In Defense of Press Freedom; Resisting the Noose of Autocracy

Politics
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Thursday, July 15, 2021 / 6.00 AM / Proshare Editorial comment / Header Image Credit:TruePublica

 

There comes a time when governments must realize their mortality and understand that they are a part of a process that leads society along a path of higher socioeconomic aspirations. The role of a government is to nurture a society and not suffocate it. Hammering citizens with restrictive laws on how, where, when and what they should communicate is to deprive them of basic freedoms enshrined in the 1999 constitution of the country.

 

The rise of tyranny occurs when a patriarchal government assigns itself the responsibility of deciding how people should think, what they should think, and where they should think. It railroads freedom down a dark corridor of autocracy from which only evil emerges. The recent attempts by the government to restrict people's right to dissent is a distasteful erection of legal walls designed to imprison constructive, innovative, and creative thought. It is configured to trap people within the limits of meaningless platitudes and shelter politicians from the consequences of their low integrity.

 

Indeed, placard-carrying politicians who aggressively marched on the Gani Fawehinmi square in Ojota, Lagos in 2015 to protest the rise in fuel pump prices by the President Goodluck Jonathan administration, have strangely discovered the inconvenient truth of their hypocrisy and have been forced to respond to the realities of the complex global and domestic situations by adopting free-market economics as a tool for price determination and economic management.

 

Analysts have noted that the very same individuals who decided that the freedom of speech enshrined in the Nigerian constitution gave them the right to assemble at Ojota to protest an undesirable government policy are setting up battle ramps to prevent citizens from reviewing, criticizing, and requesting for a new direction for their equally disturbing policies.

 

The clampdown on a social media platform in Q2 2021 and the subsequent proposal by a member of the national assembly to place a five-year prison sentence on civil protesters is the vilest form of repressiveness witnessed in the country since the return to civil rule in 1999. The ghoulish hounding of journalists and the blatant intolerance to opposing views are reminiscent of the promulgation of decree 4 of 1984 which led to the arrest and subsequent jailing of two Guardian Newspaper reporters, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor. In a queer quirk of history, President Mohammadu Buhari was the military head of state at the time.



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The Limits of Thoughtfulness

Thoughts should have no limits, every spark of an idea is like a firefly flickering in the night roaming across time and space illuminating wherever it goes. It is this luminescence and freedom that gives thought its potency. Thought is a tool for solving societal problems and like a Swiss knife, it must provide several problem-solving devices.

 

A government must be prepared to accommodate differences of thought in all its greyness, murkiness, and imprecision. The process of thought engagement refines ideas and forges them into problem-solving tools, indeed according to English Philosopher Bertrand Russel, "Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric." For example, the former disdain for market solutions to economic problems in communist countries such as China and Russia has since given way to the mainstream acceptance in these countries of the application of market supply and demand principles to determine product and service prices.

 

To be sure, to provide broad and enlightened discussion with the citizenry a progressive government must be prepared to accept several shades of opinions that push forward opposing ideas and reshape consenting beliefs. Locking out the media and citizens from the playground of policy discussion is a brash and self-defeating attempt at information regulation and a breach of social trust. Conservative American political thinker and writer the late William F. Buckley Jnr noted that "Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views."  A brilliant summation of the attitude of public information managers to several government policies that appear heavy-handed, inequitable, biased, or wrong.

 

Working Against Liberty

The hallmark of modern nation-states is the preservation of the principles of liberty, or the right of citizens to express their disaffection with the socio-economic and political conditions they find themselves in. It is less about the power of the state than it is about the power of the people that the state claims to represent. The move by Nigeria's national assembly (NASS) to wrap local media in a swab of regulations that effectively prevents practitioners of journalism from upholding objectivity and independence is a violent rape of democracy and must be challenged vigorously, and firmly if the liberty of Nigerians is to be preserved. 

 

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English political economist, John Stuart Mill noted in his book "Of Liberty and The Subjection of Women" that "Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than good men should look on and do nothing."

 

Nigerians are too spirited and republican to allow themselves to be herded into a single simple mindset and the effort to attempt this should at best be applied to improving the lives of over 100m citizens the World Bank has identified as wallowing in poverty, making Nigeria the new poverty capital of the world. Rather than find ways of limiting speech and communal interaction, the administration should cleverly strive to improve openness and citizen collaboration to reduce corruption and promote the better use of public resources. Information and communication are required tools to spread light along the path of sustainable economic growth. If Nigeria must reduce poverty it needs to grow at double-digit rates of between 10 and 12 percent per annum over the next decade. A projected gross domestic product (GDP) growth of between 1.9 percent and 2.5percent in 2021 is far off the mark and should be a more pressing concern for the government than how citizens talk and share information amongst themselves.

