A PRESENTATION BY GLORIA MABEIAM BALLASON ESQ AT THE 8TH DIGITAL RIGHTS AND INCLUSION FORUM (DRIF) ORGANIZED BY THE PREMIUM TIMES CENTRE FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM (PTCIJ) NIGERIA ON 21 APRIL,2021 AT REIZ CONTINENTAL HOTEL, FCT ABUJA.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act and Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria confer on humans the right to freedom of opinion, expression, the press and the right to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This is a qualified right that enables anyone to hold a free opinion and express them verbally, in writing, through television, radio or the internet.
There is sometimes a struggle by governments and authorities in understanding the inalienability of these rights. At such times, the end result is that these laws get to be treated as a list of suggestions and are observed much in the breach than in compliance. The threats are many among which are secrecy of facts, legal pressure, direct censorship, intimidation, threats or seizure of equipment. Nigeria is one of the states in the Global South where the government is increasingly turning to propaganda, disinformation or cyberbullying that are not only state-aligned but state coordinated and implemented as official policy.
According to a report by ARTICLE 19, an organization that defends free expression and information, there was in 2020 alone, at least 51 crimes committed against 60 journalists in Nigeria. Of these 51 incidents, three journalists were killed by security forces- one during a protest in Abuja while two were murdered by unknown persons.34 journalists were victims of assaults in Lagos, Ondo, Osun, Abia, Anambra, Bauchi, Edo, Rivers and the Federal Capital Territory. 18 of these journalists were assaulted for covering the #ENDSARS protest, 12 were arrested six of whom were charged in court mostly under the Terrorism or Cybercrime Act. Three Media outlets were attacked and four media outlets were fined by the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation as a punitive measure for their coverage.
“Cyberstalking” and “injurious falsehood” have become the catchphrase of the easy resort by a government fully committed to criminalizing dissent and who have hired trolls paid from taxpayers money. My brief is to discuss new threats to press freedom, the overt and covert attempts to limit these freedoms, the implications of the current state of affairs especially as it relates to the Social Media bill and then to proffer customized strategies for resisting press suppression that presently ravages the Nigeria Media and civic space.
NEW THREATS TO PRESS FREEDOM IN NIGERIA
There are at least three appointments in the official Nigerian media space that could help illustrate the point. Since 2015 Alhaji Lai Rauf Mohammed has been Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Garba Shehu is the Senior Special Assistant, Media and Publicity to President Buhari while Lauretta Onochie is the President’s Special Assistant on Social Media. On 21st December 2015 at a meeting with Newspapers editors, Alhaji Lai said ‘ _… the war against Boko Haram is largely won…We have so degraded the capacity of Boko Haram that the terrorists can no longer hold unto any territory.’_ On 7 February 2016, barely a month after Lai’s pronouncement, Baba Kaka Garbai, Senator representing Borno Central, warned “ _We should not live under the illusion that Boko Haram are decimated or weakened…most of the local governments in Borno are partially occupied by Boko Haram”._
Again in a press conference in Abuja on 16 February 2016, the Minister reiterated “ _Boko Haram remains massively degraded and largely defeated…their capacity to operate as a troop moving in a convoy of vehicles and motorcycles to launch attacks on communities and military formations has been neutralized_ .”
On April 16, 2016, exactly two weeks after, the Acting Director, Army Public Relations, Sani Usman reported as follows “ _In the early hours of Friday, some elements of Boko Haram terrorists in 5 gun trucks, motorcycles and 2 Golf cars laden with improvised Explosive Devices from Sambisa forest axis attempted an attack on 121 Task Force Battalion at Pulka.”_
There are two diametrically opposed reports on the same event. Where lies the truth? Who breaks the tie? That is the duty of the journalist. The Journalist through an honest and systematic probe can report the facts because facts don’t lie. This is even more pertinent because behind facts and figures are real human victims. However, where the journalist fails in this duty, the consequences become dire. For good or for ill, the Media sets the agenda on issues and for the polity.
Early in January 2021, Garba Shehu, the President’s spokesman had in reaction to the Christmas sermon of Catholic Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah said:
Father Kukah has greatly offended many with his controversial remarks against the government and the person of the President with some even accusing him of voicing anti-Islamic rhetoric… on matters such as these, responsible leadership in any society must exercise restraint. Knee jerk reactions will not only cause the fraying of enduring relationships but also the evisceration of peaceful communities such as Sokoto, the headquarters of the Muslim community as a beacon of pluralism and tolerance…”
In response, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) called out Garba Shehu for ‘direct incitement to violence” against the person of the Bishop. HURIWA noted that the Department of State Services and the Nigeria Police Force failed or ignored to arrest one Professor Isa Muhammadu Maishenu of the Muslim Solidarity Forum Sokoto who issued a direct threat to the life of the Bishop adding that it was inconceivable that a Presidential spokesman would descend to the arena of religious extremism by ascribing wrong meanings and interpretation. In this incident, we see how official contortion or mischievous interpretation of events could, when not curtailed, accessorize or translate to crime or breakdown of law and order.
