, and why they work under sustained conditions of physical and digital attacks.
The 2020 media freedom report of the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) themed – “State of Press Freedom, Trend and Analysis” and which provided a curated data assessment of the state of the regime of media freedom in the country – provided a backdrop for the training, highlighting the poor standing of press freedom in Nigeria’s nascent democracy and the complicity of state actors in using the instruments of the Nigerian laws, policy positions and administrative decisions to constrain press freedom.
Besides issues that impact the freedom of the press, the report also highlights issues of cogent consequence such as media sustainability, media and technology and their implications for press freedom. According to the Press Attack Tracker (www.pressattack.ng), between 2018- 2020, North Central zone of the country recorded the highest number of attacks on the press of all six geo-political zones in the country. Most of the cases were in the nature of physical attack, arrest, equipment seizure, threat and denial of access and, as the report documented, these attacks are carried out by a concert of state and non-state actors.
“Press freedom is essential to any democracy. If there is no press freedom, democracy can’t work,” Vladimir Kreck, the Resident Representative of KAS, commented at the training, adding that there is still a lot of space in Nigeria to improve press freedom.
Mr Kreck also added that while freedom was central to the full functioning of the press, journalists cannot ignore strict adherence to ethical standards of the profession, a theme at the training that featured Dapo Olorunyomi, Publisher of Premium Times, who stressed the role of core ethical fidelity to the proper definition of professionalism.
Calls for regulatory reforms
Media and human rights advocates who spoke at the event called for peer regulation and the need to review existing regulations in order to allow for a free press that can successfully carry out its constitutional accountability duties.
To enable a regime of press freedom, Ossai Ojigho, Country Director of Amnesty International, said instead of creating more laws, the existing laws that guarantee the freedom of expression should be strengthened. She also said coercive laws like the Cybercrime Act should be amended.
“That law (cybercrime law) has been used to intimidate and harass journalist, so they should amend that law to make sure it is in line with international law and standards including the Terrorism Act too because it has also been used as a means to challenge people who voice dissenting opinions against the running of the affairs of government. So rather than create new laws, they should amend problematic provisions in laws, they should expand the constitution so that it clearly states and includes press freedom, but most importantly they should implement existing laws to ensure that people can freely access public policies, people can seek justice in court, people who make complaints are heard. National assembly can do a lot more to ensuring that all the other parts of governance are being run efficiently, ” she said.
Tunji Ogunyemi, a professor and Head, Department of History, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, said the broadcasting and even the media industry need a revisiting which should include a summit for all stakeholders to “discuss issues of regulation and the ultimate need to represent the public correctly.”
Speaking further, he said: “not that freedom cannot be curtailed for the sake of public safety, public health and public security, but that when it is done, it should be done judiciously and judicially.”
Tunde Akanni, a lecturer at the Department of Journalism, Lagos State University, added that the over centralization of broadcast power in the hands the National Broadcasting Commission distorts the nature of the country’s federal nature and calls for the regulatory regime to be opened up. “It’s the government that appoints everyone into that board, whereas the board of such a commission should actually be made to be reflective of the diverse components of the entire Nigerian society.”
He said the commission needs “real stakeholders who would be keen on every bit of what the commission does.”
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