I will like to begin this Keynote Address by congratulating the mass media across the world, especially the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for the Pandora Papers. They leaked 11.9 million documents and 2.9 terabytes of data exposing corrupt dealings by the powerful and the global rich. The Pandora Papers which were released on October 3 exposed the secret dealings of 35 world leaders and over 100 billionaires and powerful people.
In 600 journalists from 150 media organisations, across 117 countries working together, shows not just the power of organisation, professionalism and commitment to make the world a better place, but also, the unstoppable power of the press.
I am proud that amongst the media organisations that worked on the Pandora Papers is the Premium Times of Nigeria whose courageous publisher, Dapo Olorunyomi is slated as one of the panellists on this platform. Let me thank Ghana for providing refuge for Nigerian journalists fleeing persecution. When the Abacha regime in Nigeria decided to physically eliminate Mr Olorunyomi in 1995, it was to Ghana he fled for refuge. When his wife, Ladi who had been held hostage was released on bail, it was Ghana that welcomed her and the children.
Also as you might know, when Nigerian employers were unwilling to hire Nnamdi Azikiwe, one of the greatest journalists that ever practiced in West Africa, it was Ghanaian employer, Mr A.J. Ocansey who in 1934 gave him a job to establish and run a fearless, Pan Africanist newspaper, the African Morning Post in this city. Azikiwe later moved back to Nigeria setting up one of the best and most fearless newspaper chain, the WEST African Pilot.
Press Freedom and Its Enemies
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Tragically, the high professionalism, exposure of sleaze and holding the powerful accountable as was done by the Pandora Papers, come at a very high prize. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) says that between 1992 and 2021, a total of 1,418 journalists were killed in the line of duty. That is some 50 journalists killed annually! This is a very high prize to pay and humanity owes journalists eternal gratitude for being watch dogs for the society, checking corruption, criminality and power abuse.
In West Africa, journalists have faced repression and death. This includes the October 19, 1986 mutilation of Mr Dele Giwa, the Editor-in-Chief of the Nigerian NEWSWATCH Magazine through a parcel bomb, and, the 1995 sentencing of four Nigerian journalists, Mrs Chris Anyanwu, Kunle Ajibade, George Mbah and Ben Charles-Obi to life imprisonment for reporting an attempted coup. There was the December 13, 1998 mafia-style execution and incineration of investigative Burkinabe journalist, Norbet Zongo, his brother, chauffeur and a friend.
The trend in the region as manifested in the countries mentioned and those like Ghana, show that perhaps the greatest enemies of press freedom is military rule.
Generally, development was not arrested in Togo until the January 13, 1963 military coup against Sylvanus Olympio. Degeneracy did not set in Ghana until the February 24, 1966 military coup against Kwame Nkrumah. Nigeria did not become a degenerate state until January 15, 1966 when the military overthrew the elected government of Tafawa-Balewa. The cumulative 29 years the military ruled Nigeria is mainly responsible for the quagmire the country is in currently. Today, the Nigerian coup-generals and their beneficiaries continue to recycle themselves in power. In the last 22 years of post-military rule, former military rulers, Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari have been President for fourteen years during which they have continued the military culture of repression.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the African military, being a colonial creation for the oppression of the people, has been one of the greatest setbacks for development in West Africa. Fifteen of the sixteen countries in Wes Africa, experienced coups and military rule. The only exception is Senegal.
Although, we have tried to steer our countries back to civil rule – democracy is still unattained – military misrule is burrowing itself back to power. There was a military coup in Mali on August 18, 2020.
This year, there have been three military coups within five months; one in Chad on April 19, 2021, another in Mali on May 24, 2021 and a third in Guinea Conakry on September 5, 2021. If will add these to other contemporary coups on the continent like the March 22-24, 2013 coup in the Central African Republic, the General el-Sisi coup in Egypt in July 2013 and the long drawn November 14-21, 2017 coup in Zimbabwe against President Robert Mugabe, we will realise that there is the danger of other military takeovers. These would constitute threats to constitutional governance and press freedom.
So the media, especially in West Africa, must rise up to help galvanise the struggle not just against military rule, but also misrule by leaders like Alassane Ouattara in Cote d’Ivoire who unconstitutionally elongate their tenure in office, Fuare Gnassingbe of Togo who has transformed governance into a monarchy and leaders who implement economic programmes designed and imposed on Africa by imperialism.
The West African peoples and their organisations have a duty to join the mass media in fighting for press freedom. I do not mean press freedom to defend the selfish interests of the ruling class but the interests of the oppressed people who constitute the majority of people in each of the countries in Africa.
