By Kayode Ketefe
Labaran Maku, Nigeria’s Minister of Information
“The freedom of the press is crucial. Nigerian vibrant media should be allowed to operate freely.” With these words, the United Consular General in Nigeria, Jeffery Hawkins, condemned the rising intolerance to press dynamism in the country.
The condemnation came on the heels of state highhandedness as evinced in the recent arrest and detention of four journalists from the Leadership Newspapers.
The journalists – Chinyere Fred-Adebulugbe, Chuks Ohuegbe, Tony Amokeodo and Chibuzor Ukaibe had been detained at the police headquarters in Abuja and held incommunicado for several hours. Their offence being that they refused to name the source of a story which alleges that the President Goodluck Jonathan is planning to frustrate the merger of opposition parties into a formidable mega political party.
The newsmen had insisted on the ethics of their profession which forbids them from divulging the sources of their information – a fact which the authorities chose to construe as an affront.
Two of the journalists, Amokeodo (Group News Editor) and Ukaibe (Political Correspondent) were slammed with a 6-count charge, one of which is punishable with 7 years imprisonment!
Of all the professions in Nigeria today, journalism is the most hazardous. Even the soldiers can enjoy peace of mind at the time peace prevails, but not journalists.
During the war, they at times have to make the supreme sacrifice a la Krees Imodibe and Tayo Awotunsin.
Nigerian journalists are also daily being hounded, harassed, molested and humiliated by the overzealous law enforcement agents as well as other individuals and institutions who have something to hide.
It is noteworthy that in defence of the Federal Government, the Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku, said, inter-alia, “People should not see the prosecution of the journalists as means to restrain the freedom of the press. Being a journalist does not mean you are immune to the law.”
Well, Nobody says journalists are immune to police arrest or that they posses any prerogatives that invariably shield them from personally liability for their acts, rather what one is saying is that descent by the state on journalists in the course of performing their job is a counter-productive measure unless actual criminality or gross breach of ethic is involved. Even then, rule of law must be strictly followed.
The members of the fourth estate of the realm should be allowed to practice their vocation without fear or favour; they must be protected from unnecessary interference of all kinds, including subtle threat and pressure, undue influence, harassment and coercion, otherwise they would not be able to perform their role as the watchdog of the society.
Every time a journalist is victimised, the issue goes beyond the personal anguish of the journalist in question, because one of the society’s built-in safeguard for orderly continuity and even survival is being endangered.
Many critics have insisted that the prosecution of the journalists is politically motivated – engineered with a view to silence many other potential “busybodies” who might be inclined to embarrass the government.
It would be very difficult to fault this assumption because arresting newsmen, holding them incommunicado and preferring felonious charge which included offences punishable with life imprisonment for what they wrote seems outrageous.
This is like killing a fly with a sledge hammer. It is tantamount to inordinate invocation of the state apparatus to vanquish putative “disagreeable elements”.
Let us assume for the moment that the journalists “misfired” in their report, should prosecution have been the first option?
What about confronting the journalists with the unassailable facts on the matter and then demand apology to be published in conspicuous places of their newspaper?
What about bringing a civil suit to demand compensation in damages rather resorting to criminal prosecution?
Furthermore, the information machinery at the disposal of federal government is awesome, being far greater than what the entire private sector in Nigeria can muster.
Imagine the giant called Nigerian Television Authority, with its vaunted largest network in Africa, and Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, too, with its nationwide coverage, not to talk of News Agency of Nigeria.
The Voice of Nigeria is there too, booming its voice to the outside world with well-scripted government’s propaganda. Is the Federal government then saying it cannot effectively counteract a perceived “unsavoury reportage” against it by just a single newspaper of the numerous Nigerian national dailies?
Well, it appears like the government is saying, “Let us teach these irritants calling themselves journalists some lesson by making a scapegoat of these ones, others would be too cowed to embarrass us”.
But is this how things are supposed to be in a liberal democracy?
Capacity to absorb criticisms and manage dissentient voice of all sorts without resorting to any oppressive measures is part of my own definition of good governance.
If things continue like this, the acclaimed vibrancy of the Nigerian Press would be grievously undermined. Already, a global non-governmental organisation, Reporters Without Borders, in its an annual Press Freedom Index published earlier this year, ranked Nigeria a dismal 115th among the countries which have press freedom in a chart that featured 179 countries.
Perhaps the government can still engage in some damage control by withdrawing the charge and embrace a less adversarial option of resolving the matter.
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