…a government that is genuinely committed to transparency, accountability and anti-corruption; the protection of the rule of law and the institutionalisation of democratic values, especially through the conduct of free, fair and credible elections, will not be dismantling the civic space in the manner we are witnessing. Is there more to this than meets the eye?
As I transferred my thoughts into this speaking note, it suddenly occurred to me that we are probably not sufficiently grappling with the depth of the precarious state of press freedom and freedom of expression, and the ominous darkening clouds over the civic space in Nigeria.
I even think I am guilty!
Yes, we document incidents of attacks on journalists and the media, including arson and killing – and they are numerous as we shall see. Yes, our facts and figures contributed to a situation where, for instance, Reporters San Frontiers (otherwise called Reporters Without Borders) rated Nigeria 115 out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
Yes, we’ve been kicking – as we should – against what I have personally chosen to call attempts at ‘legal’ or ‘legislative’ coups against press freedom and freedom of expression, for example, by way of the bills seeking amendments to the National Broadcasting Act (2010) and the Nigeria Press Council Act (1992), and also the Electoral Act (2010) Amendment Bill. Yes, we do all these.
But what I doubt is if we sufficiently document the depths of the jeopardy into which each attack throws the journalist involved in terms of psycho-social trauma, beyond damaged recorders or cameras; the despair into which the relation of the killed journalist is permanently thrown; the losses incurred when NBC arbitrarily shuts a broadcast medium; the violation of the Constitution that such shut down presents; and more significantly, the assault it constitutes on the right of the citizens to know – the root that produces the tree of freedom of expression from which press freedom grows as an important branch.
Now, how do I feel guilty? About three months ago, a colleague, Raheemat Momodu, asked if I would like to feature in a programme on feminism on the Human Rights Radio, Abuja. The programme was aired every Friday and I was to send in a brief profile if I was favourably disposed. Twice after the initial request, Rahemat reminded me, but somehow I kept forgetting. Then I suddenly woke up on August 2nd and sent her a WhatsApp message: “Hello Hajia, am I still needed?” And without waiting for her response sent my brief profile. Her response came thereafter and here it is:
“I did not get back to you because we have not resumed the programme at human rights radio which was suspended by NBC”.
Now, you see! Lanre Arogundade, who had signed several statements against NBC’s arbitrariness and who indeed showed up at the public hearing on the obnoxious National Broadcasting Act Amendment bill had forgotten that due to the alleged offence of a single individual, NBC kept a whole radio station permanently shut for about two months, denying journalists, media professionals and other media workers their means of livelihood – a development that reinforces the submission of Tosin Alagbe of PTCIJ that: “It is not fully documented and for that reason not well known, that freedom of expression and the humanitarian rights of media workers and institutions represent some of the most egregious human rights violations in the country but particularly since the return to democracy in 1999”.
The shut-down also denied a station that has paid its licensing fees the means of survival by way of income from advertisement and more fundamentally, in the context of our discourse today, it denied a civil society organisation and its audiences the civic space on radio to engage the issue of feminism in a society where about half of the population are women. Mark you, that station had its operations suspended without recourse to the law court, thus highlighting the danger we see in media regulatory bodies being allowed to be accusers, prosecutors and judges in their own case. Yet, the proposed Section 2 (Functions of the Commission) (n) of the NBC Amendment bill seeks to empower the body to impose sanctions, including closure on broadcast stations, if it deemed such to be in the public interest!
…it is the danger of contemptuous impunity that we face over the shrinking civic space and the assault on the press freedom and freedom of expression. The challenge is that in confronting the danger, we cannot afford to doze off for a second, talk less of weeks, like this citizen Lanre did in the case of the Human Rights Radio.
