But for the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) and its strategic partner, the Coalition for Whistleblower Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF) who, in commemorating the 2020 World Press Freedom Day, extended warm invitation to me to contribute an article on ‘Press Freedom and Constricting Laws’ , my attention would probably not roam around and anchor on how politics and populism have systematically made concerted and consistent efforts at throttling the independence of free press in Nigeria. That recent enacted Laws such as the Cyber Crimes Act 2015 have in the main, criminalized free speech makes it even more problematic. Add that to the relinquishing of power by the media, and it will not be difficult to see that the threats against free press are as real as its dangerous impact on democracy.
History tells us of returning merchants, sailors and travelers who would bring back as souvenirs, news items to the main land prior to journalism. News was then picked-up by peddlers who spread it from place to place in hues and shades the peddlers intended. This caused the news received to be unreliable or so lost in texture and meaning that it was often radically different from the information that left its source.
By the 18th century, the ancient scribes had began to write information down in a more enduring form. Revolutionary changes of the 19th century in businesses, politics and culture made newspapers a worthy and timely asset. Radio and television made it through the 20th century and the internet in the 21st. Politics moved up the pyramid. Politicians soon began to sponsor newspapers at local and international level. By the end of the 20th century, advertising became a thing and the main source of funding for media organizations.
With the political rat race in swing, politicians began to sponsor media houses in order that they might control or tinker with the news as they saw fit. They would dangle the carrot and media houses would bite the bait. Why is this crash course in History important except to say that even today that bait has become a lump that is too big to be swallowed and too hinged for a surgical removal. It lends credence to French writer, Jean-Baptiste Karr’s assertion that the more things change,the more they stay the same.
PRESS FREEDOM & CONSTRICTING LAWS.
When the founding fathers (and mothers) of our Constitution sought to design a grund norm that will serve as our national chatter, they envisioned a land where freedom rings and rights prevail. In their wisdom, they deemed Section 39 an imperative: ‘ Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.
Subsection two of the same provision goes on to assure that : ‘ Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information ideas and opinions. The section retains power in the President who alone can authorize any person or body to operate a television or wireless broadcasting station for any purpose whatsoever upon the fulfilment by such applicant, conditions laid down by acts of the National Assembly.
The exceptions to freedom of expression and the press as constitutionally provided include: preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and independence of courts or regulating telephony, wireless broadcasting, television or the exhibition of cinematograph films. Holders of office under the government of the federation or of a state, members of the armed forces of the federation or members of the Nigeria police force or other government security services or agencies established by law may have certain restrictions imposed on them due to the nature of their assignments and the offices they occupy.
Section 39 comes across as fair deal except that government officials have made a habit of honouring the provision more in breach than in compliance. Media practitioners who should call for accountability for such breaches are sometimes willing allies and ready tools to be oppressed or for oppression. And just so that point does not come across as sweeping, a quick census drives home the point: Any media organization that relies on government or political party for its existence is wholly disqualified from the conversation about free press for the reason that it is bad table manners to talk while eating just as he who plays the piper dictates its tune. It is on this altar of political or governmental expediency that the facts of what happens in the society is often sacrificed. And for this ignoble cause, we get to see media outfits every now and again throw their conscientious reporters under the bus, kill stories in the editorial rooms or minimize the effect of stark facts that are already exposed to the public. Picture this as the media putting out its hands to be chained and reaching out its neck for the hang noose.
This, sadly, is Nigeria’s Press reality in many ways. To be clear, the defense of quality journalism and protection of journalists who hold alternative views to official narratives are very far from being government’s priority and may not be in a long time. The political consideration is interest- stories that make a government look popular or earn votes for a political party.
Social Media, which is the new village square of ideas, has provided a platform for anyone with data and bandwidth to express their ideas. Unfortunately, the rush of satisfaction that citizens had of a venue that allows for the cross pollination of ideas is now dampened by organized political trolls and bullies. Censorship has been enabled by government secrecy, direct clamp down of ideas and legal pressure that translates in criminalizing offline or digital free speech and making criminals of those who seek to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression.
