Every threat provides an opportunity and when the most is made of the opportunity, it produces a desired outcome. The new or subsisting threats to the media can largely be surmounted by the basic codes and canons of journalism like courage, truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, social justice and public accountability. I would, to those codes, add consistency in upholding values.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, and Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria confer on humans the right to freedom of opinion, expression, the press, and the right to receive and impart information and ideas, without interference by the public authority and regardless of frontiers. This is a qualified right, which enables anyone to hold free opinion and express them verbally, in writing, through the television, radio or Internet.
The journalist, through honest and systematic probe, can report the facts, because facts don’t lie. This is even more pertinent because behind facts and figures are real human victims. However, where the journalist fails in this duty, the consequences become dire. For good or for ill, the media sets the agenda on issues and for the polity.
If there are two diametrically opposed reports on the same event, where lies the truth? Who breaks the tie? That is the duty of the journalist. The journalist, through honest and systematic probe, can report the facts, because facts don’t lie. This is even more pertinent because behind facts and figures are real human victims. However, where the journalist fails in this duty, the consequences become dire. For good or for ill, the media sets the agenda on issues and for the polity.
Early in January, Garba Shehu, the President’s spokesman, had in reaction to the Christmas sermon of Catholic Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah said: “Father Kukah has greatly offended many with his controversial remarks against the government and the person of the president, with some even accusing him of voicing anti-Islamic rhethoric… on matters such as these, responsible leadership in any society must exercise restraint. Knee jerk reactions will not only cause the fraying of enduring relationships but also the evisceration of peaceful communities such as Sokoto, the headquarters of the Muslim community, as beacon of pluralism and tolerance…”
In response, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) called out Garba Shehu for “direct incitement to violence” against the person of the Bishop. HURIWA noted that the Department of State Services and the Nigeria Police Force failed or ignored to arrest one Professor Isa Muhammadu Maishenu of the Muslim Solidarity Forum, Sokoto, who issued a direct threat to the life of the Bishop, adding that it was inconceivable that a presidential spokesman would descend to the arena of religious extremism by ascribing wrong meanings and interpretation to issues. In this incident, we see how the official contortion or mischievous interpretation of events could, when not curtailed, accessorise or translate to crime or breakdown of law and order.
One more example: If you exist in the Nigeria social media space, Lauretta Onochie, President Buhari’s Special Assistant on Social Media and the government’s foremost attack dog, requires little or no introductions. Yet it was President Buhari’s nomination of Onochie as National Commissioner, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that stunned the nation. Of this, Raymond Nkannebe wrote in The Cable:
“At any other time, it would have been taken as good humour but for a president that has perfected the art of acting unconstitutionally, and sometimes outrightly insensitive, particularly with appointments, the nomination of one of the most rabid attack dogs of Muhammadu Buhari, on social media as a National Commissioner of no less an institution than the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) fits into a scurrilous pattern that is both confounding and unacceptable, especially at this time, And the reason is not hard to see: principles matter (emphasis mine).”
In Lai Mohammed, Garba Shehu and Lauretta Onochie, we see a picture that emerges of how official control of news through propaganda crystallises into toxic state policy, with the capacity to consume. When Lai says the war against Boko Haram is largely won or defeated, while victims and security agents bear the brunt of catastrophic murders and mass atrocities, the question that the journalist should probe is whether Mr. Mohammed is more interested in making the Buhari government look good or whether he prioritises the value of life. When Garba Shehu releases an inciting statement or labels the killings in Southern Kaduna as ‘reprisals’, the media should, among other questions, ask if reprisal is justification for murder. In asking the right questions and probing for answers, a national culture of values, rather than impunity, can be harnessed.
From secrecy to legal pressure, to direct censorship, to denial of access to information, to force, to the challenge of separating sentiments from facts, to the pressure to pay the bills while remaining relevant in an authoritarian democratic rule, the endless threats to journalism continue to metamorphose…
We should do a quick look at citizens journalism, which has largely been enabled and driven by social media, and is collaborative media that provides alternative and activist forms of news gathering and reporting outside mainstream media institutions. Social media is the new village square of the convergence of citizens’ ideas. While professional media practitioners may fault it in terms of ethics, economics and epistemology or more broadly, on quality and objectivity, the gains of social media far outweigh the ills, as citizens are increasingly taking ownership of governance. That is why any attempt to shut down the digital space or violate the freedoms that it provides must be firmly resisted, while citizens, on the other hand, must continuously engage in credible reportage.
In all, the threats that are perhaps most virulent are the murder of stories on the tables of media executives, the betrayals and denial of truth, the transgendering of criminals to saints by media houses. Committed journalists and young practitioners who are taught by the book that the truth sets free, that voices should be independent, that the two sides of the coin should be explore, that empathy should rule, find to their utter shock that the visions and missions framed in gold and draped on murals and magnificent buildings are sometimes sterile, empty words to be learnt by rote but devoid of any value or principles.
The cases of three journalists, Luka Binniyat, Samuel Ogundipe and Otosirieze Obi-Young, and the circumstances in which they left their previous jobs, are not only sobering but call for deep reflection on whether media executives and indeed the Nigeria media have counted the cost of journalism, and if they are willing to pay the price.
From secrecy to legal pressure, to direct censorship, to denial of access to information, to force, to the challenge of separating sentiments from facts, to the pressure to pay the bills while remaining relevant in an authoritarian democratic rule, the endless threats to journalism continue to metamorphose as surely as the line between traditional media and the new media thin out in obscurity in a 21st century world.
Sometimes the threats are not in what is done but in what is left undone. Who, for instance, is following up the story about why Nigeria’s Chief Justice was removed from office by an exparte motion? How the Code of Conduct Tribunal Chairman, who issued the exparte, reportedly assaulted a security guard and termed the incident an attack by ‘Bakassi Boys’? Who is investigating the content of the extremist views held by the Minister of Comunications and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami? What are the collective or boomerang effects of these incidences on the fight against terrorism and insecurity or on the independence of the judiciary? Given the multiple challenges and crises our country is living through, we must leave nothing undone that needs to be done.
Every threat provides an opportunity and when the most is made of the opportunity, it produces a desired outcome. The new or subsisting threats to the media can largely be surmounted by the basic codes and canons of journalism like courage, truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, social justice and public accountability. I would, to those codes, add consistency in upholding values. All of these and more can be reduced into the clear identification of what is right and what is wrong and finding the courage to do that which is right in the media space. Why is this necessary? Because what we do or fail to do creates a legacy but much more because when all is said and done, principles matter.
Gloria Mabeiam Ballason is a legal practitioner and C.E.O. House of Justice. She may be reached through: email@example.com
This is the text of a presentation made by Gloria Mabeiam Ballason at the 8th Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum (DRIF) organised by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) at Reiz Continental Hotel, FCT, Abuja, on April 21.
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