New Telegraph

Who Will Stop the Attacks on Journalists?

“Truth, crushed to earth shall rise again. The eternal years of God are hers; But error, wounded, writhes with pain And dies amongst his worshippers” ––William Cullen Bryant

According to Toby Mendel, who headed Article 19 Law Pro- gram,1999, and the drafting of the Principles of the Freedom of Information Legislation :”Information is the oxygen of democracy”. It is its life-blood. It breathes, lives and thrives with it. With credible information the people get to know what is happening in the society, including what their leaders do, such as their policies, programs and projects that affect their lives, virtually on daily basis.That would also inform the roles they too have to play to oil the engine of democracy. Interestingly, this was the focus of my lecture titled:” The role and challenges of a writer in a pseudo-democracy” as delivered to members of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA Lagos Chapter, at the Tafawa Balewa Square back in September, 2006.

That was some seven years after the return of democracy to Nigeria in 1999. The slight change of the title, with the addition of words such as “challenges” and “pseudo -democracy” by yours truly was within the context of the prevailing political anomalies, absurdities and arbitrariness which characterized our experience, as led by the leaders with a military mindset. Sad to note however, that 18 years later we are still bogged down by a crop of leaders who are driven by the personalization of political power, bolstered of course, by an anti-people administrative and payment structure, overtly skewed in favour of the political elite, against the wellbeing of the long-suffering masses. Much like an anthill king-slave architecture, with the worker termites toiling all day to satiate the high tastes of the king and queen termites sequestered in their royal chamber, their moving mantra is to serve the self at the expense of the state.

In such an absurd situation purveyors of truth through information gathering, analysis and sharing have their lives under threat. There comes in the critical role of the Nigerian journalist. But who is he, what challenges does he face and what should be done to protect his rights and safety? Those are the critical questions. Basically, journalists are social engineers. They perform the triple functions of informing, educating and entertaining the public; be they the readers or listeners to the stories or analysis provided. These duties they can do at the same time. But beyond that they delve into developmental journalism, by setting agenda for the leaders in the vast spectrum of politics, economy, education, healthcare delivery, religion and other fields of human endeavour, as the acclaimed voices of the led majority of people.

Acting as the link between those leaders and the masses the role the journalist plays is so important that the constitution recognizes the media as the Fourth Estate of the Realm, ac- cording to Sections 22 and 36(1) of the 1999 constitution. Precisely, Section 22 aptly states that:”the press, radio, tele- vision and other agencies of the mass media, to at all time, be free to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people”. Kindly read that again. That explains the reason behind the popular statement that, “a society is as good as its press”. But such an obligation brings about the important questions needing credible answers. For instance, are the leaders willing and ready to be guided by the truth, as provided by the press? Are members of the public, on whose behalf they write and speak, truly interested in the truth, with regards to the dictates of the constitution in the national interest, or are they subsumed with ethno-religious and political sentiments?

Answers to these questions have one way or the other shaped the relationship which exists between the media practitioners and the leaders. The bitter truth is that given the dark background of the dysfunctional political structures arranged in favour of the leaders against the people, the journalist comes under various attacks; in terms of verbal and physical intimidation, financial inducement as well as well orchestrated blackmail. That brings to the fore the recent order given by Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja that the fed- eral government should investigate and prosecute killers of Dele Giwa, founder of ‘Newswatch Magazine’ and other journalists killed between 1986 and 2003. That was in response to the action taken by the Incorporated Trustees of Media Rights Agenda (MRA) that sued the Attorney General of the federation seek- ing several reliefs, including that of the killing of journalists, which constitutes a gross and despi- cable violation of their right to life and safety.

This of course, is guaranteed by Sections 33 and 39 of the 1999 constitution, as amended, and Articles 4 and 9 of the African Charter on Human Rights. The urgency this clarion call by the MRA entails is the allegation that some journalists are still being hounded and harassed by security agencies as we speak, yet that the Attorney General of the Federation is doing nothing about it. Before we take such allegations with a pinch of salt, let us consider some data as made available by the Centre for Journalism, Innovation and Development (CJID) which tracks assaults on journalists, including cyber-attacks. According to the piece of vital information by the MRA, in November,2022, some 19 journalists have been sent to their early graves since 1999, under the current democratic dispensation.

They were brutally attacked or shot dead. For instance, Pelumi Onifade who was 20 years old and had just started practising journalism with Gboa TV had his life cut short during the unforgettable #ENDSARS protest that held at the Toll Gate in Lagos state in October 2020. Some other media practitioners who have also lost their precious lives in questionable circumstances, over the years include Fidelis Ikuebe, a freelance journalist with the Guardian newspaper in Anambra state, Enenche Akogwa then working as a reporter with Channels Television in Kano, and Sam Nimfa-Jan, an NTA reporter who was brutally killed in Jos’, Plateau state. Not left out were Maxwell Nashal of the Federal Radio Corporation (FRCN) Ad- amawa state, Precious Owolabi, then with Channels Television, Abuja, Titus Badejo of Naija FM, in Oyo state and Tordue Salem of Vanguard Newspaper in Abuja, the FCT.

The list goes on and on but the grave import of their sudden deaths has to do with practising one’s profession in a country where the journalist has be- come an endangered specie. But what is the way forward? Firstly, it is important for the public to know that the journalist is strictly guided by the code of conduct, more like the bible of his profession. He is taught on listening to both sides of every story he works on and avoids issues of libel and sedition, as mentored by the editors. All the same, no one has the right to force him to make disclosure of his source of information. Much of what he does is for public interest, as he acts as a strong vehicle on the path to good governance. While one will keep canvassing for his employer to step up efforts on his insurance cover, to protect him against the hazards of his job, the federal government is under statutory obligation to protect him from harm’s way.

Furthermore, the security operatives should identify, prosecute and penalize the killers of journalists in the country, as Justice Ekwo has rightly advocated. That will certainly serve as a strong deterrence to others who want their lives terminated for self-serving reasons.

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