More than five decades since many African countries gained political independence, the values attached to press freedom remain high. Historically, press freedom was enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948). Article 19 of the Declaration states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to hold opinions without interference and to strive for, obtain and communicate information and ideas through any media without constraints. Although many African countries are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the rights of citizens to enjoy free speech have been violated more than respected.
In the final days of the struggle for political independence in Africa, the media were expected to play the role of the lapdog of the newly installed governments in different countries. It was fashionable to hear political leaders talk about the obligations of the media to support the government in power so the government could achieve its socioeconomic development objectives. The media were expected to collaborate with the government rather than scrutinise state officials. A critical press was seen as unhelpful and confrontational because criticisms, the leaders argued, tended to create instability rather than cultivate a harmonious society. African leaders often wonder why the media should be consumed by the fight for press freedom while the basic needs of the people remain unachievable.
Within the new independent nations, the campaign for press freedom was an anathema. Whatever would not advance the interests of a nation was deemed unworthy of press attention. Press freedom remains, in the eyes of many African leaders and leaders of other developing countries, an abstract concept that cannot place food on citizens’ dining tables. Given a choice between the fight for freedom and the struggle for three square meals, our leaders encourage us to aim for achievement of our basic needs that will guarantee longer life for everyone. After all, politically crafty African leaders tell us, ‘You cannot eat freedom’.
Within the continent, authoritarian political and military leaders argued the press was not obligated to scrutinise authority or hold national leaders to account. Rather than see a free press as the hallmark of a free society, state officials say a free press in any developing country should be seen as a hindrance to progress. This is why, in various parts of the continent, press freedom, as a concept, remains as problematic as democracy.
Press freedom means different things to different people and their leaders. Politicians tend to support a free press when they are in opposition. When they get into government, press freedom becomes a bad concept that should be quarantined.
Beyond Africa, press freedom remains an important idea because the press represents a vital institution that holds governments accountable in order to prevent abuses of power. The press contributes to a vigorous civil society that checks on governments. Indeed, the press is our primary source of information. It is a platform that links citizens with the government. As a major channel of information, the press furnishes citizens with news of government programmes, including news of political, social and cultural events, which assist citizens to make informed decisions about their everyday activities. As Professor Katrin Voltmer argues, the functions which the media perform in human society are founded on the assumptions that the media serve the public interest and are, therefore, responsible to the people. Voltmer makes the sound argument that if citizens are poorly served by the media, if citizens are unable to articulate their viewpoints, if citizens despise their political agents and if the people have supreme contempt for the principles of democracy, the feasibility of democracy could be put at risk.
Despite the emergence of the Internet and social media that have democratised citizens’ access to information, the scuffle between advocates of a free and independent media and despotic leaders who want to govern with maximum power continues to fester. Although Nigeria is a democracy, there have been frequent abuses of journalists who were either bashed on the job or arrested and detained by those who believe they have the divine right to determine what journalists can or cannot report. That is why officials of state who claim that Nigeria respects freedom of the press and free speech by citizens must be regarded as propagandists whose understanding of the meaning of a free press is severely deformed.
In many ways, a press that is constrained by government legislation or threatened by politicians and their thugs is not a free press. A press that is compelled to abdicate its role does not contribute to the growth of democracy. When journalists are restricted from performing their roles, they cannot serve their watchdog role.
The battle for press freedom in Nigeria must be fought vigorously in partnership with civil society and international human rights groups as well as press freedom organisations. Like the constitution of many countries that contains clauses that guarantee free speech and press freedom, you will find that citizens’ rights are neither honoured nor appreciated. It is for this reason that press freedom advocates do not believe leaders who say they support and respect press freedom, even as their actions reveal their duplicity and inconsistencies.
I am reminded of what former President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya once said to the effect that his government had no intention of restraining press freedom in his country. However, his plans to boost press freedom in Kenya exposed the worthlessness of that pledge. At the Madaraka Day celebrations in Nairobi to commemorate Kenya’s 44th anniversary of “freedom for internal self-governance”, Kibaki told the audience: “Press freedom is important for our democracy. We will work with the media on ways of further entrenching democracy and development. We have no intention of controlling the media.”
To the consternation of those who believed his words, Kibaki’s government moved quickly to introduce a bill that aimed to create a supervisory body for the Kenyan media. The media watchdog was empowered with the responsibility for “licensing journalists, keeping a register of all journalists but with express mandate to de-register anyone found to be in breach of the non-defined set of regulations”. Soon after the bill was introduced, press freedom advocates wondered how a legislation intended to constrain the media could enhance democracy and economic development of Kenya. Stripped of its clandestine intentions, the bill introduced by Kibaki’s government proved to be an instrument designed to weaken the power of Kenyan journalists to report freely.
In Nigeria, rather than talk about legislation to strengthen press freedom, we saw how Olusegun Obasanjo as president delayed signing into law the Freedom of Information (FoI) bill that was passed by the National Assembly. Obasanjo’s reasons for declining presidential approval of the bill was trivial, you might say. The first fault he found with the bill was the title. The bill was titled “Freedom of Information”. That was not good enough for Obasanjo. He said he wanted his own title which was given as “Right to Information Bill”.
The second reason Obasanjo withheld his consent of the FoI bill was unconvincing. He said the bill excluded public access to records that could be dangerous to the “defence” of the nation and ignored the records that could be “injurious to the security” of the nation. While the controversial words might convey different meanings, it must be said that even as president, Obasanjo could not presume to be more well-informed than members of the National Assembly who passed the bill.
Cameroonian author and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, Francis B. Nyamnjoh, highlighted in his book – Africa’s Media, Democracy and the Politics of Belonging – the close relationship between media freedom, enhancement of democracy, and socio-economic development of Africa and other parts of the world. He argues that democratisation and socio-economic development of Africa cannot take place in a void. He points out that the news media are instrumental to the advent of a culture of democracy in the continent.
For Nigerian journalists to uphold their obligation to the society they serve, they require an environment in which they will be free to report the truth without fear of official threats to their lives and/or bullying, harassment and political pressure. These constitute impediments to press freedom. However, it has been said that freedom is not offered willingly by political leaders on a platter. That means that journalists and editors must be eternally vigilant. They must be prepared to challenge in law courts any attempts by the state to limit their constitutional rights and freedom to report news.
As democracy spreads across the world, as citizens adopt modern technologies that enable them to access news and to communicate with people in distant locations, it is ironic that our governments are devising ways and laws to shrink free speech and press freedom that are fundamental to the development of democracy and a culture of accountability and openness.
Why can’t Nigeria join the rest of the world in celebrating the growth of democracy, and the empowerment of the people and the press?