Experts Want Virile Media to Check Impunity

Experts Want Virile Media to Check Impunity

…Say Shrinking Democratic Space Harmful to National Project …Accuse Govt of Concerted Move to Criminalise Journalists Experts at a public forum in Lagos, say only a virile media can check the rising spate of impunity in the country amongst public officials both at the centre and state. Warning against the antics of government to make

…Say Shrinking Democratic Space Harmful to National Project

…Accuse Govt of Concerted Move to Criminalise Journalists

Experts at a public forum in Lagos, say only a virile media can check the rising spate of impunity in the country amongst public officials both at the centre and state. Warning against the antics of government to make the media buckle under, the discussants are of the view that this will undermine its ability to deliver on its responsibility to the people. They also posit that the effort to criminalise journalists in the performance of their professional duty and shrink the democratic space was harmful to the national project.

Setting the tone for the discourse titled, State of Media And Citizen’s Freedom, Human Rights Lawyer, Mr Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) who moderated the event, argues that in spite of the backslide on the Hate Speech Bill which prescribes death by hanging, arising from local and international condemnation, governments at both the centre and states have been implementing the obnoxious bill under one guise or the other.

Narrating the ordeal of many journalists now under trial for treason, Falana says, “Why we are focused on the National Assembly, the federal and state governments are trying to ambush us.”

Citing the case of Arthur Nwankwo vs Jim Nwobodo in which Justice Olajide Olatawura then of the Court of Appeal ruled that any public official who feels his reputation has been damaged should sue for libel, the frontline lawyer, who heads the legal team for the defence of Convener of RevolutionNow Movement, Mr Omoyele Sowore and his accomplice, Mr Olawale Bakare, is greatly worried that, “Our freedom is shrinking rather than expanding.”

Mr Arthur Nwankwo, a publisher, had written a book in 1982 titled: “How Jim Nwobodo Rules Anambra State” which excoriated then Governor of old Anambra State, Mr Jim Nwobodo, accusing him of corruption and tyranny.

Nwankwo was charged with Sedition before Justice F.O. Nwokedi, then of the Onitsha High Court and was found guilty and jailed 12 months. He later went to the Appeal Court which ruled in a land mark judgement that Sedition law – Sections 50 and 51 of the Criminal Code was inconsistent with Section 36 of the 1979 Constitution and therefore void and upturned Nwankwo’s conviction.

Said Justice Olatawura, “It is my view that the law of Sedition which has derogated from the freedom of speech guaranteed under this Constitution is inconsistent with the 1979 Constitution, more so when this cannot lead to a public disorder as envisaged under Section 41(a) of the 1979 Constitution. We are no longer the illiterates or the mob society our colonial masters had in mind when the law was promulgated. The safeguard provided under Section 50(2) is inadequate more so where the truth of what is published is no defence. To retain Section 51 of the Criminal Code in its present form, that is even if not inconsistent with the freedom of expression guaranteed by our Constitution, will be a deadly weapon and to be used at will by a corrupt government or tyrant …

“Let us not diminish from the freedom gained from our colonial masters by resorting to laws enacted by them to suit their purpose. The decision of the founding fathers of this present Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech must include freedom to criticize should be praised and any attempt to derogate from it except as provided by the Constitution must be resisted. Those in public office should not be intolerant of criticism. Where a writer exceeds the bounds, there should be a resort to the law of libel where the plaintiff must be of necessity put his character and reputation in issue. Criticism is indispensable in a free society”. See Arthur Nwankwo v The State (1985)6NCLR 228).

Expressing his concerns, Falana says, “Why we were worried about the Hate Speech Bill, the federal and state governments are implementing the bill in one form or the other. Agba Jalingo is charged with treasonable felony. Sowore is undergoing trial for terrorism and cyber stalking. Jones Abiri was unjustifiably arrested and detained for two years. As soon as he attempted to claim the N10 million awarded by the court for illegal detention, he was charged for terrorism. Even the Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai says anyone who embarrasses his government irrespective of where the person is located, would be taken to Kaduna for trial.

“We’ve had a long history of democratic struggle. We’ve gone through this road before and became victorious even under the military. This latest design to start charging journalists for terrorism as a way of bringing the media to its knees must be resisted,” says Falana, urging media practitioners to shrug off ethnic, religious and other divisive narratives from their reporting.

Alluding to the person who orchestrated the purported marriage of President Muhammadu Buhari in the social media, the senior advocate argues that citizens need to be circumspect about what they read in the social media. “If you are going to put anything on the social media, you have to be sure of what you are putting there”.