There is already the setting of a blistering pace by such laws.That there can be a Section 24 in Nigeria’s Cyber Crimes Act in a 21st century globe speaks to the progress we make doubling backwards. The section makes it an offence for any person knowingly or intentionally to send a message or other matter by means of computer systems or network (1) that is grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indecent obscene or menacing character. It is also an offence when a person sends a message via computer or network knowing such information to be false, or for the purpose of causing annoyance , inconvenience,danger, obstruction, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such a message to be sent.
The section stipulates a fine penalty of N7,000,000 or imprisonment for up to 3 years.
There are many reasons Section 24 of the Cyber Crimes Act is a poor legal art including but not limited to the fact that it is vague, lacks clear definition and is a hazy mish-mash of several acts (actus reus) with different ingredients that should not belong in a single provision. The guilty mind (mens rea) required to form the series of punishable acts in that section are at best, unclear. How does a person for instance know at the point of digital self expression that his/her act will be interpreted as ‘menacing’, or ’cause annoyance, inconvenience or hatred?’ Where is the definition section for what these acts could be? There is none.
This regimented regime of Laws that serve as swords and shields in the quiver of government officials is the very antithesis of democracy. It enables freedom,the most valuable asset in a democracy, to be peddled for cheap smuts. Prior to the 2019 elections for instance, there was the rife buzz about hate speeches. In reality, hate speech or what it means is not found in the Nigeria Law codes. And that’s not where it freezes: If the over arching idea of hate speech is an expression that encourages hate or violence towards a person or group based on race, religion , ethnic group or political affiliation, what do we say about state sponsored actions and inactions that drive inequities and enable Injustice at people? How, for all that is good and fair, do we talk of hate speeches without speaking of the corresponding hate actions? There is hence a situation of classic Injustice that keeps with the notion that the led could do wrong but not the leader.
JOURNALISM WITHOUT FEAR OR FAVOUR
The 2020 theme of the World Free Press Day is ‘Journalism Without Fear or Favour’. It is a worthy theme. Nigeria is not much better than Kim Jong- Un’s North Korea whose totalitarian regime has kept its citizens in a state of ignorance and fear. According to a 2020 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, ‘Nigeria is now one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are often spied on, attacked, arbitrarily arrested or even killed.’ Quality journalism is undermined by repressive government actions. In July 2019 and in January 2020 respectively, two journalists were killed while covering a protest by the Islamic Movement in Nigeria. State Governors are some of the biggest Free Press repressors. Oyo’s Abiola Ajimobi ordered the demolition of Yinka Ayefele’s Fresh FM and caused the arrest of Oriyomi Hamzat , an investigative journalist. Idowu Adekoya was arrested in Ogun State after she reported on the stone-filled beans distributed as Covid-19 palliative. In 2017 the Nigeria Union of Journalists declared Kaduna State ‘the most lethal state to practice journalism’ and warned that ‘…such attacks( in the state) may not abate soon’. The state under Governor Nasir Elrufai has seen at least ten journalists and online commentators arrested and/or imprisoned such as Jacob Onjewu Dickson, Leadership Newspaper’s Midat Joseph, Vanguard’s Luka Binniyat and Steven Kefas. Abubakar Idris (AKA Dadiyata) an online critic of the government who was picked up by dare- devil looking men since August,2019 is yet to be found dead or alive. I should add with utter dismay that some of these reporters who reported for reputable media organizations were sued as individuals. In the case of Vanguard and they found it convenient to lay off their staff, refused to pick up his legal bills or pay his entitlement.
In the face of these difficulties and more journalists have the calling to keep a probing watch over the public space, to bring reliable information and counter disinformation.It is their task to clinically present different perspectives and to connect the globe to its people.
Walter Williams foresaw this when he scribbled The Journalist’s Creed, an oath journalists all over the world subscribe to. Journalism is a public trust. It requires stout independence, abhors greed of power, is clear thinking, accurate and fair. The suppression of news for any consideration other than the welfare of the people is indefensible. Bribery by the pocketbook of another is to be avoided. Journalism must fear God and honour man or it is no Journalism at all. Having sworn to that oath, the Nigerian media must count the cost and carry their cross.
Ballason is the C.E.O. House of Justice and Principal Partner, MIVE LEGALS. She has been a newspaper weekly columnist since 2009.
Ballason may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.