Why safety of journalists is a must for survival of all – Communication experts

Cross section of participants at the media roundtable and stakeholders forum on journalists safety and press freedom limitations in Nigeria on 7 December 2020 held at R and A City Hotel, Allen Avenue in Lagos.

By Nehru Odeh

Pelumi Onifade’s death in the hands of the police recently is a classic case of the unwholesome fate that befalls journalists in Nigeria and across the globe in the course of performing their constitutional roles.

Onifade was a 20 year old intern at Gboah TV who was arrested by the police while covering an event at Agege, in Lagos on 24 October 2020. However four days later, after a vain, frantic search for him, this young journalist who had been seen in a jacket labelled “Press” was found in a morgue at Ikorodu, Lagos. And till now the officers responsible for his death haven’t been prosecuted.

Shocking? Wait for this. While his press label on his jacket is symbolic, Onifade is just one of the many journalists who have either been harassed, maimed, arrested or killed while doing their jobs. Onifade has not only added to the statistics of slain journalists, the figures keep rising with impunity.

However, the intriguing thing about this pandemic is that journalists are targeted not only by government officials and security personnel but also by the people whose interests they protect such as protesters, aggrieved citizens, armed robbers, thugs and hoodlums. So they are sandwiched between government and the people who perceived them as enemies and threats.

It is for this reason that the International Press Centre, with the support of the Open Society Foundation, organised a media roundtable and stakeholders forum on journalists safety and press freedom limitations in Nigeria on 7 December 2020 at R and A City Hotel, Allen Avenue in Lagos.

The media roundtable,  organised to mark the 2020 edition of the United Nation’s International Day to End Impunity (IDEI) for Crimes Against Journalists, was attended by senior journalists, academics, as well as distinguished representatives of the Nigerian Union of Journalists, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, and GOCOP.

The event, divided into two sections, featured a presentation of findings of a survey on perception of stakeholders on state of safety of journalists and press freedom in Nigeria, which was conducted by IPC. The survey report was presented by Francis Abayomi.

Professor Ayo Olutokun, journalist, academic, media scholar and columnist, also presented a key note on the theme: Ex-raying the encumbrances of journalists safety and and press freedom in Nigeria:  Action Point for stakeholders.

However, Lanre Arogundade, Executive Director, International Press Centre, set the ball rolling by explaining why media freedom is linked to issues such as the rights of women and the battle against corruption.

“As a matter of fact without realizing it we chose today as a very symbolic day. Today is also the International Anti-Corruption Day. Today is also one of the days when activities around violence against women are being marked in the country.. So I think it is an appropriate time to look at media freedom because at the end of the day media freedom is linked to all the these other issues I have mentioned: the issues of the rights of women .and the battle against corruption,” Arogundade noted.

Arogundade also spoke on why the threat to journalists and media freedom requires urgent attention.

“This forum represents a collective reawakening to the dangers posed to press freedom and limitations to the journalism profession within the context of safety.

“The state of safety of journalists in Nigeria now requires special attention while urgent reforms to address the nation are needed as the country is now one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists whom are often spied on, attacked, arbitrarily arrested or even killed.

Arogundade also said during the recent EndSARS protest that rocked the country, police and demonstrators attacked at least 12 journalists while at least five news outlets were attacked.

“Within a 10 month period prior to the EndSARS protest, IPC, through its Journalists Safety Alert Desk, documented 59 instances on the attacks on journalists. The nature of the attacks included physical assault, harassments, brutalisation, armed robbery, threat to life, unlawful arrest and detention, which resulted in bodily injuries like bruises, fracture and public humiliation,” he said.

The issues raised at the media roundtable revolved around the central constitutional  role journalists play in society to monitor governance and hold government accountable to the people; why the safety of journalists is essential for them to perform that role as enshrined in the constitution,: the training and retraining of journalists; the symbiotic relationship between journalists safety, their welfare and press freedom: the threat media ownership and government pose to press freedom: the correlation between press freedom and the prosperity or poverty of the people; the media as the most repressed in the Nigerian society; and journalists as their own worst enemies: journalists’  poor remuneration and how it affects press freedom.

