OPINION: PERSECUTION OF THE PRESS: A THREAT TO DEMOCRACY BY Ifeanyi Okali
That the media has for a long time been the target of a pre-planned and orchestrated attack in our society is no more news. Right from the time of the courageous and fearless Dele Giwa the life and freedom of media practitioners has been a pawn in the chessboard of highly influential members of the society whose ego are bruised.
What is however news is the intensity at which this dangerous omen is being perpetrated and given an ostentatious life even in a society that has constantly thumbed it chest as the champion of free speech, liberty of the press and a democratic state. Our country has been on the fast lane in setting a very dangerous and disturbing precedence with its fixation to rape, undermine and make mockery of the global charter of human right to speak and be heard. Thomas Jefferson succinctly captured the critical importance of the press when he declared: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”.
Since the return of democracy in Nigeria, the press as the fourth estate of the realm has played its role with all commitment of being an information dissemination agency to our people, bringing the activities and policies of the government to the knowledge of our people to guide and aid their decision-making, bringing to the notice of government what the yearnings and aspirations of the people are, their developmental challenges, issues that border on their security and welfare.
In other parts of the world, the press is respected and commended for the role it plays in oiling the wheel of democracy. They are not treated with contempt, levity and disdain. In Nigeria, there a multi-faceted attack on the media the either muzzle it and whittle down its role of watchdog or even totally fizzle it out of existence. Where other presses receive commendation, Nigerian press receives condemnation, where others receive applause, ours receive knock and vilification.
Whatever external attack that today threatens to cripple the press in Nigeria is in addition to attack on the sense of human dignity against practitioners. Today, some journalists are being owed backlog of salaries, some as much as 6 months, 9 months, 1 year and above. Do these men of the fourth estate not have children, wives, relatives and dependents to carter for? Their senses of human dignity has do much been attacked in the sense that they become easy preys to arm twisting and hatchet activities.
The unwarranted abduction and incarceration of journalists has so much become part of dividends of democracy the Nigerian populace are regaled with. Between 2015 and now, the onslaught has been so visibly disturbing that pressmen have become endangered species that must be rooted out at all cost. Tony Ezimakor, the Abuja bureau chief of the Independent was detained by the SSS for about a week in February 2018 without charges on allegations bordering on his article about Chibok girls.
The police descended on Musa Kirshi, the Daily Trust’s correspondent , on March 13, on the National Assembly premises. His offence was that he facilitated an advert publication in that newspaper, which allegedly offended the interests of Governor Abubakar Badaru of Jigawa State. Major newspapers, including The Punch, The Nation, ThisDay , Tribune and Vanguard, were arbitrarily barred from covering President Muhammadu Buhari’ s belated condolence visit to Benue State on March 12, 2018. In January 2017, Nigerian Army operatives stormed the Premium Times and arrested the publisher of the online newspaper, Dapo Olorunyomi, and the judiciary correspondent, Evelyn Okakwu. The list of similar attacks by overzealous state agents and their paymasters in just endless. The case of Jones Abiri who stayed in DSS underground cell for two years without trial is still fresh in our memory.
Just last week, another journalist, Obinna Don Norman, the publisher Realm News was abducted in a gestapo style by men of the Nigerian police in Umuahia after a radio programme on Flo FM. Authorities in the state have been fingered on his persecution as a result of his fall out with his former boss and the former governor of Abia state, Sen. T.A Orji.
Whatever the reasons are, this crackdown on the media is increasingly making it difficult for people to be journalists in Nigeria. More vexatious and provocative, the reasons for these attacks, where available is usually on a flimzy ground. There is no justification for these draconian measures by the security agents. Without a free press, democracy is doomed.
It is heart warming to note that some notable individuals and organizations are beginning to show concerns on the plight of journalists and the media generally in Nigeria. Just recently, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) dragged the Federal Government and state governments to ECOWAS Court of Justice in Abuja over “the frequent and repressive application of the Cybercrime Act to harass, intimidate, arbitrarily arrest, detain, and unfairly prosecute anyone found publishing views or facts perceived to be critical of the government at the federal and state levels and government officials.”
Muzzling the press is a one – way street to dictatorship and those who encourage such should be made to face the law . The media , through the Nigeria Union of Journalists , the Nigerian Guild of Editors and the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, Online Media Practitioners of Nigeria (OMPAN) should unite against repression of journalists by the security agencies . They should institute court actions anytime these bullies obstruct media operations.
Editor In Chief/Publisher OMPAN
Editor In Chief/Publisher ABN TV