The return of dictatorship

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Levi Obijiofor

By Levi Obijiofor

Tuesday last week was a bad day for advocates of press freedom in Nigeria. It was on that day that Femi Adesina, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, announced a draconian policy statement that barred some media organisations from covering events at the Presidential Villa. Only 13 media organisations were given approval to remain. Major media organisations such as AIT, Arise TV, STV, Ben TV, PUNCH, ThisDay, Tribune, The Guardian, Vanguard, Daily Trust and other newspapers were declared persona non grata or unwelcome.

Some of the media organisations banned by the express order were informed they could send their photographers to cover the Presidential Villa, implying that journalists who ought to be at the forefront of news reporting were not wanted.

The decision was as objectionable as it was shocking. What offended many journalists and editors was the lack of sound reasons to justify their exclusion from the Presidential Villa. The Villa is the official source of news about Federal Government’s activities, policies, programmes, and decisions.

In the statement he released to the media, Adesina said rather crankily that the prohibitions were a part of the actions being implemented to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. What baloney! That cannot be true. What criteria did he use to determine the media he approved and those he banished?

One consequence of this detestable decision to bar some media from covering events at Aso Rock is the restriction of public access to official information. News is to journalists what an oxygen bag is to a patient in an intensive care unit of a hospital. When journalists are barred from covering events at Aso Villa, it means they have effectively been asphyxiated. They cannot carry out their obligations to society. This is why Adesina’s action is dangerous, unprofessional, undemocratic, inept, and should be condemned as some other civil society groups have already done.

Media freedom and free speech are symbols of a free society and a benchmark for determining the political health of a country. However, the growing tension in the relationship between the state and journalism has raised the question: What does press freedom really mean to the Nigerian government?

Barring some media organisations from covering events at the Presidential Villa implies, by the government’s definition, that dealing with information has become a crime punishable by banishment. That inexcusable ruling by a presidential media adviser was clearly a violation of journalists’ rights to report freely anywhere in the country. Directly and indirectly, the decision was in breach of the 1948 Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In Nigeria, presidential media advisers often behave like tin gods. They see themselves as laws that other people must obey. They assume powers they do not have. They speak as if their words are inviolable. They are pretentious and snobbish. By their behaviour, they diminish rather than enhance the office they occupy.

Presidential media advisers surely have a distorted understanding of the meaning of press freedom. Tragically, these are officials who worked previously as senior journalists or editors in various media organisations. At some point in their chequered journalism career, some of these advisers engaged in heavy criticisms of the man they are now serving.

For a government that treats journalists as irritants or as worthless servants of the state, Adesina’s treatment of journalists and his decision to ban some media organisations from covering events at Aso Rock on the fallacious ground that the exclusions were meant to observe social distancing rules designed to control the spread of coronavirus, were no surprises. His latest action is consistent with government’s policy, notwithstanding the rhetoric by the Information Minister that the government respects press freedom.

The decision to bar some media organisations was wrong, unacceptable, arrogant, autocratic, unsound, nonsensical, unjustifiable, and tactless. It will surely backfire. It has already attracted adverse publicity to a government that seriously needs to lift its rapidly declining image at home and abroad.

During his time as military dictator in the 1980s, Muhammadu Buhari maintained a policy of resentment against the Nigerian media. During that time, the relationship between Buhari’s government and the media was clearly adversarial. We must not forget Decree 4 of 1984, an excessively harsh and vindictive law that Buhari used during his military government to emasculate the Nigerian media. Decree 4 of 1984 was the reason why Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson of The Guardian went to jail for crimes they did not commit.

It is against the background of the hostile relationship that existed between journalists and Buhari’s military government that we must now view with serious concern Adesina’s disrespectful treatment of journalists and media organisations.

If some media organisations were barred from covering the Presidential Villa because of their aggressive reporting style, I would argue there are compelling reasons why the Nigerian media must be free to discuss the government’s policy flip-flops, including its achievements or failures, and the President’s leadership style. In the capacity of President, Buhari is a public figure. He is not an ordinary citizen. He can expect the media to scrutinise everything he does, says, or promises in public, including his reluctance to address the nation on the coronavirus pandemic that has killed thousands of people across the world and recorded rising infections in Nigeria. As I write, news flashed that Buhari would address the nation by 7pm on Sunday, March 29, 2020.

Let me be clear here. Nigerian journalists are entitled to ask questions about the President, whether he is a good role model for other politicians and ordinary citizens, and whether he is a high achieving President. There is nothing wrong with journalists probing and highlighting these issues in a way to stimulate public discussion and to hold the government accountable.

How journalists function and the extent to which they carry out their role in society can be measured by the amount of freedom they enjoy. A press constrained by government laws is not a free press. It is a lapdog of the government. A press without the basic freedom to operate responsibly in any society makes no meaningful contribution to the growth of democracy and, above all, denies the people their right to know.

If Nigerian journalists are restricted from performing their official duties through vexatious rules issued by zealous media advisers, our society would be the loser. But the struggle for press freedom in Nigeria should not be limited to journalists and media owners. The battle for press freedom must be waged in collaboration with civil society organisations such as lawyers, student unions, trade unions, religious leaders, opposition political parties, and indeed all members of our society who believe in the right of journalists to report news freely.

The decision made offhandedly to bar some media organisations from covering the Presidency must be rescinded now because it will obstruct public interest journalism and the freedom that journalists have to report news and hold government to account. If that declaration against some media organisations is not dismantled, journalists’ freedom, as well as citizens’ rights and free speech, could be further curtailed.

The press and the people must act now because violations of media freedom and citizens’ right to know are growing in Nigeria. No one wants the return of dictatorship.

 

Levi Obijiofor’s article was first published in The Sun, Tuesday, 31 March, 2020

– Mar. 31, 2020 @ 12:59 GMT |

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