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Wednesday, October 13, 2021

A 1984 PRESS: THE FICTITIOUS FREE PRESS IN NIGERIA

Mass media

At the advent of mass media, dissemination of information to their audience was central, since the media was the government’s mechanism to reach out to the governed. Eventually, entertainment became a feature as well. Much has changed with the democratisation of societies and the commercialisation of media houses which now seek to make profit.[1] Being mostly privately owned enterprises, media outfits are seeking the maximisation of profit.

A progressive state’s press

Progressive state’s core leanings favour the people’s franchise â€" democracy. In its banausic form, democracy is as Abraham Lincoln termed it: “government of the people, for the people, and by the people.” But when expounded upon, it does not appear as simple as that. It encompasses among other things, separation of powers with checks and balances, and the press playing its prominent role as a fourth estate; checking the other threeâ€"the executive, judiciary and the legislature.

There is no telling the role played by the press in the development of a democratic state. Therefore, freedom of the press is always emphasised by concerned participants in the politics of any state desiring true democracy.

For instance, Amnesty International, a foreign based NGO has lent its voice to the call for a free press in Nigeria. Their three-point manifesto on a free press seeks to:

  • Ensure that media houses are allowed to operate independently and journalists in government owned media houses enjoy the right to freedom of expression and can carry out their job without fear of reprisals. Furthermore, the government should protect the operation of independent media agencies and their journalistic freedom.
  • Train and instruct the police and other security forces to protect journalists and other media professionals and refrain from harassing, intimidating, arbitrarily arresting journalists and raiding media houses.
  • Publicly acknowledge the important role of journalists in informing the public and promoting human rights and accountability of leaders in Nigeria.[2]
  • Is free press a fundamental right in Nigeria?

    The short answer to the poser is yes. Section 39(1) of the 1999 Constitution guarantees free press in Nigeria, but it is not unqualified. Of the two main traditional categories of mass media: print media and broadcast media, there seems to be a Constitutional restriction on only the operation of the latter, so that a right to run a broadcast media outfitâ€"television or wireless broadcasting station is subject to conditions in an Act of the National Assembly.[3] That is where the role of laws such as the National Broadcasting Act 1992[4] and Nigerian Communications Act 2003[5], and government agencies such as Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) become necessary.

    On the whole, free press is not absolute because “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins”. Long ago, the Supreme Court weighed in on limitations of free press when it held in The Amalgamated Press (of Nigeria) Ltd & Anor v Queen[6] that it is not “…a licence to spread false news likely to cause fear and alarm the public”. The attitude of the court has been that of drawing a balance between freedom of expression and the rights of others.[7] Thus, the court has held that a press which is deserving of freedom is that which is responsible, carrying out its duties ethically.[8]

    Antecedents on clampdown on the press

    Although there are jurisprudential justifications for limiting the freedom of the press in Nigeria, it is arguable that there is true freedom of the press as is expected in any democratically inclined society. Antecedents of a press under attack abound through the outright victimisation, rumoured assassination, judicial murder[9] and forced ostracisation of dogged journalists such as Ken Saro-wiwa, Dele Giwa[10] and Isioma Daniel; the proscription of newspaper houses such as Newswatch; and the arbitrary shutdown of newspaper houses such as Th Republic. Indeed, these anti-press activities in Nigeria did not commence upon our independence. They existed even during the colonial rule, under which they were legally enabled.[11]

    The most recent government orchestrated clampdown on the press is NBC’s fine of media houses like Channels TV for granting an interview to an official of IPOB â€" Indigenous People of Biafra. To give a bit of a background to the story, IPOB has been proscribed by the Nigerian government following allegations of terrorism. The veracity of IPOB’s proscription is not subject of this paper, but it is enough to state that certain commentators on the proscription of IPOB by the court have argued that it is not good law. One of the reasons for this argument is that the proscription was obtained by ex parte application without giving room for fair hearing from the association.[12]

    Channels TV and Inspiration FM, Lagos were fined by NBC for broadcasting an interview with Emma Power, the media and publicity officer of the indigenous people of Biafra (IPOB), and airing an IPOB programme containing secessionist claims respectively. Despite criticism by many, some have argued that both media outfits have no justification for their actions because IPOB is a proscribed organisation.

    The section of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code said to have been breached is Section 3.11.1(b) which mandates broadcasters to ensure that no programme containing anything amounting to subversion of constituted authority or compromising the unity or corporate existence of Nigeria as a sovereign state is aired. And for this breach, both media houses were fined ₦5,000,000 each.