One of the immediate tasks is the decriminalization of press freedom. Permit me to salute the government of Ghana which has decriminalized freedom of expression, and the Liberian government which on February 28, 2019 did the same. I want to commend the Media Foundation for West Africa for its contribution to the campaign for decriminalization in the region. The MFWA has, successfully challenged the illegal arrest and detention of journalists in the Ecowas Court of Justice.
But we have a huge battle in our hands especially in countries like Nigeria which are speeding towards increasing repression and criminalization of freedom of speech. In recent years, we in Nigeria have battled against attempts and bills on ‘Hate Speech’ attempts to chain the social media and closure of media organisations. But while it used to be easy shutting down media houses, today, with ICT, journalism has become like the rainbow; how do you pin down the rainbow? How do you shoot it down? Gradually, the power of states like those in West Africa to shut down the media is slipping out of their hands. Let me cite a case. On June 5, 2021, the Nigerian government placed an indefinite ban on Twitter for deleting tweets by President Buhari in which he threatened a major nationality in the country. However, Nigerians ignored the ban by switching to the encrypted Virtual Private Network (VPN) tunnel over which the government has no power. In a case filed against the suspension by the Socio Economic and Accountability Project (SERAP) at the Ecowas Court of Justice the Judges have restrained the Government from carrying out the threat to prosecute twitter users pending the determination of the case.
Before then, the same Court had declared illegal, null and void the ban on the use of Internet in the Republic of Togo.
The Highway To Misinformation and Digital Media Regulation
Facts, for the media, are sacred. They are like a religious obligation and their violation, side stepping, mutilation and misrepresentation are like the cardinal sin. So disinformation, misinformation, falsehood, deception and fabrication are antithetical to journalism. Yet, these ancient practices thrive because these are ways the state and power manipulate society and try to keep it in chains. It is also a way for the exploiter to exploit the exploited. The digital age with its instantaneous dissemination of information has strengthened these.
No other world leader in contemporary times has abused this more than former America President Donald Trump who in holding misinformation in a vile grip, told 30,573 verifiable lies in his four years at the White House; an average of 21 lies or inaccurate statements for every day he was in office.
Let me state that this is not uniquely American. War time British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill propagated that: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” In other words, in times of conflict or assumed conflict, one of the first casualties is the truth or facts on which journalism built its practice.
State actors, non-state actors and all specie of human beings for various reasons disseminate fake news or what is elegantly clothed as alternative news. These are fed the citizenry, the innocent or the gullible.
Misinformation or fake news is a danger to journalism, but there can be no let-up in the struggle against the purveyors who in many cases, is the state. In fact, many countries establish fake news sites or farms where they plant, culture and harvest fake news which they disseminate.
Yet the same state turns round to try regulating and censoring the social media in the name of checking fake news. Indonesia has a whole agency to regulate online media while the German state is empowered to force the online media to delete what is considered hate speech or fake news.
There is no single solution to ensuring that this does not result in outright press censorship and the circumscription of the fundamental right to freedom of speech. My suggestions include that:
i. Journalism must remain true to its professional ethics of facts being sacred.
ii. The media should engage in self-regulation and expose unprofessionalism.
iii. Gate keepers especially News Editors, Rewriters and Editors in the media need to be alert and critical so that unverified information do not get past, and if they do, retraction is made in accordance with the ethics of the profession.
iv. The media should expose fake news sites and call out purveyors of such news.
v. Media houses should invest in technology that can fact check news or information.
vi. Media organisations should not repost or rebroadcast materials they cannot verify.
vii. Journalists should strive for a system that ensures social platforms use their real names so they can be called to order if they engage in misinformation.
viii. The mass media especially in Africa should not assume that news or materials from foreign news agencies or sources are true, or value free. So they should cross check such news or materials and rewrite, rather than just regurgitate them.
ix. There is need for an education system that challenges the student to think so that conscientious citizens would be produced who can question what they read, watch or experience.
Press freedom is the freedom of society; press development, is the development of society. Therefore, the society must fight to protect press freedom, expand its boundaries, ensure the wellbeing of the mass media and protect the journalist.
In conclusion is that as human beings, we owe it a duty not just to protect and defend journalists but to also ensure that the mass media in the face of digital development, changing technology and dwindling resources, remain on course. This is in the interest of basic freedom, human rights, democracy and the development of humanity.
Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), writes from Lagos.
This is the text of the keynote address delivered at the West Africa Media Excellence Conference and Awards (WAMECA) that held on Friday, October 22 at the Swiss Spirit Alisa Hotel in Accra, Ghana.
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