Dimensions of Impunity
Impunity is bad enough, but the contemptuous type threatens, more menacingly, fundamental rights and
undermines democracy. It sabotages the constitutional obligation imposed on the media by Section 22 to “….uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the People”, even as it is well known that a free press remains important for every democracy, because a free press plays a critical role in informing people about their rights, holding governments accountable and allowing for varying conversations about issues in the public interest. It allows for difficult and hard questions to be asked and answered. This can be seen as destabilising but the accountability that comes with the answered questions, in the long run, is worth it. Where the media is denied the opportunity of disseminating credible information, rumours run in the information production mill and the product cannot but be fake news by way of disinformation and misinformation.
So, it is the danger of contemptuous impunity that we face over the shrinking civic space and the assault on the press freedom and freedom of expression. The challenge is that in confronting the danger, we cannot afford to doze off for a second, talk less of weeks, like this citizen Lanre did in the case of the Human Rights Radio.
Sending Kiama Kato to jail in Adamawa State, for allegedly insulting President Muhammadu Buhari and SGF Boss Mustapha is nothing but contemptuous impunity. It is a judicial assault on the civic space.
The penchant of the Police to shoot and kill youths suspected of crime and send their bodies to medical schools to be dismembered for anatomical experiments is morbid impunity. The armed invasion (without warrant of arrest) of the residence of Sunday Igboho, a Yoruba Nation advocate in Ibadan and the killing of two of the people found in the house, including a Muslim cleric, is another form of morbid impunity. Openly preventing journalists from covering the Abuja High Court trial of eight of his aides who were arrested and detained is brazen impunity in the face of the law.
There are many other indicators of the impunity-driven shrinking of the civic space, including but certainly not limited to:
• Efforts by governments to curtail the activities of CSOs and control them, indicated by the number of bills pending at the National Assembly, seeking to regulate CSOs and their funding through sweeping powers to the point of threatening their existence;
• Efforts by the government to make it more difficult for CSOs to get foreign funding and to put tight controls on their funding, such as the Special Control Unit Against Money Laundering (SCUML) and such initiatives;
• Restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly and association, especially with the efforts to curtail the right to protest;
An hostile environment to the media with the existence of over twenty (20) laws that stifle the free press, leading to journalism gradually becoming an endangered profession. Journalists and activists have been spied on, threatened, arbitrarily arrested, forcedly kidnapped, and unlawfully detained.
• Proposed legislations, like the Hate Speech and Social Media Bills, which speak to deliberate efforts at violating the rights of Nigerians to peacefully assemble and freely express their views without the fear of being detained or harassed;
• Severe attacks on civic freedom and human rights defenders with Accountability Lab reporting that Spaces for Change recorded over three hundred and twenty (320) cases of the clamp down on the civic space since President Buhari assumed office;
• The suspension the Twitter ban and the call to arrest Twitter users until the ECOWAS court put a halt to the threat;
• An hostile environment to the media with the existence of over twenty (20) laws that stifle the free press, leading to journalism gradually becoming an endangered profession. Journalists and activists have been spied on, threatened, arbitrarily arrested, forcedly kidnapped, and unlawfully detained. According to PTCIJ’s Press Attack Tracker, there have been over two hundred and twenty (220) attacks on the Nigerian media since President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office in 2015.
• Distributed Network Attacks or Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on media websites such as experienced by Premium Times on February 28 and 29, 2020.
The summary of the above is that there is virtually no rule of law in existence anymore, with criminals, kidnappers and terrorists getting away with murder, while innocent citizens, civil society actors and journalists are charged with treason, terrorism, etc.
In concluding, I will like to submit that a government that is genuinely committed to transparency, accountability and anti-corruption; the protection of the rule of law and the institutionalisation of democratic values, especially through the conduct of free, fair and credible elections, will not be dismantling the civic space in the manner we are witnessing. Is there more to this than meets the eye?
To return to the thrust of my submission therefore, I will end by saying that times like this calls for eternal vigilance long described as the price of liberty.
This is the text of the presentation made at ‘A Conversation on Press Freedom, Freedom of Expression and Civic Space in Nigeria’ organised by the US Consulate in Lagos on Wednesday, August 4.
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