The topic for this discourse could not have come at a better time, when the voices of dissent are perceived as enemies of the government of the day and all efforts are mobilized towards crushing those voices.
The recent case of the suspension of the arbitrary fine imposed upon Daar Communications, Channels Television and Arise Television by the National Broadcasting Corporation, for alleged violation of broadcasting code in reporting the EndSARS protests, reminds us sadly, how government attempts to gag the press and intimidate it at times to do its bidding. NBC unilaterally accused these media houses of transmitting “footages obtained from unverified and unauthenticated social media sources.” The Acting Director-General of NBC, Mr. Armstrong Idachaba, threatened further that these stations may lose their licence should they continue such transmission.
It is pertinent to remind ourselves at this juncture, that the press occupies a pivotal role in every society, as it represents the conscience and values of a people and more importantly, it is a veritable link of information exchange between the people and their government. It is no wonder that the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria imposes an obligation and donates to the press the freedom to hold the government accountable to the people at all times. For the avoidance of doubt, section 22 of the Constitution provides thus: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media 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.”
In carrying out this duty, the press is usually (but needlessly) on a collision course with state actors who rather than see it as partner in progress, sometimes consider the press as a thorn in their flesh and as such, state power might must be deployed to crush those voices. It is the recognition of this danger which noble men and women of the media are exposed to, that culminated in the concept of press freedom.
Meaning of the Concept of Press Freedom
Freedom of the press is the right to circulate opinions in print and other channels without censorship by the government. Traceable to the 16th Century, the concept of free press came to the front burner, when the British government attempted to censor the American media by prohibiting newspapers from publishing unfavourable information and opinions. The attempt to restrict the press by the British government however met a brick wall, when the courts declined to provide judicial imprimatur to the restriction of the press. This was what played out in the libel case brought by the British governor William Cosby, against a journalist and the publisher of The New York Weekly Journal, John Peter Zenger, for publishing commentary critical of Cosby’s government and its officials. Zenger was however absolved of culpability by the Court. This case became a watershed, as it established the right of the press to criticize public officials, and it also affirmed the principle of law that statements that are true constitute valid defence when sued for libel.
Following this judgment, the Americans in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights adopted on December 15, 1791, incorporated the freedom of rights to protect the press from censorship and provided it with the necessary space to practice its trade without harassment by terrors of the State. In the said Amendment, the founding fathers of the American society declared and considered the freedom of the press as “one of the great bulwarks of liberty”.
Whilst it was thought that the issues around freedom of the press have been laid to rest, it turned out that some officials of government are usually livid and uncomfortable at the mention of the phrase “press freedom”. This is the scenario that played out in the advent of the Cold War in the mid-1900s, where news organizations worked to disclose information relating to the war. Gladly, the Supreme Court of America again came to the rescue in the case of NEW YORK TIMES .V. UNITED STATES, 403. U.S. 713 (1971), where it affirmed the freedom of the press. In that case, the government sought to suppress classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers. These papers included classified information about the Vietnam War. The New York Times fought against the government’s effort to prevent publication, and the Supreme Court upheld the freedom of the press and the First Amendment rights to speech.
It is important to also reiterate the point as aptly put by Aysha Taryam, Editor-in-Chief of the “Gulf Today” thus:
“Freedom of the press can never be the licence to say anything one desires. Freedom of the press is not the freedom to slander and attack and must never be used to fight other people’s wars. It does not mean manipulating a story into speaking your views.”
One cannot but agree with Taryam in this regard, for the law itself does not grant a right or freedom without a corresponding duty or some form of limitation. This is what the British politician and 6th Baronet Oswald Mosley meant when he stated thus: “The Press will not be free to tell lies. That is not freedom for the people, but a tyranny over their minds and soul.”
Press Freedom In Nigeria
The concept of press freedom is well entrenched in the laws of Nigeria. The Nigerian Constitution apart from imposing a duty on the media to hold the government accountable to the people has made provision for the freedom and right of the press to carry out this onerous task in aid of nation building. Section 39 (1) of the Constitution provides thus: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” Subsection 2 of that section further provides thus: “Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinion.”
It is pertinent to note that the issue of press freedom in Nigeria is of great importance, as one would observe from the sections cited above, that it falls within the realm of fundamental rights codified in Chapter IV of the Constitution. The import of this, is that press freedom is an inalienable right, which no government can derogate from or deny her citizens. It is therefore not surprising that the same position is clearly stated in Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right (Ratification and Enforcement Act) Cap A9, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 where it provides inter alia: “Every person shall have the right to receive information; and Every person shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinion within the law.”
To further show its commitment to the issues of press freedom, Nigeria is signatory to a plethora of international covenants and instruments and as such under a sacred obligation to ensure that the right of Nigerians to press freedom is enhanced at all times. Consequently, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights declares thus: “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.”
To realize this lofty objective however, avenues to access accurate, fair and unbiased information, representing different shades of opinion, is key. Besides, as noted by the United Nations in its message on World Freedom day 2019, press freedom can only be fully realized upon the existence of the following ingredients:
· A legal and regulatory environment that allows for open and pluralistic media sector to emerge;
· A political will to support the sector and rule of law to protect it;
· Laws ensuring access to information, especially information in the public domain; and
· The necessary media literacy skills among news consumers to critically analyze and synthesize the information they receive to use it in their daily lives and to hold the media accountable for its actions.
According to the United Nations, the ingredients stated above along with media professionals adhering to the highest ethical and professional standards designed by practitioners, serve as the fundamental infrastructure on which freedom of expression can prevail. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the United Nations on December 19 1966, equally recognizes and obligates State parties to ensure that the right to press freedom is respected and protected at all times. Though this document to which Nigeria is a signatory recommends some legal restrictions, such as provided by law and are necessary: (a) for respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
It is therefore safe to conclude that Nigeria has abundant legislations to protect the right of her citizens to press freedom. Those laws are also sufficient to restrain the careless use of social media at any time. What perhaps is the issue is the political will to provide structures and policies towards enhancing the same and the constant fear by the ruling elite of the consequences of a truly free press. In the long run however, the government is the greatest beneficiary of the free press in the sense of creating and nurturing a vibrant, articulate and well-informed citizenry. After all, a clear conscience should fear no accusation.