A very salient point raised at the media roundtable was how press freedom and the safety of journalists are essential to survival of society because without those their ability to perform their constitutional roles and ensure good governance will be breached. That is, if journalists are not safe and free to operate, then society won’t be free and safe. When government is not held accountable, which is the primary responsibility of journalists, there will not only be bad governance, but it will descend into dictatorship. And that press freedom is also tied to the welfare of journalists.

In his keynote, Olukotun, who was encyclopedic, spoke on a wide range of issues. He reiterated the need for the media to be free from control and censorship, adding that that. is the only way to ensure its survival. To prove that point, he spoke about how Daily Times died the very moment the then military government took control of the organization.

The respected media scholar  also spoke about the musical chairs at the then Daily Times, saying that  whenever there was a change of government the leadership of the media outfit also changed.

Olutokun recommended more interaction between Town and Gown, adding that they are not mutually exclusive but rather they have a lot to gain from each other. He also spoke on the importance of the people to the survival of democracy, adding that democracy cannot survive without the people. *We cannot continue to sustain democracy without the the demos (the people),” he maintained, adding that the people as the centrepiece of the democratic process must come into their place. “The moment you eliminate the demos, it becomes the government of cabals for cabals,” he said.

He also said stakeholders should introduce anti-censorship laws into the constitution, and that they must state in black and white that there shall be no censorship of any kind. “So once you censoring you have breached the constitution,” he averred.

Olutokun also advised that the media should be about advocacy; what he calls advocacy journalism that advertises and markets the good and virtuous society. According to him advocacy includes not just writing for newspapers but also penetrating the inners of power. He also charged Nigerian journalists to be more nationalistic in their approach and not sectional. “We must build bridges across the length and breadth of Nigeria,” he averred.

The columnist spoke on the Freedom of Information Act. According to him the FOI Act. is merely decorative because it is underutilized. And once it is underutilized, then there is a problem. He also said journalists must deepen and expand the scope of the FOI Act. He frowned at the idea of some media houses owing journalists a huge backlog of salaries, wondering how such journalists survive and operate in such a condition. He also narrated a story about how some American journalists, who paid a visit to Nigeria, not only found that strange because it never obtained in their country but also couldn’t proffer solution to it.

Reacting to that,  Alhassan Yalya, Vice President, Nigerian Union of Journalists (Zone E), who represented the NUJ President, Mr. Chris Isiguzor spoke extensively about how Journalists are their worst enemies in that respect. He narrated how incident in which when the NUJ picketed a media house that was owing their workers a backlog of salaries, they were resisted by journalists themselves who were staff of that organization because, according to them, that was their only source of livelihood.

Yalya’s presentation brought to the fore the fact that journalists are not only censored from outside but also from within (self-censorship). Self-censorship, according to the experts come in various forms and guises, which include the limitations posed by media ownership and their interests, betrayal of trust by colleagues as in the case of journalists who prevented the NUJ from picketing their organization as well as gratification or brown envelope syndrome.

Ken Ogbechie, Publicity Secretary, Nigerian Guild of Editors, who represented Mustapha Isah, President, NGE, decried the closed nature of the Nigerian society and the strictures or firewalls placed by government in order to prevent journalists from performing their constitutional roles and responsibilities,

“But shortly after we won our independence, we discovered the same state actors who profited from the media and who also used the media to chase out the colonial masters tend to build firewalls around the state so that the modus operandi concerning governance became very opaque. Nobody knows what happens in government.” He lamented.

Ogbechie, however, charged journalists never to give up but take up responsibilities as gatekeepers and hold those in power accountable to the people.

“So we have to be very conscious of our duty and of the fact that we are not actually wanted people in the Nigerian public space. But that does not mean we must give up. As media practitioners we must continue to trudge on. I keep telling people journalism and reporting is not for the faint-hearted.  If you are not ready to go to jail, if you are not ready to be imprisoned, don’t come into journalism.

“Some people come into journalism as a last resort. We don’t have any other thing to do. So journalism is a profession of first choice.  Journalism is not for the flotsam and Jetsam (to borrow the words of Chief Obafemi Awolowo).  It’s not for the dregs of society. It is actually for the best of brains, the determined, the very bold in the society.

“So we must be prepared as journalists to also update ourselves and build our capacity. One capacity you can build as a journalist is your level of networking so that you can have the right contacts to get the right documents because the documents are the resources you need to apply your training,” he noted.