Hard times for media freedom

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A major relic of the colonial era in Nigeria was the use of some draconian statutes to suppress press freedom and freedom of expression basically because of the inherent power of the media of mass communication to serve as effective tool for mass mobilization against the colonialists seen largely as oppressors.

The then colonial masters became jittery when pro-independence campaigners like Alvan Ikoku, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mbonu Ojike, Kingsley Mbadiwe and Obafemi Awolowo to mention only but a few, began gaining control of the local media in which they used it so well to preach nationalism and to enlighten the people on the essence of self- government. Azikiwe, who schooled in the United States of America, returned during the colonial era to establish a chain of newspapers including the West African Pilot that generated a lot of interest across the then British colony in West African.

Awolowo was instrumental to the establishment of television stations in Nigeria and he was behind the establishment of Tribune group of newspapers that remains the longest serving privately published print medium in Nigeria. From a work titled “African Nationalism and the struggle for freedom” published in http://www.pearsonhighered.com/ we were told the simple truth why nationalism and anything related to it evoked fear in the ruling colonial elites before Nigeria gained independence in 1960.

According to this social historian “African nationalism is a subjective feeling of kingship or affinity shared by people of African descent. It is a feeling based on shared cultural norms, traditional institutions, racial heritage and a common historical experience”. Soon after Nigeria gained political independence thanks to the vibrancy of the activities of locally run print media among other patriotic activities, the military struck and controlled the machinery of governance for nearly forty years and the first casualty was media freedom.

The common denominator that linked these military dictators of post-independence Nigeria with the colonial rulers, who retreated back to Britain from Nigeria on 1st October 1960, was the resort to the use of many draconian anti-press laws left behind by the colonialists to suppress media freedom. The history of how the then General Ibrahim Babangida’s regime persecuted and imprisoned some three journalists for alleged treason is a notorious fact even as one of Nigeria’s famous journalists Mr. Dele Giwa was killed by suspected/alleged State sponsored killer gang at that time for his fearless journalism practice which gave the military dictators sleepless nights.

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From 1999 when civilian rule returned up until now, the expectation of most Nigerians is that freedom of the media and other fundamental freedoms enshrined in the constitution would be jealously guided, protected and promoted. But the opposite seems to be the case especially with the current administration of President Goodluck Jonathan in which several instances of press antagonism from the armed security operatives has assumed frightening dimension.

Apart from the Nigeria Police Force and the State Security Services (SSS), the federal government under the current dispensation has been accused of manipulating the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) to suppress media freedom as against several constitutional provisions which ought to serve as safeguards against these types of primitive attacks by the Nigerian State against the media.

Before delving into the historical account of the many brutal encounters the media practitioners of different media houses have experienced over the last few months in the hands of the security agents, I will hereby state some of the fundamental constitutional provisions that specifically protect media freedoms. Section 22 of the 1999 constitution (as amended) provides thus; “The press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people”.

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Chapter four of the constitution is replete with related provisions in which the basic freedoms of expression and the media are promulgated and are therefore binding on government to protect. For the specific purpose of this reflection, Section 39 of the constitution comes in handy and will remain relevant. That section aforementioned provides thus; “(1) every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference’. But under the current dispensation, three ugly events have happened which signpost hard times for media freedom in Nigeria similar to the experiences of the founding fathers of journalism prior to the emergence of independence.

On Tuesday February 12, 2013, The Guardian of United Kingdom ran a story of the prosecution by the Nigerian police of three Kano-based journalists for allegedly inciting murders of polio workers. The reporters who anchored a live programme on the privately owned Wazobia FM radio Station in Kano State were picked up and charged to court for airing a programme that was critical to the polio vaccination programm of the federal government only hours before nine polio vaccinators were gruesomely murdered.

The killing of the nine women volunteers conducting the polio vaccination programm in Kano state received national condemnation from a cross segment of Nigerians particularly because of the ugly fact that Nigeria is one of only three remaining countries in the World alongside war -torn Pakistan and Afghanistan where the wild polio virus still afflict children. The National Broadcasting commission [NBC] swiftly clamped down on the Wazobia Fm radio station in Kano for allowing the airing of this programm which linked the polio vaccination programme wrongly with a so-called sinister plot of the Western powers to depopulate Northern Nigeria – whatever that means! Significantly, the British media house-The Guardian widely interpreted the prosecution of these three reporters as another instance of government persecution of the press.

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Opinion is, however, split on this particular case, because of the obvious fact that precious lives of innocent women volunteers were ruthlessly wasted by terrorists. The Guardian of Britain saw the prosecution of the three Kano journalists in the following way; “The allegations against the journalists working for Wazobia FM illustrate the continuing struggle over free speech in Nigeria, a nation that only came out of military rule in 1999 and where simply taking photographs on the street can get a person arrested. Attacks on journalists remain common and unsolved killings of reporters still haunt the country.”

The three journalists so charged but later granted bail are Suleiman Gama, producer of the Hausa programme; Sandar Girma, and Yakubu Musa; also, Mr. Mubarak Malam, a reporter with the same Wazobia Fm was also quizzed by the police. On March 10, 2013, local media reported the arrest from the state owned radio Nigeria station in Kaduna by the Kaduna police command of the opposition Senator from Zamfara State and its former governor, Mr. Ahmed Sani Yerima.

Senator Yerima, who was a guest was on the radio programme was reported to have said if the Independent National Electoral Commission failed to register the newly formed All Progressives Congress, leaders of the party would embark on a peaceful protest to the Eagle Square, Onwubiko write vita [email protected]

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