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OPINION: NIGERIA IS A DEATH ZONE FOR JOURNALISTS

He would have been 73 years old this year. He sat in his office located at No. 25, Talabi street in Ikeja, Lagos State. He was discussing with Kayode Soyinka who later left him for the restroom. In this time, a letter was delivered to him. The letter came after he had written an article on the second-tier foreign exchange market (SFEM), a Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) policy introduced at that time. In the article, he submitted that if SFEM failed, the people would stone “their leaders in the streets.”

The Government at the time found his submission offensive but feigned a carefree attitude. They said he was planning a socialist revolution and they believed so because they knew him as a fierce and undaunted journalist. He believed the pen is mightier than the sword and he spoke truth to power. He wanted to free the commoners from the shackles of corrupt leaders. He wanted to turn Nigeria into El Dorado. However, after receiving the letter a bomb exploded.

That was how Dele Giwa, the pioneer Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch died. He was given a letter bomb. He drank from Mahatma Gandhi’s statement that truth never damages a cause that is just, but his truth courted his death.

Thirty-Three years after his death, the story of how journalists are maimed, harassed and killed has not changed. For instance, in the past two decades, according to a report from the International Center for Investigative Reports (ICIR), 10 journalists have been murdered and their murderers have still not been brought to justice. Some have been harassed by mobs while carrying out their duties and others, by the security agencies, especially the department of state security (DSS). Nigeria has been a death zone for journalists.

They cannot cover an event peacefully. If they publish sensitive articles on the government’s ineptitude, they face the all too real possibility of being imprisoned. In 2016, Jones Abiri, editor of the Weekly Source, was detained for two years without trial on the allegation he was linked with Niger Delta armed militancy. Despite his unlawful detention, the government still claimed they were right to do so. Also, a Premium Times reporter, Samuel Ogundipe, was detained and prosecuted for refusing to reveal a source. Sadly, to be an ardent journalist, especially an investigative one in Nigeria, is to carry one’s grave and this is very pathetic for a nation like ours.

Campus journalists are not exempted from this awful trend. They face harassment by school authorities who strongly believe they make no wrong decisions. Anyone who dares to talk will be charged to face the Student Disciplinary Committee (Court). However, these are the students whom they have trained to stand for their rights. Isn’t it ironic? As the Yoruba adage goes, he must not wear rag he who wants to gift a cloth. School authorities should not be found wanting in what they preach against, for one can not give what one does not have. Just last year, Kunle Adebajo, an award-winning journalist, was suspended by the University of Ibadan School Authorities for writing an article on their cosmetic renovation of the Mellanby Cafeteria. Other campus journalists who have raised their voices against school rulings have been threatened with expulsion. We now live in fear. School authorities are seen as a giant hawk who cannot be tamed for their obnoxious rulings and this is very sad for Nigerian education.

However, journalism is a reflection of society. It mirrors the lives of people in a particular country. It serves as a watchdog to the government and an agent of development. Nigerian journalists fought against oppression during the colonial period and subsequently fought for Nigeria’s independence. They fought against the corruption of our rulers at independence and against Military rule. They brought civilians to power. They wrote (and are writing) against the lack of governance in states.

There is no doubt that journalism has had a great impact on the development of this nation but, Nigeria can be better if the President sees the Press as a tonic of healing for this unhealthy nation and if he believes in Thomas Jefferson’s words that he preferred a situation where they had newspapers without government over a situation where there is a government without newspapers. Jefferson believed no society can be developed without a free press thus, his statement. Our dear president can emulate him.

In an effort to achieve a truly free press, Nigeria’s constitution should be free from ambiguity about the empowerment of the duties of the press.  According to chapter 2, section 22 of Nigeria constitution “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in the chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.”

However, chapter 2 of the constitution merely assigns functions to the media, not authorities, and this is an important distinction to make for there is a vast difference between giving responsibilities and authorities. How will the media hold government accountable if another section of the constitution speaks in the opposite of the media’s freedoms and responsibilities? For instance, Section 308 makes it impossible for anyone to sue the President or State Governors whose mandate is to implement public policy. This constitutional ambiguity has likened the press to a “toothless bulldog.” For what use is that chapter if the government cannot be successfully sued to court for their refusal to uphold chapter 2 of the constitution?

It is high time the government started seeing the press as an agent of radical change and put an end to the harassment, maiming and killing of journalists as they are not the government’s enemies. We are partners in progress.

By way of concluding this short piece on press freedom in Nigeria, as a campus journalist in the University of Ibadan, I attended a handing-over ceremony organized by my local press a few weeks ago. The guest speaker was a well-known female broadcaster (name withheld) in Ibadan who was asked to speak on life after school for campus journalists. Instead of a call to action for journalists or advice on how to handle the rigours of the job, she instructed us to not dare authorities for their misruling. She ended her speech by saying: “I can not die for journalism” and this stuck with me because her statement is a reflection of the society we are in, nobody wants to die for what they believe in.

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, may the fallen heroes in the line of journalism find peace in their graves. May we be bold to fight injustice and oppression.

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