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24.06.2024 Featured OPINION: Raising the Bar for Press Freedom in Nigeria

Published 24th Jun, 2024

By Edosa Oviawe

On May 3, 2024, the global community commemorated World Press Freedom Day (WPFD), which provided an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom and assess the state of media freedom worldwide.

Though the 2024 theme was on informing the public about the problems and solutions facing the environment and influencing concrete action to address pressing environmental problems in Nigeria, this year’s WPFD came at a most perilous time for the freedom of the press in the country. Hence, the major conversations and engagements in Nigeria on May 3, 2024, highlighted recent experiences in Nigeria, indicating that press freedom is under threat, and there is a need to raise the bar for a free press in the country.

We are witnessing increased deployment of state resources and the weaponisation of state institutions in the attempts to gag the press in Nigeria.

READ ALSO: Nigerian Press Freedom in Danger Under Buhari, Says US Think Tank

Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (As Amended) recognises and guarantees Freedom of Expression and the Press as a fundamental right, and Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (As Amended) places the burden on the press to uphold the government’s responsibility and accountability to the people. Similarly, other international treaties and conventions, of which Nigeria is a signatory, recognise the right of the press as fundamental to the existence of democracy.

However, since the beginning of 2024, there has been an alarming surge in incidents of unwarranted arrests of journalists, mostly for revealing corruption cases and governance failures.

There is the increased deliberate use of the Cybercrimes Act to stifle press freedom in Nigeria. Ironically, there is the continued application of Section 24 of the Cybercrimes Act 2015, which has been repealed in the Cybercrimes Prohibition, Prevention Act 2024 (As Amended) passed into law in February 2024, to arrest journalists. For instance, on February 7, 2024, the Kwara State Police charged Salihu Ayatullah, Editor-in-Chief of Informant247, Managing Editor Azeez Adisa Jaji, and reporters Abdurahman Taye Damilola and Salihu Shola Taofeek with conspiracy and defamation under the Cybercrime Act, and the Penal Code, respectively. The charges stemmed from a report alleging that Mr. Abdul Jimoh Mohammed, the Kwara Polytechnic rector, made false financial claims and commissioned uncompleted projects.

READ ALSO: CPJ Calls on Tinubu to Improve Press Freedom in Nigeria

On March 23, 2024, Bukky Shonibare, Chairperson of the Board of Trustees for the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), was summoned by the National Cybercrime Centre (NCCC) of the Nigerian Police Force and interrogated on March 26, after which she was asked to produce Mr. Fisayo Soyombo, FIJ’s publisher, over his revealing report of alleged corruption and arms dealing by personnel of the Nigeria Customs Service. On May 1, 2024, Daniel Ojukwu, an FIJ reporter, was arrested in Lagos and taken to the State Crime Investigations Department before being transferred to the National Cybercrime Centre in Abuja. He was detained for 10 days over allegations of cybercrime, following a report on the misappropriation of public funds by Mrs Adejoke Orelope-Adefulire, the Special Adviser to the President on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

On May 15, 2024, Nurudeen Akewushola, a reporter with the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), received a letter from the Police NCCC inviting him for an interview arising from a petition following an ICIR report. The same day, another letter invited ICIR’s managing directors for a similar interview. This list of attempts to hound journalists and gag press freedom in Nigeria tends to be increasing by the day.

It has been reckoned globally that the beacon of democracy is, in fact, a free and fair press. Freedom of the press is respected because it is indeed the ultimate value of any democracy. Democracy is about citizen’s participation in governance; the fulcrum of that freedom is freedom of expression. The media, both conventional media and new media, play a crucial role in this. They are the vehicle or channel through which citizens can express their views, hold the government accountable and participate in the democratic process.

Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Nigeria’s president, recently, in his 2024 Democracy Day speech, not only celebrated the nation’s progress but also enumerated his administration’s commitment to entrenching democratic values and economic reforms. The President, while paying tribute to some media organisations for their fight and doggedness for a return to democracy during the military regime, noted that “we could not have won the battle against military dictatorship without the irrepressible Nigerian journalists who mounted the barricades along with the pro-democracy activists”. These very profound words of the President now leave one to wonder: If the Nigerian press is so important to this democracy, why are journalists increasingly becoming victims of law enforcement and security agents’ harassment under his watch?

Press freedom is not just about protecting journalists. In fact, when press freedom is in jeopardy, it means the citizens have lost their basic freedom to participatory governance. If citizens ever needed to rise against tyrannical tendencies by those who wield state powers against its citizens, now is that time.

A country’s democracy is only as good as its citizen’s ability to freely live, move, associate and express their views without fear. All Nigerians must therefore rise in defence of press freedom in the country. Journalism is not a crime!

Edosa Oviawe is a human rights and governance advocate

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Published 24th Jun, 2024

By Edosa Oviawe

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