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FG must stop press freedom violations at once

Ironically, as Nigeria marks 25 years of uninterrupted democracy for the first time in its history as a country, we are witnessing an alarming rise…

Ironically, as Nigeria marks 25 years of uninterrupted democracy for the first time in its history as a country, we are witnessing an alarming rise in press freedom violations. It is even more worrying that in the last year, these attacks on journalists and press freedom have ramped up, with the Press Attack Tracker (PAT) reporting that between May 29, 2023 and May 29, 2024, there have been 37 incidents of press freedom violations in the country. These attacks, carried out by agents of the state, notably, the military, the police and the Department of State Services (DSS), have included 14 unlawful arrests, 9 counts of harassment and three unlawful imprisonments.

Most of these violations have taken place with impunity. As an example, the police in Lagos State arrested a journalist and publisher of News Platform, Precious Eze following complaints by a businessman. He was held for a week before being arraigned in court. Despite granting him bail, he was still held in custody before being presented in another court the following day.

Such incidents have become so rampant that the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) was compelled to issue a statement condemning press freedom violations in the country and calling on the government to address the situation immediately. The NGE highlighted the 2015 Cyber Crime Act as the chief weapon against press freedom in the country.

We concur that this is the case, considering that since the enactment of the Act in 2015, not less than 25 journalists have faced prosecution under this law, leading to civil society groups and journalists calling for amendments to be made to the law.

We note that despite President Bola Tinubu signing an amendment to this Act in February this year, it has still not been gazetted; and persecution of journalists under it has continued. Nine press freedom violations have already been documented between January and now.

The constant arrests, kidnappings and unlawful imprisonment of journalists in the country have become alarming and are increasingly taking new and disturbing dimensions.

Recently, a Premium Times reporter was invited by the police and arrested for a yet-to-be-published story. These are practices that were the hallmarks of the military dictatorship of yester-years and have no place in the democratic culture we have been building for nearly a generation.

We must, therefore, voice our serious concern over these developments and emphasize that the violation of press freedom is a clear and present threat to democracy. Press freedom is a fundamental pillar in any democratic culture; therefore, its evisceration, as we are presently witnessing in Nigeria, is eroding the foundation of the democracy that this country won 25 years ago, largely on frontlines manned by the heroic gentlemen of the press.

The ideation of the press as the fourth estate of the realm is not one that was conceived flippantly. It is derived from the value of what the press brings in its role as watchdogs of the society and the party responsible for holding the powerful to account.

In a third-world media ecology like Nigeria, where journalism practice is guided especially by the precepts of social responsibility, which saddles the press with the duty of championing what serves the public interest in terms of peace and development reporting, the press takes on added significance. Thus, the constant harassment of members of this realm is a willful attempt to undermine democracy.

Global best practices in democratic cultures, such as the US, after whose model Nigeria’s democracy is fashioned, the rights and freedoms of the press are sacrosanct, protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

For Nigeria to guarantee free expression in the constitution and undermine that by the Cyber Crime Act that has been weaponised against press freedom is a duplicity that must be addressed urgently.

We, therefore, call on President Bola Tinubu and the National Assembly to take urgent measures to immediately cause cessation of the harassment of journalists and the violation of press freedom. Urgent measures must be taken to guarantee the rights of journalists to practice their vital duties without fear of intimidation and harassment from state agents.

To celebrate 25 years of uninterrupted democracy while bemoaning the loss of press freedom, a vital cog in the democratic machinery, is an anomaly. The federal government must, therefore, address this anomaly with immediate alacrity.

 

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