A free press is a free Nigeria | Dailytrust

A free press is a free Nigeria

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) dedicates May 3 every year to discuss and reflect on press freedom, as a significant component of our right to freedom of expression. For the year 2022, the theme was “Journalism Under Digital Surveillance,” a deliberate attempt to x-ray how what is now termed ‘digital authoritarianism’ is hampering freedom of speech and, specifically, press freedom, in many countries. According to UNESCO “Growing sophistication and undetectability of malware and spyware and their increasing use against journalists and human rights defenders by state and non-state actors, endanger free and independent journalism.”  In other words, while technology has greatly enhanced the work of journalists, it is saddening that it is also now being associated with increased risk for surveillance by states, as well as tech giants.

Digital authoritarianism manifests in several ways, including the acquisition of malware and other cyber-surveillance weapons such as NSO Group’s Pegasus software, facial recognition equipment and even AI-powered CCTV.  Other ways include curbing free speech through the imposition of fines on certain types of information shared on air or online; restricting access to the internet to prevent citizens from engaging in civic and political discussions; and deliberately spreading disinformation. These measures are used by the state to interfere in citizens’ lives and to stifle or frustrate civic engagement, which is related to the contraction of press freedom.

On the other hand, technology giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter and so on, have been accused of collecting users’ personal data for commercial, political and other purposes that undermine democracy; of not doing enough to curtail disinformation and online hate-speech; and of targeting minorities and children with information and content that risk or otherwise harm their full participation as members of society. Daily Trust frowns at such machinations against free expression and healthy flow of information by both states and the tech giants.

In Nigeria, the government set aside N4.8 billion in the 2021 budget for surveillance equipment, in order to equip security agencies with the capacity to monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls, text messages and the like, for security purposes. While this is understandable for security purposes, we call on the government to not fall for the temptation to target journalists and civil society activists for surveillance.

Furthermore, an 18-page July 2021 report by the Media Foundation for West Africa in collaboration with the Nigeria Union of Journalists shows the hostile environment within which journalists and their media organisations operate in Nigeria. Although the report claims that “At least, 300 violations affecting about 500 journalists, media workers and media houses have been recorded in Nigeria” during 2016-2020, it lists only 46 combined cases of arrests and detentions, physical attacks on journalists and media houses, threats and harassment of reporters and other media workers, attempted censorship and excessive fines on media organisations. Most of these cases of violations of free expression were carried out by security agencies such as the police, the Department of State Security Services (DSS) and officers of the Nigerian Army, particularly during protests.

Moreover, the report also shows that seven journalists and other media workers were killed in Nigeria during the same period. Most of these “unresolved killings” of journalists, according to the report, were perpetrated by “unknown gunmen” or faceless kidnappers, particularly in the southeast of the country. In two instances, Alex Ogbu, a journalist with the Regent Africa Times newspaper and Precious Owolabi, a reporter with the Channels Television were killed while covering protests by members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) who were demanding the release of their leader, Sheik Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, in January and July 2019 respectively. In one of these instances, a Deputy Commissioner of Police, in charge of Operations at the FCT Police Command, Umar Usman equally died from gunshots sustained during the violent protest. Also, on November 11, 2021, Tordue Salem, the House of Representatives correspondent for the Vanguard newspaper was found dead, nearly one month after he had gone missing on 13th October 2021.

In other words, the Nigerian government does not do enough to protect the security and safety of journalists who risk their lives and families to uphold free expression in the country. In most cases, even when journalists report attacks on them to the police, the authorities fail to carry out thorough investigations. This is a disservice to the nation and specifically the press. Worse still, when cases crawl through the difficult investigative process and are taken to the courts, the judicial process could be very slow and lackadaisical. Therefore, we call on our judges to handle cases of attacks on journalists with dispatch so that justice is not delayed. We also call on security operatives to not cheapen themselves as pawns in the hands of some government officials and politicians to harass, brutalise, detain, or even kill journalists. Instead, security agents should commit themselves to investigating criminals who brutalise journalists and bring them to book.

Journalists should be protected, not targeted for attacks, whether physically or digitally. It all makes for a better Nigeria for us all.

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