Also contributing her thoughts, Chief Executive Officer, Daria Media, Ms Kadaria Ahmed, who was one of the guest speakers at the forum, contends that we tend to look at the federal and state governments when we talk about issues of impunity. “Let’s look at other agencies like the Judiciary. Cross River State Governor, Prof Ben Ayade can keep journalists in jail because you have judges that are ready to give jankara judgements. Media owners also need to provide legal defence for their journalists and staff,” she says.

Chastising the media to eschew divisive issues, Ms Ahmed says, “It’s all about responsibility. We talk about the government, the media too should stop concentrating on divisive issues like ethnicity and religion. Our standards have collapsed. There are media owners who are not putting what they earn into their businesses.”

She however opposes any kind of censorship of the media, arguing that “democracy is undermined when you censor the media”. “We cannot rest on our oars, we have to keep pushing to ensure that we maintain all the freedom we had fought for”, she says.

Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Mr Edetaen Ojo was of the view that the media needed specific protection to carry out its constitutional responsibility of holding government accountable. “If we give the media responsibility, we need to protect the media. The thing really is that we live in a society which has no protection for anyone,” he says.

“How did we get here? The Judiciary has been thoroughly harassed. Most citizens do not what to defend themselves. What kind of impression are we giving to government? It’s clear that the government has demolished every institution that holds it accountable.

Counselling on what citizens need to do arrest the spate of impunity, Ojo says, “We can look at global statutes, visa bans and confiscation of assets as part of imposing pressure on public officials. We can also ask for the investigation of the rights situation in Nigeria by asking the UN to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Situation in Nigeria.

“Democracy comes as a package. If you want democracy, you must take the entire package. If one political leader has gone beyond the line, he should not benefit from it

Mr Ojo is particularly worried that the world is allowing the situation in Nigeria to degenerate into a conflict, saying that, “If our country do degenerate into a conflict, there will be problem globally.”

Chairman, Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Lagos State Council, Dr Qasim Akinreti canvasses for media blackout of public officials found culpable in infractions against the media. “If we decide that we’ll no longer report Governor Ben Ayade, he’ll sit up. The political class has become irresponsible which has allowed impunity to reign,” the NUJ chairman says, revealing that the union has ensured that its members are adequately defended by a legal team.      

Explaining the difference between the media in Nigeria, which he says is the best in Africa and that of francophone Africa, Prof Bola Akinterinwa, an international relations expert, says the position of the media in francophone Africa is always synonymous with that the government.

“The media in Nigeria is the most vibrant in Africa. The harassment of journalists here informs what happens to the country globally. This informs the intervention of the international community,” he says.

Also wading into the discussion from the floor, Mr Kenneth Ugbecjie, publicity secretary, Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), says the media reports prevailing issues arguing that, “If the media has been divisive, it’s because the present government has promoted largely divisive issues”.

Prof Sylvester Odion Akhaine of the Department of Political Science, Lagos State University, (LASU), posits that those who pose the class question in Nigeria are a bit farfetched because the country is still on the verge of resolving the knotty issue of the national question. “Once we do that, we can then pose the class question,” he says.

The event was organised by a group of civil society organisations. They include Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), NUJ Lagos State Council, Coalition of Whistle Blowers and Press Freedom, EIE, Women Advocacy Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Institute of Media and Society (IMS), MRA, International Press Centre (IPC),  Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ), HEDA Resource Center, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), PIN, Media Career Services and the Falana & Falana Chambers.

The occasion attended by journalists, civil society activists, lawyers and human rights activists and anchored by Executive Director, International Press Centre, Mr Lanre Arogundade, was also used to mark the 60th Birthday of acclaimed social commentator, Mr Kayode Komolafe, deputy managing director, This Day Newspapers   

Prominent amongst those who graced the discussion forum are President, Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) and Publisher, This Day Newspapers, Mr Nduka Obaigbena, former Chairman, Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), Mr Muiz Banire, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Lagos State Commissioner for Environment, Mr Tunji Bello, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr Adeyinka Olumide-Fusika, former Editor of The Guardian, Mr Martin Oloja, and former Chief Press Secretary to Mr Akinwunmi Ambode, ex Lagos State Governor, Mr Habib Aruna.

Photo: From Left: Mr Edetan Ojo, Ms Kadaria Ahmed, Mr Femi Falana, Dr Qasim Akinreti and Prof Bola Akinterinwa

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