The Media: An Estate Under Siege

The media has faced and is still facing serious attack under the present APC-led government. Without exception, the federal and state governments have used the instruments of law and the security apparatus to cow the media and journalists into submission. In this report, Assistant Editor, CHINWE MADUAGWU, examines the fate of the media under the present administration and wonders if the media has not been complicit in its fate.

In 2015, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, as the Presidential candidate of the All Progressive Congress (APC), promised Nigerians and the Nigerian media a free press if elected president.

That promise or assurance had been necessary perhaps based on his antecedent as a Military dictator that did his best to cage the press with Decree 4 of 1984.

That Decree, unarguably, remains the most obnoxious and reprehensible law the nation has seen. Titled ‘’The Protection Against False Accusations Decree No.4, 1984, Section 1 of the law provided that “Any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, report or statement […] which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offense under this Decree.”

The law further stated that offending journalists and publishers will be tried by an open military tribunal, whose ruling would be final and unappealable in any court and those found guilty would be eligible for a fine not less than 10,000 naira and a jail sentence of up to two years, among other pernicious punishments.

Speaking at an Interactive Session with the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) in Abuja, prior to the 2015 elections, Buhari said the hated Decree was one of the things that came with military rule.

“Dictatorship goes with military rule as do edicts such as Decree 4,” he said, adding, however, that he is “now a converted democrat, who is ready to operate under democratic norms.

“I give you my full assurances that the Nigerian media will be free under our APC government. I also want to use this opportunity to appeal to you to use your media outlets in shaping positive public discourse and eschew hate speech mongering and slanderous political rhetorics which heat up the polity for the sake of peace and stability of our dear nation,” he said.

He went further to call on the media to be the voice of the people insisting that; “The health of Nigeria’s democracy rests partly on you. Without a robust and thriving media, the masses would have no voice.”

According to Gen. Buhari, the media would give the electorate sufficient information that would help them to make sound decisions, “such as deciding to vote out a clueless government and vote in CHANGE.”

That was when he needed the media to help him achieve his long time dream of becoming the President of Nigeria.

Since taking up residency at Aso Rock, has the President lived up to his claim of having become a democrat? As the saying goes, “the hood does not make the monk.” What makes the monk remains his way of life, his fidelity to his vows. Has the APC-led government whether at the federal or state level encouraged the media and journalists to perform their duties freely.

Evidences abound to the contrary. And the case of Mr. Jones Abiri, publisher of a Bayelsa-based local newspaper, whom the DSS incarcerated for two years without trial easily comes to mind. Until recently, the DSS had denied knowledge of his whereabouts.

He had been accused of being a militant and having information about some Niger Delta militants.

However, following the out cry from local and international media as well as civil society organisations, the DSS eventually charged him to court where he obtained bail.

Samuel Ogundipe, a journalist with Premium Times, an online newspapers, was also recently arrested and detained by the police for publishing a letter written by the Inspector-General of Police to the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, while he was acting President, on the invasion of National Assembly.

The Police wanted him to divulge the source of his information and when he wouldn’t, rather than look inwards as to how the information leaked, they accused the reporter of theft.

The demolition of the premises of Fresh FM by the Oyo State government is another case in point. The state government claimed the building, which had been on its present sites for about seven years was causing accidents. The real reason, observers point out though, is the station’s refusal to be a mouthpiece for the APC Government in the state.

In Nassarawa, the state government brought down the building housing Breeze FM for allegedly contravening the state’s land law and ordered the state’s urban development board to fine the station.

Many radio and television stations have had to pay fine of various sums either for refusing to serve as propaganda machines for the APC-led government or for bringing on air analysts critical of the government. Some affected stations include Channels TV, City FM, Kiss FM, among others.

Rhythm FM is said to have been suspended five times this year for its refusal to stop inviting some Public Analysts critical of President Buhari while Wazobia FM must declare all guests to feature in their programmes to NBC or be fined.

At the National Assembly, some lawmakers have equally proposed bills aimed at clipping the wings of the media. The Social Media Bill, which was proposed by Senator Bala Ibn Na’allah of the APC seeks to curb freedom of speech and proposes up to seven years imprisonment or N5 million fine for anyone who purposefully publishes false information that could threaten national security through electronic media.

It also seeks to criminalise anyone disseminating abusive statements through text message, Twitter, WhatsApp, or any other form of social media. The penalty for such an offence being two years jail term or N2 million fine or both.

The proposed Nigeria Press Council Repeal and Re-enactment Bill 2018, is another pointer to the ill intentions of the Buhari government towards the media. The bill, whose real sponsor remains a masquerade also seeks, among other things, to criminalise journalists and the practice of journalism.

In all of this, what do Nigerians think about this clampdown on the media?
Mr. Alvan Ewuzie, a senior journalists condemned the high handedness of the government towards journalists insisting; “It should not be so. But the crux of the matter for me is that the Freedom of Information Act seems to be a law on paper not in reality. It’s either the press does not want to use it or, as happened in Lagos recently, government officials are adamant about obeying it.”

Another senior journalist who prefers not to be named lamented that “Journalism and journalists have never had it so bad since 1999. It’s something that started in the run up to the 2015 election. The media became compromised and decided to look the other way while the truth was being stood on its head. They were complicit in the grand deceit as they became purveyors of falsehood.

