Many Nigerian journalists have been frequently arrested and detained by agents of the government since the return of democracy from the military in 1999 in Africa’s most populous country, a report said.
According to the ‘State of Press Freedom Report: Trends and Reflections’ released on Thursday by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Reporting (PTCIJ), the democratic government in Nigeria has used the same institutional measures utilised by the military to suppress expression in the press.
“…many would argue that the Nigerian press is anything but free. Several factors account for the loss of Nigeria’s boasted press freedom. The trend began with military rule from January 15, 1966, during which democratic values were suppressed,” said Chris Wolumati Ogbondah, a professor of journalism in the article, “The Future of Nigerian Press Freedom” contained in the report.
“Ironically, since 1999 when the country transitioned to democratic rule, the same institutional measures utilised by the military to suppress expression in the press – extrajudicial and arbitrary actions – seem to persist. As a result, Nigerian journalists are frequently arrested and detained.”
Ogbondah who was the coordinator of the Mass Communication programme in the Department of Communication Studies, University of Northern Iowa, for over 12 years, said the arbitrary proscription and confiscation of media products by security agencies seemed to also persist.
While comparing the state of press freedom in Nigeria to the one in Ghana, he said that no journalist had been arrested or detained in the Gold Coast country since 2001.
“This is in sharp contrast with Nigeria’s neighbour, Ghana, where since 2001, no journalist has been arrested or detained arbitrarily, and no newspaper has been shut down because of what it published.”
On the role of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), he noted how broadcast stations were victims of regular harassment by NBC, the broadcast industry’s watchdog.
These extra-legal actions against media personnel have contributed to eroding Nigeria’s tradition of press freedom, Ogbondah lamented.
The report chronicled five cases of press attack between 2017 and 2020 where the Nigerian government and its agents carried out arbitrary arrests of journalists and invasion of media houses.
Ogbondah stated that the failure of legislative and judicial oversight functions over the executive arm, when it over-reached and utilised extra-legal measures against the media, the fourth branch, in another way, had also contributed to mitigate freedom of the press in Nigeria.
He noted that “police officers’ persistent charge of sedition against reporters and political critics – despite its abrogation by the court in 1983 and the courts’ failure, for example, to strongly chide the police when they do so,” had encouraged “this unit of the executive to tamper with freedom of the press”.
He said that although the obnoxious Newspaper Amendment Act of 1964 had been repealed since 2003, and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), introduced in 2011, there were lots of room for legislative reforms that could enhance press freedom.
“One of such reforms is the introduction of an Anti-Press Censorship law that criminalizes arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists,” he said.
“Article 16 of the Constitution of Ghana provides against the arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists, and Article 162(2) guarantees that “there shall be no censorship in Ghana.
“Section 4 of Article 162 provides that, ‘Editors of newspapers and other institutions of the mass media shall not be subject to control or interference by government, nor shall they be penalised or harassed for their editorial opinions and views, or the content of their publications.’ Legislative reform of this type will strengthen freedom of the press in the future.”
He further stated that derogable measures and clawback clauses in the constitution minimised freedom of the press when enforced.
Citing Section 39 (1&2) of the constitution that guarantees freedom of expression, the scholar lamented that the right was suppressed by provisions in Subsection 3 of the same section.
“Other sections of the constitution state that nothing invalidates any law reasonably made in the interest of public safety, public order, public health, etc. When enforced, this can render the right of press freedom vulnerable as it can reverse that right.”
Derogable measures and clawback clauses which he noted, tended to take with the left hand what the constitution had given with the right hand should be reformed with a view to defining narrowly, by the court, those special circumstances when press freedom might be abridged.
This would enhance press freedom in the future, he argued.
The Public Order Act that requires a permit from the police for groups to hold public rallies should be reformed, Ogbondah said.
“Zimbabwe has reformed its Public Order and Security Act (POSA), just as Britain has done. The anachronistic Official Secrets Act of 1962 should be reformed so that its impenetrable veil of secrecy can be modified to facilitate media access to information.
“The antiquated National Archives Act should also be reformed so that the clause that provides for nondisclosure of state documents until after 10 years can be repealed. Both laws are antithetical to the FOIA.
“The FOIA has had dichotomous court interpretations as to whether it is applicable in all the states,” he said.
On the future of the press, he concluded that “Press freedom in Nigeria will be strengthened in the future if it is binding in all states.”
This, according to him, “is what Nigerians expect from the Supreme Court if the issue comes before it in the future”.
He, however, touched on ‘Unethical practices on the part of journalists’ which “can constitute perhaps a far more serious threat to the future of press freedom than the use of extrajudicial measures against the press by the state”.
“This is because the public will rally around the press when it is victimised by the state, but the public will not rally around the press when it suppresses the truth, abandons accuracy and fairness or acts irresponsibly, paternalistically and champions ethnic tendencies,” Ogbondah said.
The enactment of the legislative policies and changes mentioned in this article will create the enabling environment that will facilitate Nigerian press freedom in the future and catapult it to the height worthy of praise again as the freest in Africa and one of the freest in the world.