10th June, 2014
By Michael Jegede
The three essential functions performed by the media are that of information, education and entertainment. These are the conventional social functions the media render to the public anywhere in the world.
In performing these functions, the media in Nigeria has contributed in no small measure to national development and the entrenchment, growth and sustenance of democracy, where the fundamental human rights of every citizen are absolutely guaranteed.
No doubt, it is for the very crucial role of the media in the society in teaching, sensitizing and mobilizing the people via information dissemination, that the freedom of the press is equally fully granted in the constitution, besides the freedom of speech enshrined as part of the basic fundamental human rights of citizens.
However, it must also be noted that the said freedom of press does not give media organizations and practitioners in the industry the leeway to unnecessarily malign or mar the reputation of any individual, group or government through their publications and contents. Where of course such situation occurs, the appropriate thing for the affected person, group or government to do is to seek redress through the constitutional means of instituting a legal action against the media house.
It is on this note that I condemn in its entirety the unwarranted clampdown of the Nigerian military on the media, where some newspapers were reportedly confiscated and distribution vans of media outfits impounded acting on a supposed intelligence report. I do not think it is proper for the Army to launch this kind of onslaught on the media, no matter where the directive may have come from. Rather than this offensive attack and needless intimidation of the media, what the Nigerian Army as a key security agency ought to do is to continue to ensure a very smooth relationship with the press. As a matter of fact, they are supposed to see themselves as partners in progress with media organizations in the fight against terrorism which is seriously hitting us in the face at the moment. The deadly activities of the Boko Haram sect have reportedly claimed about 12,000 lives since 2009 and the terrorist group is currently holding captive about 300 innocent schoolgirls for almost two months now. The rescue of these girls is what we should concentrate on now and not the terrorization of newspaper firms.
I recall in one of my most recent articles captioned: “Jonathan’s plea for emergency rule extension”, how I enjoined Nigerians to put aside their religious, ethnic and political affiliations to combine effort with the military and government in the battle to stamp out terrorism from our dear country, Nigeria. In the said piece, I also urged the Senate while it was trying to dilly-dally to concur with the resolution of the House of Representatives that had already approved the request of Mr. President for a six-month extension of the emergency rule in the troubled Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states. Many had used the media to vent their views for and against the extension of the state of emergency, but at the end of the day it was granted.
It is annoying therefore to see the military taking such a preposterous action that is capable of giving wrong impression about the Nigerian media, when they are supposed to be working with the press to achieve a better result in the struggle against insurgency. I do not think that the purported order could have come from the Presidency, as some may want us to believe. But I think the President as the Commander-In-Chief has a duty to call the military to order to stop this unjustified harassment.
Major General Chris Olukolade, the Director of Defence Information last Friday confirmed that soldiers were indeed given orders to ransack newspaper distribution vans for “materials with grave security implications”, stressing that the exercise had nothing to do with the contents or operations of the affected newspaper outfits or their staff.
The statement reads in part: “The Defence Headquarters wishes to clarify that the exercise has nothing to do with content or operation of the media organizations or their personnel as it is being wrongly imputed by a section of the press. The military appreciates and indeed respects the role of the media as an indispensable partner in the ongoing counter-insurgency operation and the overall advancement of our country’s democratic credentials. As such, the military will not deliberately and without cause, infringe on the freedom of the press. The general public and the affected media organizations in particular are assured that the exercise was a routine security action and should not be misconstrued for any other motive.”
This explanation by the military spokesman did not hold water for many Nigerians who were equally shocked by the sudden crackdown on the media, which continued for three consecutive days, from Friday, June 6, 2014.
Decrying the crackdown on newspapers, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Mr. Okey Wali (SAN), described it as “strange to democracy”.
Okey picked holes in the the explanation offered by the Defence mouthpiece, Olukolade, maintaining that “Clampdown on newspaper distribution is not and cannot be a language in a democracy and we do not understand what the defence spokesman and the Presidency are saying. We expect clarification from the government. This, they must do as soon as possible. We are waiting.”
Joining his voice to condemn the action of the army, Mr. Ayo Opadokun, the Convener of the Coalition of Democrats for Electoral Reform (CODER) called on all rights activists to rise up to the occasion to defend press freedom. According to Opadokun, a renowned NADECO leader, “Some of us lost our lives in the struggle against forces of darkness in Nigeria. If a government is not comfortable in the area of reportage in any matter, it should go to court and seek redress. They can file action against such media house. That is the constitutional and legitimate thing to do. They should stop the shenanigan and with all sense of responsibility, we will not allow them to continue with all these acts that will take us back again to dark years in Nigeria.”
On its part, the most formidable opposition party in the country, All Progressive Compressive (APC) while also describing as deceitful and ludicrous the clarification that an intelligence alert prompted the appalling and objectionable clampdown on the media, in a statement signed by the party’s interim national publicity secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said: “Even if one believes the Administration’s babble that President Jonathan holds the media in high esteem, how can that be justified by the indignities being meted out to the media under his watch? How does the so-called intelligence report justify the arrest of media workers, detention of distribution vans and the impounding of newspapers? How does it justify the restriction of newspaper circulation? How does it justify an Administration’s efforts to tamper with fundamental rights guaranteed by the nation’s constitution?…”
•Jegede, a journalist and public affairs analyst wrote from Abuja.