    Drawing the line between objective journalism, free press and sanctity of the state.

    Whether there is a symbiotic relationship between the media and some publicity seeking crimes such as terrorism, insurrection and treason is not in question. Journalism is expensive and it thrives on its ability to capture the attention of its audience which is why for the longest time, the commodity of the media houses has been said to be their audience. With the commercialisation of media houses comes the need to keep the funds coming, thereby necessitating broadcast of news worthyâ€"catchy information.

    Media coverage of terrorists can result in intimidation of the people, imitation of the terrorists’ behaviour (Operant conditioning model â€" repetition of an act due to its gratifying tendency from previous occurrence), and immunization from the terrorists’ desired goal of instigation of fear.[13] But are these justifiable reasons to directly or indirectly clampdown on the press? I think not.

    The job of the press in a democratic society is to disseminate information. A free press is one which without fear or favour informs and sensitizes the people of developments within its reach. There is no doubt that the press should be regulated, but the extent of that regulation and the methods and mechanisms adopted for it speaks to the development of a society’s democracy.

    On the fine by NBC therefore, my view is that the punitive pronouncement by NBC is reprehensible, and indicative of the anti-press disposition of the present government. And the media houses apology letters to NBC is evidence of a subdued press. NBC has acted as prosecutor, judge and executor, paying no attention to the Constitutional right to fair hearing. The media houses ought to have challenged NBC’s steps through a lawsuit.

    Channels TV’s broadcast of IPOB’s program does not amount to a breach of Section 3.11.1(b) of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code. A media house’s interview of a proscribed organisation is not support of the organisation’s objectives and ideology, much as a US Journalist’s interview of the much-dreaded Osama Bin Laden[14] does not amount to support for Bin Laden’s terrorist attacks and mayhem.

    Conclusion

    If Nigeria wants to get serious about holding the government of the day accountable, free press must go beyond lip service. As long as the press is performing its social responsibility of keeping the public aware of well investigated and accurate developments in the society, why should they be gagged?

    [1] <https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/236306621.pdf> assessed 14 May 2021

    [2] <https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/take-action/nigeria-free-the-press-manifesto/> accessed 14 May 2021

    [3] The Constitution, S 39(2)

    [4] Cap N11 LFN 2010

    [5] Cap N97 LFN 2010

    [6] [1961] LPELR-25124 (SC)

    [7]President of the FRN v ISA [2015] LPELR-25981(CA)

    [8] Gomes v Punch (Nig) Ltd v Anor [1999] 5 NWLR (Part 602) 303

    [9] British Prime Minister John Major called the execution of the Ogoni nine one of whom Ken Saro-Wiwa was a "judicial murder." Ayo Olukotun, Repressive State and Resurgent Media Under Nigeria's Military Dictatorship < https://books.google.com.ng/books?id=qz9BlWO7ExwC&pg=PA129&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false>

    [10] Ndaeyo Uko, Romancing the Gun: the Press as Promoter of Military Rule <https://books.google.com.ng/books?id=Abm-v6wGWOQC&pg=PA100&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false>

    [11] Apuke Destiny Oberiri, ‘Exploring the Extent of Press Freedom in Nigeria’ (2017) 3(2) International Journal of International Relations, Media and Mass Communication Studies 28-31 <https://www.eajournals.org/wp-content/uploads/Exploring-the-Extent-of-Press-Freedom-in-Nigeria.pdf> accessed 2 June 2021

    [12]Zacchaeus Adangor, ‘Proscription of the Indigenous People of Biafra and the politics of Terrorism in Nigeria’ (2018) 10(1) The Journal of Jurisprudence and Contemporary Issues <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332241912_PROSCRIPTION_O_F_THE_INDIGENOUS_PEO_PLE_O_F_BIAFRA_IPOBi_AND_TH_E_POLITICS_O_F_TERRORISM_IN_NIGERIA> accessed 13 May 2021

    [13] Michelle Ward Ghetti, ‘The Terrorist Is A Star!: Regulating Media Coverage of Publicity Seeking Crimes’ Federal Communications Law Journal (2008) 60 (3) <https://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1507&context=fclj;The> accessed 1 June 2021

    [14] John Miller, “Greetings America, My name is Osama Bin Laden” <https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/who/miller.html>

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