The Nigerian Media Has Not Fared Well under Democratic Rule, Say Experts in Twitter Chat 

Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA)
Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA)

The Nigerian Media has not fared well under democratic rule,  contrary to expectations at the onset of the country’s latest democratic experiment 21 years ago, a panel of experts have said. The panelists at a Twitter Chat noted that journalists have continued to be subject to various forms of attacks from such groups as political thugs, Nigerian police, army officers, government officials, and the Department of State Security (DSS).

These were the verdict of two media veterans, Mr. LanreArogundade, Director of International Press Centre (IPC) and Ms Blessing Oladunjoye, Publisher, BONews during a Twitter Chat on June 15, 2020 organized by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and BONews Service during which the panellists discussed “21 Years of Democracy in Nigeria and the State of Press Freedom”. The hashtags used for the Twitter chat were: #PressFreedom and #Democracy2020

There were to be three panellists initially but Mr. AgbaJalingo, Journalist and Publisher of CrossRiverWatch could not partake in the Twitter chat.

In his welcome remarks, Mr. EdetaenOjo, Executive Director of MRA who moderated the chat reminded participants that May 29, 2020 was the 21st anniversary of the restoration of democracy in Nigeria, after years of military rule characterized by brutal human rights abuses. Edetaen noted that this makes the period easily the longest stretch of uninterrupted democratic rule in Nigeria.

He observed that since the year 2000, May 29 was celebrated as Democracy Day until President Buhari declared June 12 the new Democracy Day in 2018, adding, President Buhari marked the 21st anniversary with an address on June 12, in which he acknowledged the media’s role in Nigeria’s democratic struggle. He said while there is no debate about whether democracy is preferable to military rule, 21 years on, adding the twitter chat will take stock to assess how freedom of expression and media freedom have fared under democratic governments, especially the current Administration.

Reminding the panellists that it is now 21 years since democracy was restored in Nigeria in 1999, Edetaen asked them what was their sense of how the media has fared under successive governments during this period in terms of media freedom in general and the safety of journalists in particular.

The panellists said contrary to expectations, journalists did not fare any better in this democracy adding they continued to be subject to various forms of attacks from such groups as political thugs, Nigerian police, army officers, government officials, Department of State Security (DSS) etc. Lanre disclosed that this year, the monitoring conducted by the IPC in relation to journalists’ safety and COVID-19 reporting, shows that Nigeria journalists have faced assaults and threats while reporting COVID-19 issues. He added: “The impression you get is that the government cares less about freedom of the press and journalists rights so much so that a state governor announced the ban of two journalists from covering their activities.”

On her part, MsOladunjoye said successive administrations since 1999 have adopted a high-handed strategy and approach in dealing with journalists and private media houses, adding journalists are frequently threatened, arrested and detained when they attempt to carry out their duties diligently. The media, according to her, has become an easy target for Police, military and Department of State Services (DSS) with regular acts of harassment and intimidation, including arrests and detention.

Giving insights into how low Nigeria has sunk in its respect for press freedom, she cited the 2020 Reporters sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders, RSF), World Press Freedom Index which ranked Nigeria 115th out of 180 countries, a position which she said shows an extremely poor performance as a result of which she said Nigeria can’t be said to be making meaningful progress regarding press freedom and safety of journalists.

Edetaen called the panellists’ attention to President Buhari’s Democracy Day 2020 address in which he expressed “deep appreciation” to the Press for their doggedness in the struggle for democracy. He then asked if they think his administration has taken concrete steps to recognize and honour the media for this.

The panellists were of the same opinion that government has not. MsOladunjoye said beyond mere statements, the reality is that the Buhari government needs to be more responsive and be seen to be protecting press freedom and beyond rhetoric, Government’s body language so far suggests that the safety of journalists is NOT a top priority. Lanre said he doesn’t think the Buhari Administration has taken any step to honour the media but instead various agencies of the government appear to be in a competition to outdo each other in the stringent and brutal steps that they have taken to frustrate the media.

Again, Edetaen asked if, in their views, his Government has done enough to honour the memory of such journalists, calling their attention to the fact that President Buhari expressed sadness in his Democracy Day address that in the course of securing our democracy, some media personnel paid a heavy price.

The panellists were again of the same mind that the Buhari Administration has done nothing to honour the memory of journalists who gave their lives for the struggle for democracy in Nigeria, adding his administration has also not done anything to make journalism easier or safer for the practitioners. Lanre suggested that an objective compilation of the sacrifices and harm suffered by journalists in the course of fighting for democracy should be done and presented to the government for them to be deservedly honoured.

On President Buhari’s pledge in his address that his Government would continue to guarantee freedom of the press, Edetaen asked: “What can Nigerians, particularly media and civil society, do in future to effectively hold the President and his Government to this promise?

MsOladunjoye was of the opinion that the Buhari Administration has not guaranteed press freedom so far and that instead of pledging to continue what he has never done, he should make a commitment that his Administration would start to respect the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Constitution and the rights of journalists and media workers embedded in it.

To hold the Buhari Administration to his Democracy Day promise, media and CSOs should develop a matrix, highlighting what constitutes press freedom and tracking Government’s performance in relation to the standards through an appropriate tool that scores it on each incident. She said with such a ‘document’ or ‘report’ establishing  clearly whether the president is fulfilling his promises or not, it will be difficult for the President or his officials to make such flippant pledges which they do not intend to honour or abide by.

She added that the media and civil society organizations can also leverage things like the annual Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders as vital tools to effectively hold the President and his Administration accountable for such promises.