One more example: If you exist in the Nigeria social media space, Lauretta Onochie, President Buhari’s Special Assistant on Social Media and the government’s foremost attack dog, requires little or no introductions. Yet it was President Buhari’s nomination of Onochie as National Commissioner, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that stunned the nation. Of this, Raymond Nkannebe wrote in The Cable:
At any other time, it would have been taken as good humour but for a president that has perfected the art of acting unconstitutionally, and sometimes outrightly insensitive particularly with appointments, the nomination of one of the most rabid attack dogs of Muhammadu Buhari, on Social Media as a National Commissioner of no less an institution than the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) fits into a scurrilous pattern that is both confounding and unacceptable, especially at this time, And the reason is not hard to see: principles matter (emphasis mine).”
In Lai Mohammed, Garba Shehu and Lauretta Onochie, we see a picture that emerges of how official control of news through propaganda crystalize into toxic state policy with the capacity to consume. When Lai says the war against Boko Haram is largely won or defeated while victims and security agents bear the brunt of catastrophic murders and mass atrocities, the question that the journalist should probe is whether Mr Mohammed is more interested in making the Buhari government look good or whether he prioritizes the value of life. When Garba Shehu releases an inciting statement or labels the killings in Southern Kaduna as ‘reprisals’, the media should among other questions, ask if reprisal is justification for murder. In asking the right questions and probing for answers, a national culture of values rather than impunity can be harnessed.
We do a quick look at Citizen Journalism: Citizen Journalism which has largely been enabled and driven by social media is collaborative media that provides alternative and activist form of news gathering and reporting outside mainstream media institutions. Social Media is the new village square of convergence of citizens’ ideas. While professional media practitioners may fault it in terms of ethics, economics and epistemology or more broadly, on quality and objectivity, the gains of social media far outweigh the ills as citizens are increasing, taking ownership of governance. That is why any attempt to shut down the digital space or violate the freedoms that it provides must be firmly resisted while citizens, on the other hand, must continuously engage in credible reportage.
In all, the threats that are perhaps most virulent is the murder of stories on the tables of media executives, the betrayal and denial of truth, the transgendering of criminals to saints by media houses. Committed journalists and young practitioners who are taught by the book that the truth sets free, that voices should be independent, that the two sides of the coin should be explored; that empathy should rule find to their utter shock that the visions and missions framed in gold and draped on murals and magnificent buildings are sometimes sterile, empty words to be learnt by rote but devoid of any value or principles.
The case of three journalists, Luka Binniyat, Samuel Ogundipe and Otosirieze Obi-Young and the circumstances in which they left their previous jobs is not only sobering but calls for deep reflection on whether media executives and indeed the Nigeria Media have counted the cost of journalism and if they are willing to pay the price.
From secrecy to legal pressure, to direct censorship to denial of access to information, to force, to the challenge of separating sentiments from facts, to the pressure to pay the bills while remaining relevant in an authoritarian democratic rule… the endless threats to journalism continue to metamorphose as surely as the line between traditional media and the new media thin out in obscurity in a 21st-century world.
Sometimes the threats are not in what is done but in what is left undone. Who for instance, is following up the story about why Nigeria’s Chief Justice was removed in the office by an Exparte Motion? How the Code of Conduct Tribunal Chairman who issued the Exparte reportedly assaulted a security guard and termed the incident an attack by ‘Bakassi Boys’? Who is investigating the content of the extremist views held by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami? What are the collective or boomerang effects of these incidences on the fight against terrorism and insecurity or on the independence of the judiciary? Giving the multiple challenges and crises our country is living through, we must leave nothing is undone that needs to be done.
Every threat provides an opportunity and when the most are made of the opportunity, it produces the desired outcome. The new or subsisting threats to media can largely be surmounted by the basic codes and canons of journalism like courage, truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, social justice and public accountability. I would, to those codes, add consistency in upholding values. All of these and more can be reduced into the clear identification of what is right and what is wrong and finding the courage to do that which is right in the media space. Why is this necessary? Because what we do or fail to do create a legacy but much more because when all is said and done, *principles matter.*
Ballason is a legal practitioner and C.E.O. House of Justice. She may be reached on [email protected].