“Having considerably pocketed the media in the run up to the election, the new administration began to show its contempt for a badly damaged institution early in its life. AIT was banished from the villa. Security operatives laid siege to the offices of Premium Times and herded reporters away. It soon became the pattern. In Kaduna, Luka Beniyat was detained, arraigned and denied bail. The accreditation of The Punch correspondent to the villa was withdrawn. Reporters are harassed at will. Of course, you know the case of Jones Abiri who was detained for over two years. In Nasarawa and Oyo states building housing radio stations have been demolished by agents of the state.

“Besides, I understand the National Broadcasting Commission has been imposing humongous fines on radio stations for ventilating free speech. How bad can it go?”

Mr. Lanre Arogundade, Director, International Press Centre (IPC), believes “those who say that we are returning to the age of Decree 4 of 1984, may not be far from the truth in the sense that we are having unprecedented spate of attacks on press freedom, media independence and journalism. And we are talking of attacks manifesting in different ways. You have instances of arrests and detention of media practitioners or journalists without any justification whatsoever. So we are speaking of Jones Abiri, who was held for two years under a democracy. It has never happened since the return of democracy in the country. And then we are also talking about Premium Times journalist who was arrested and detained and was being compelled to disclose his source of information by the police.

“We are also talking of different attacks on journalists in different parts of the country usually by security agents and the likes. We must also mention the bulldozing of the Fresh FM building in Ibadan at a time when a case has been instituted in court. It is still part of this general assault on the media. It’s not just the federal government, but some state governments controlled by the ruling party are also attacking the media. In Nassarawa State, a radio station was also pulled down. We are also talking about attempt to reintroduce legislations that will muscle the press. We have on our hands the Nigerian Press Council Bill, for example, which seeks to criminalise the practice of journalism in Nigeria.

“So when you take all these together, one would be right to say that press freedom is under great assault under this present regime than we’ve ever witnessed and that is not acceptable to us.”

READ ALSO: ‘Before Buhari tampers with Press Freedom again’

For Mr. Arogundade, there is no justification or defence for such actions. According to him, if anybody has any complaints about issues bordering on lack of professionalism or lack of ethical conduct on the part of the media, there are avenues to seek redress. “There are legal avenues to go to courts if you feel defamed or libeled. There are regulatory bodies that are still in existence like the National Broadcasting Corporation or the Nigerian Press Council. In fact, the professional bodies have ethics and disciplinary committees. So there’s no way anyone can say the media is culpable or responsible for this kind of assault. We must speak up and condemn these acts.”

Equally reacting to the various assaults and infractions against the media, the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) issued a statement condemning the excesses of both the government and the security personnel.

In the statement signed by its President, Mr. Abdulwaheed Odusile, the body expressed its displeasure with the authorities demanding an apology and compensation for its members that have been wronged.

The statement reads; “The Nigeria Union of Journalists is irked by the seemingly deliberate effort of government and its agents to ceaselessly attack and assault some sections of the Nigerian media, prevent such media houses and their journalists from carrying out their legitimate duties, under the guise of enforcing the law.

“We are particularly alarmed by the reckless action of the Government of Oyo State which today demolished the premises of FRESH FM in Ibadan. For whatever reason the destruction of the media house by agents of Governor Abiola Ajimobi was insensitive and punitive and an attempt to stifle the media.

“The NUJ condemns such acts of impunity and reiterates its position of working closely with stake holders to promote a safer environment for media organisions and journalists to operate.

“We shall strive to combat relentlessly the present unacceptable level of impunity plaguing the country and deterring aspiring young Nigerians from embracing the profession and those already in the profession from leaving out of frustration.

“The media will not be intimidated by such callousness of some politicians but will rather remain resolute in promoting a more positive narrative on the country by encouraging, without departing from a rigorous professional approach, development journalism and democratic values.

“The NUJ demands for apology and compensation for the wanton destruction of the radio station from the Oyo State Government.”

The body also petitioned the President against the Inspector-General of Police over harassments by police personnel.

Part of the petition signed by Mr. Odusile read; “I write this petition on behalf of thousands of Nigerian journalists, against the Inspector-General of police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris over his incessant attacks on journalists and violent violations of their human rights, culminating in yesterday’s (Tuesday)arrest of a Premium Times reporter, Mr. Samuel Ogundipe.

“Your Excellency, we want to note that this is not the first time the IGP has been hounding the press.

“On January 1, this year, two journalists who are brothers, Messrs Daniel and Izuchukwu Elombah were abducted in their homes by SARS officers, on the orders of the IGP and detained for ten days, over what was published on their blog purportedly against the IGP.

“Also, on March 13, 2018, SARS officers, under the control of the IGP, abducted Abdulahi Krishi, the National Assembly correspondent of Daily Trust, right at the premises of the National Assembly. He was subsequently released 24 hours later after an outcry from the media.

“Your Excellency, it is obvious that the excesses of the IGP against the media is giving your government a bad image as an anti- press government, even when it’s obvious these infractions were carried out without the presidency’s imprimatur.

“We therefore implore your Excellency to call the Inspector-General to order and stop his incessant attacks on the media.”

Indeed how bad can it get? The APC government, which enjoyed the support of the media as opposition party and prior to coming to power has taken it upon itself to attenuate the effectiveness and power of the media by unleashing its security apparatus and other instrumentalities of the law on the media.

What they encouraged and used the media to do against the PDP government, they have become unable to stomach. But can a chameleon change its spots? That, the media ought to have considered before getting into a romance with Mr. Buhari.

The media, the Fourth Estate of the Realm is in tatters, a shadow of what it should be, but perhaps, if and when it regains its feet, this will be a lesson to learn to maintain neutrality in the discharge of its duties and remain what it is supposed to be, the voice of the voiceless.