 

There seems to be a potent confusion in government circles about information and propaganda meaning the same things. This is wrong. Propaganda is designed to blur and mislead while information is crafted to enlighten and explain. The job of information is to lead citizens to a deeper understanding of the government's programmes and projects and mobilize social action towards achieving collective societal goals. Mudracking and press hounding is not managing information it is brigandage of the worst kind.

 

The Need for Tolerance

Public sector managers of information and members of the various national and state legislative houses of assemblies must pull back from falling headfirst down the slope of fascism. History has been unkind to those that try to subvert the will of the people by turning them into mindless ghosts floating in an eerie land of opportunism, selfishness, pride, and greed.  Even strong persons have appointed times to reign, but like everything else, they too shall pass away, and their legacies, good or bad, will decide how they will be remembered.

 

In this light, the current onslaught on the freedom of the press and information is a shot in the dark that could inadvertently hit family members. Public office is transient but social memory, contrary to popular opinion, is long. People remember, institutions remember and society remembers. Those currently pushing the cause of strapping the press will remember the destruction they have caused when the consequences of their actions prevent the media from fighting for equity, justice, and fairness when they would desire it most. The law of unintended consequences or the Cobra effect would then be a social reality they would wish they never had to experience.

 

 In times of heated emotions and harsh economic realities, the path of wisdom is to stay focused on things that matter. Hence, muzzling the Nigerian media is not either a tenable or productive political venture. Those that consider themselves democrats and protectors of democratic values compromising the vibrancy of the fourth estate of the realm should be considered honourable.

 

At a time of swiftly moving socio-economic parts the Nigerian press needs to be allowed the freedom to be objective, fair, equitable, and balanced, this cannot occur in an environment of executive and legislative intimidation. Tolerance is a word that has not been used often enough over the last six years, thereby leading to the deepening of the divide amongst social groups, tribes, businesses, and political interests. It needs to be stated that responsibility and freedom are a package or two peas in a pod. According to writer Dan Wells "Freedom is a responsibility to be earned, not a license for recklessness and anarchy. If someday, despite our strongest efforts and our deepest determination, we finally fall, let it be because our enemies finally beat us, not because we beat ourselves."

To guarantee our civil liberties we must leave well alone and allow Nigeria's ebullient media to breathe the air of freedom constrained only by the principle of professional responsibility and existing laws that circumscribe reckless reportage. Flogging the town crier does not stifle the message. Those in government must be tolerant of differences of opinion and they must appreciate the rights of citizens to disagree.


Where Action Matters More

The difficult times call for the partnership between the media as a societal watchdog and the different arms of government to collaborate in creating a society geared towards providing meaningful opportunities for all citizens regardless of social class, tribe, or financial means. In this regard the government rather than pulling on boxing gloves should be anxious to quickly move in achieving the following:


  • Building trust with citizens through regular and transparent conversations with the media
  • Providing regular data on project milestones achieved for different projects laid out in annual budget plans (members of the media should be part of a formal project and budget evaluation mechanism)
  • Providing an interface between the governed and the government for private citizens to make comments and observations about the government's projects, programmes, and plans
  • Borrowing a leaf from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) playbook (data release calendar) by drawing and publicizing a calendar of media briefings on different ministerial activities throughout the year
  • Establishing an annual strategic media retreat where the government can express its concerns, explain its hopes, and suggest areas for deepening collaboration

 

The concern of the government should be how to interface with private media in a way that feeds into its development goals. Rather than picking fights, the government should be picking ideas. Instead of narrow self-interested agendas, the public sector media managers and communicators should be leveraging constructive media engagement to mobilize society towards clear national goals. Gadflies get swotted no matter how clever, in a battle with the will of the people governments always lose. This was recently demonstrated in America's Republican party's loss of the US Presidency.


Nigeria has no time for unnecessary histrionics and inelegant political grandstanding, the time is short and the labour weary and so what is required is an alliance for progressive and sustainable growth that would bring about lower inflation rates, higher levels of employment and a stronger foreign exchange position. The time is not for press chasing but prosperity mongering, every other thing is an unneeded distraction.



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