The apex Nigerian media association – the Nigerian Guild of Editors scored a point last week when it provided a formidable platform to Atiku Abubakar, the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party in the 2023 general elections to answer perhaps the most pertinent Nigerian governance issues of the moment. Nigerians who were able to access the platform must have been pleasantly delighted to hear Atiku deprecating the current situation in which virtually all security agencies in Nigeria are headed by citizens from one part of the country. The former vice president also promised that if elected the next Nigerian president, he would from the very first day in office begin a restructuring exercise that would address the subsisting over centralization of governance in the country. These are great ideas capable of bringing to an end, a long standing unwieldy law enforcement template that pitches citizens against the state.
It is obviously unnecessary to plead with the Guild to extend same platform to other candidates so that the nation can be fully educated on what each of them intends to do if elected. First, the Guild is made up of persons who belong to a profession that is predicated on balance and objectivity as a cardinal principle of operation. Second, the law governing elections in Nigeria, the Electoral Act 2022 directs all media organs to offer equal opportunities to all political parties to explain their manifestos thereby assisting voters to make informed decisions. Even non-media organs and other interest groups have also taken steps to get different candidates to address all relevant issues to their satisfaction. That is how it should be considering our desire to change the current political culture in which elections are decided through violence, vote-buying and several other electoral malpractices.
It is hoped that by its new posture, the Nigerian Guild of Editors would be ready to use its numerous organs to compel candidates when they get into office to live up to the promises they are making now. If this is done, the nation stands the chance of enjoying its media better than what has been happening in the country for some time now. Unlike what the Nigerian media was traditionally known for, such as fighting for independence, tackling indigenous leaders of the first republic for failing to change the pains of colonialism and embarking on guerilla journalism to work against prolonged military rule, the media has been intimidated since 1999 when democracy was restored in the country. Surprisingly attacks on the press have come more from the states than the federal level with an increased tempo since 2015.
It is practically impossible to list the numerous arrests of journalists in the last few years in Nigeria without changing the focus of this piece. To mention just a few, one cannot forget the case of Jones Abiri, Editor of the Weekly Source Newspapers who was arrested for certain publications which security forces imagined could threaten the nation’s peace. His Nigerian colleagues did not even know of the alleged offence though he was detained for 157 days. It was foreign journalists attending the 2018 annual World Congress of the International Press Institute (IPI) hosted by Nigeria who raised his case at a session with President Muhammadu Buhari. He was released two months later. Obinna Don Norman of the Realm News was detained for allegedly defaming and embarrassing Theodore Orji, a senator representing Abia state. Another journalist Agba Jalingo of the Cross River Watch, who accused governor Ben Ayade of corruption over a micro finance bank in the state. was held for 30 months not for defamation but for terrorism and treason- a new trend by which state authorities employ provisions of the Cybercrimes Act to convert every media criticism to sedition.
Remarkably, not much is heard from the Nigerian media about the new wave of clamping down on journalists who draw attention to excesses in governance especially at state level where there is hardly any opposition. Against this background, I had looked forward with plenty of hope that the Nigerian Guild of Editors was set to throw light on the case of a radio operative in the Imo Broadcasting Service that had been accused of offending governor Hope Uzodinma. My belief was that the radio worker’s case may have been part of what influenced the choice of Owerri as the venue for this year’s 18th All Nigeria Editors Conference. But by the time the conference ended, all I heard was a collection of speeches of commendation for a reported outstanding performance of the governor. In fact, anyone could have agreed with the evaluative reports because watching some of the projects displayed, Owerri was exceedingly beautiful.
I waited patiently to see if any areas which the governor did nothing about would be pointed out, but none. Of course, Uzodinma being human cannot score 100 percent but with no reference to what he did not do, it would be wrong for any viewer to derogate from the score of eyewitnesses. I reached out to some old friends in Imo over the generous score and one person testified that at the Gala Nite held at the Banquet Hall in honour of the visiting Editors, the governor had himself said he was willing to listen to any shortcomings observed by his guests; again, none. Quoting some of the Editors, a report by Thisday Newspaper said “Uzodinma was quietly changing the hitherto infrastructure deficit associated with Imo state.”
It was my first time of hearing that Imo was ever so associated bearing in mind that some four years earlier, the state was said to be so beautiful that it attracted statutes of international political icons. Using LED solar powered streetlights to bring sparkling illuminations and shining ambience at night to Owerri in line with his ‘Rescue Mission Government’ Owelle, Rochas Okorocha, the then governor had been described as the best thing that happened to the state. The lesson today is that such descriptions don’t last because many more enduring issues are usually left untreated. For example, whereas beautiful roads and buildings are good they can’t compete with human capital development. Indeed, the greatest dividends of democracy is freedom. This is why the new wave of using security operatives to detain political opponents and media professionals for their dissenting opinions or criticism should worry our Senior Editors.
The case of Casmir Uzomah a staff member of the Orient Radio-Television Station who was detained for allegedly playing a song considered offensive to governor Uzodinma deserves some mention. Why would leaders elected by citizens allow the breach of the constitutional injunction which presumes every such citizen to be innocent until proven otherwise? Why do our leaders deliberately ignore the constitutional provision which states that no citizen should be detained for more than 48 hours without a court order? Is detention the punishment for defamation and should such punishment be at the discretion of security agencies? Last week, President Akuffo-Addo of Ghana sacked his finance minister over corruption allegation made against him by the media. Is it not intriguing that if it was Nigeria, the relevant journalist would have been accused of treason and detained by law enforcement agencies indefinitely?
It is time to worry about the trend. Who says the allegation of corruption in the Cross River Micro Finance Bank was not true? Why would a state radio staff play an offensive music? Who investigated it and what was the outcome of such investigation? What charges have been brought against the staff in court and why has it become a norm to detain accused persons and send strong signals to the rest of us to desist from raising any observations whatsoever that may not please any governor? Why is Nigeria allowing the type of reported repression of opponents or journalists in states such as Ebonyi? Certainly, journalists are not above the law, those who offend should be taken through the due process of law. If our Editors who went to Imo had condemned the governor for poor work, they would have been taken up for not also seeing the good works. That is how it should be and we expect the Nigerian Guild of Editors to review its Imo visit without taking away any commendation due to the governor.
…. Iredia, a former DG of NTA is now a Professor of Media Law & Ethics.