All over the world, it is believed that a free press is key to a sustainable democracy, as it holds those in power accountable. But this may not be true in Nigeria, as the government and the elite constantly work to control and manipulate the media.
In the last four years, the relationship between the media and President Muhammadu Buhari was not so cordial, with many describing it as cat and mouse relationship.
These critics argue that the press enjoyed more freedom during the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, saying it was the time any journalist could write anything and still sleep with his two eyes closed. But that is not the case now.
Democracy is about dialogue that necessitates government/media partnership at all levels for progress.
Press freedom is not about physically restraining journalists from doing their work, but it is also about denying them information meant for public consumption.
In spite of the Freedom of Information Act, there has always been a long history of distrust between the media and successive governments in Nigeria. Their relationship is always gauged by accusations of bias, mischief, sensationalism, lack of objectivity and so on.
Over the years, it has proved impossible to get stakeholders to understand that the press is the fourth arm of government, which is backed by Section 22 and 39 of the 1999 Constitution.
In the last four years, there have been cases of journalist unfair detained, harassment, and killing in Nigeria. For instance, there was a strain between a section of the press and the military authority arising from a certain report that had to do with military operations in the North East.
In the light of the above, what are the global parametres for measuring press freedom and how does Nigeria run foul of them?
National Professional Officer, Communication & Information Sector, UNESCO Regional Office, Abuja, Macaulay Olushola, said Press Freedom in the World Survey provides a good opportunity to evaluate government tolerance to the media as well as the freedom being enjoyed by the press.
According to him, “The existing rankings have both methodological and conceptual limitations. Whatever measure being used should meet the basic standard of reliability. The most important thing is that press freedom enables media to freely operate without interference from the state.
“The survey does not rate government’s performance, but measures whether the country promotes and does not restrict the free flow of information without government intrusion. It should be noted too that non-state actors could also affect press freedom, including insurgents and other armed groups, preventing the press from operating freely.”
In January 2017, the police raided Premium Times office in Abuja and arrested its publisher, Mr. Dapo Olorunyomi, and its Judiciary Correspondent, Evelyn Okakwu, based on a complaint filed by the Chief of Army Staff, General Tukur Buratai, following a publication on corruption allegation and human rights violations by the military.
Also on July 26, 2016, Directorate of Security Service (DSS) agents arrested the publisher of a new organisation in Yenegoa, Mr. Jones Abiri, for allegedly leading the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force.
Abiri was detained for two years in an undisclosed location in Abuja, and set free on August 16 last year by an Abuja Magistrate court.
Abiri’s case particularly drew international attention, when bodies like International Press Institute (IPI) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) demanded his release.
Media experts have, however, advised Buhari to ensure a media friendly administration as he returns for second term. They argue that this administration must understand and respect the media’s role as an institution in building the country.
Chairman, Centre of Excellence in Multi-Media/Radio and Television, University of Lagos (UNILAG), Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye, advised the administration to work more towards ensuring that it is media friendly by making sure the regulatory bodies – National Broadcasting Commission, Press Council and so on do their work properly rather than go to court.
According to him, “The journalist should be more professional in discharging the watchdog role. Government should be more tolerant in terms of the performance of the press. Media owners should encourage professionalism and not compromise credibility.”
He further advised the National Assembly against behaviours that would expose them to journalists, adding, “When you fight and throw chairs in chambers, you give the journalist something to write about. They need to pass laws that are relevant and can add value to the country. There is need for the media and government to work together; there should be trust and cordiality between the two.
“The media must be fearless but responsible, placing their practice on the banner of truth. The other name for democracy is free press and there cannot be a sustainable democracy without free press. Government must understand this for development to occur.”
Also speaking, Prof. Tony Afejuku of the University of Benin, Benin City, said, “For the past four years, we have called him our President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB), and he tried to be, but his relationship with the media was not very cordial. This time, he would be General Muhammadu Buhari (GMB), because I don’t expect him to behave differently from what he was in 1983 as a military head of state or as a civilian president. His cabal of intriguers, his media aides are like puppets and can only do what they are being told to do. Everybody is suffering and it would be a miracle for things to be different.”
Prof Lai Oso of School of Communications, Lagos State University, Ojo, believes the party will do better in the next four years, adding, “The security agencies, I want to believe, have learnt some lessons. The government would be more relaxed this time around and will be more interested in leaving some legacy.”
These scholars are agreed the authority should build relationship with the media and let the media access to data and information when they ask for it, and learn to sustain relationships, shunning attempts to arrest reporters at the slightest provocation.
On their part, journalists are also expected to help the process of governance by performing optimally as good members of the Fourth Estate to foster and stabilise Nigeria’s democracy and political development so as to continually prevent any unwarranted and retrogressive interventions in the country’s political life.
Director, International Press Centre (IPC), Mr. Lanre Arogundade, is hopeful of an improved relationship between the media and government, adding, “The government needs to create a conducive environment for a free and fair media to thrive.”
Arogundade lamented the ill treatment often given to media practitioners by government agents, stressing that attacks on journalists must end, especially in a democracy.
“The constitution mandates the media to hold government accountable, hence the media must be allowed to perform its duty freely,” he said.