Nigeria: A nation in need of free speech, By Jerome-Mario Utomi.

Posted by News Express | 11 September 2018 | 1,274 times

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•Jerome-Mario Utomi

Merit, taken objectively, is “something earned, something owed to a person;” taken subjectively, “it is the right of a person to his earning.”It is of two types: condign and congruous merits. While “condign merit deals with strict justice to a reward, congruous merit is not so much a right as a claim, but rests upon what is suitable or fitting in a situation.”

With the foregoing words of Paul Glenn in mind, each time I am asked my opinion on the nation’s media industry in relation to free speech/freedom of expression, I usually pause to honestly look at its virtues and attributes both objectively and subjectively. In all, one thing often stands out: the Nigerian media, in the writer’s views, neither merits nor deserves the inequitable treatments so far meted to it by the successive administrations.

The reason for this position is signposted in the fact that the vast majority of the ordinances/codes made to guide the practice has never squared up or operate in harmony with the moral laws. A case that has postured the right to freedom of speech as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution, as amended, to a mere declaration of intent, rather than that of reality.

Standing as telling examples are: the infamous Decree 4 of 1984 and, very recently, the controversial Nigerian Press Council Bill 2018 currently before the upper chamber of National Assembly: A bill that its emergence has further blown hot wind into the media industry and caused practitioners to stagger in confusion and incomprehension.

Certainly, citizens of every nation – whether democratic or otherwise – hunger for a “public forum” or sphere, where the issues of public interest are viewed as central, and openly considered, discussed or debated. On their part, the politicians and public office-holders also have a great interest in how the media covers their behaviour. They depend on the media to provide the information they need about the people and the society. The media practitioners, in turn, depend much on the authorities (public office-holders) for their information.

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, a number of issues daily emanate from this mutual dependency as the vast majority of public office holders are allergic to accepting their political past/mistakes while others are not disposed to having their political future discussed.

Consequently, the nation has on countless occasions witnessed this relationship snowball into a frosty one, as the government attempts to unjustly moderate, control or regulate public discourse; using decrees (during the military era) and draconian legislation to impose punishments that are incongruent with logic or reason.

Fresh in our memories were the excruciating ordeal of two journalists with The Guardian Newspapers – Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson – jailed by a military tribunal on July 4,1984 for a news report that was not lacking in merit, but asymmetrically viewed to have contravened  the infamous Decree 4.  Similarly, the recent Oyo State Government/Fresh FM saga has become to media owners/ practitioners a rocky episode of frustration and bewilderment. Very instructive! I have no despair about the future of media practice and freedom of expression in Nigeria. But the events of the past weeks has become an emblematic proof that the spirit of Decree 4 still pervades the media wavelength and further reveals an unhappy truth - that free speech is under attack - a state of affairs considered bad for morals.

However, before you shed your doubt on this position, wait till you cast a glance at the synoptic litany of the recent attempts to cage the media.

First and most radical was the present administration’s unfortunate attempt to regulate the activities of non-governmental organisations (NGO) in the country, which was followed in quick succession by another ill-fated attempt to censor the social media, with the ceaseless efforts by the government, culminating in the proposition of the Hate Speech Bill.

Strangely, but anticipated, before the dust raised by the proposed hate speech bill  could settle down, that of the Nigerian Press Council Bill 2018 was up – a bill greeted with knocks and viewed by industry watchers as draconian and another attempt to take the media back to the dark days.

This situation is even made worse by the sudden acrimony between the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) and some radio and television stations over their purported inability to settle sundry debts/charges to the commission; a claim which most of the embattled stations have denied.

Indeed, as someone that is sufficiently interested in seeing Nigeria turn to a zone of peace, it will in the first instance be rewarding if the pro-Nigerian Press Council Bill 2018 proves to the stakeholders the defects the bill is set out to correct. But it must be in total compliance with the provisions of section 22 of the Constitution, which states thus:

“The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall 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.”

Accordingly, if the bill is passed into, from what Nigerians with critical interests are saying, the fundamental rights to freedom of expression – to which all Nigerians are entitled under section 39 of the constitution - will only exist in the frames without a free press.

However, whatever the true position may be, it’s crucial for all to note that media organisations must not undermine but support the fundamental needs of the country and the positive purpose of the elected government; if it will not in any way dent/obstruct the media’s primary responsibility to the masses in a democratic society which, among others, includes inculcating and reinforcing positive political, cultural, social attitudes among the citizenry. It must also create a mood in which people become keen to acquire skills and disciplines of developed nations.

Again, as this brouhaha between media organisations/practitioners and the government institutions continues unabated, our leaders should realise that with the advent of the social media, which has given birth to “citizens”journalism,  media practice the world over has broken loose from the paralysis of conformity  and transcended  to a democratised information management age.

Aside the above, another salient point we must not fail to remember – as good governance proponents – is that where the media is free, the marketplace of ideas sort the irresponsible from the responsible. But a partisan press helps the politicians to flood the marketplace of ideas with junks and confuse and befuddle the people so that they could not see what their vital interest is.

In view of the above, free press the world over, has become an organic necessity in the society that provides a platform/avenue for positive criticism, reliable and intelligent reporting through which the government can be informed about what the people of the country are thinking and doing.

Finally, “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government, as a well-informed citizenry can govern itself and secure liberty for individuals.” Likewise, it is important to state here that for us to achieve the promised hypermodern nation, freedom of speech/expression and a democratised media are not just enviable but eminently desirable.

•Jerome-Mario Utomi, of Springnewsng.com, writes via jeromeutomi@yahoo.com and can also be reached on 08032725374 (SMS)


Source: News Express

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