May 7, 2010

Journalists as cannon fodders

ON Monday, May 3rd 2010 , the world celebrated this year’s World Press Freedom Day. The Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, declared that the focus of the celebrations was the public’s right to be informed. At the Public Affairs Section of the United States Embassy, a seminar was, as usual, staged to mark the day.

But for Nigerian journalists, the issue of freedom of information was far from the mind. Their focus was on the apparent rising trend of Nigerian journalists becoming targets of assassinations and unsolved murders, as well as brutality at the hands of the security agencies.

The push for the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill took the temporary back seat. Perhaps for once in a very long while, journalists came out from behind the curtains, donned black T-shirts and carried placards as they rallied from the Alausa headquarters of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) to the seat of the state government and finally ending it at the headquarters of the Lagos State Police Command, Ikeja. Similar rallies were held in Abuja , though the National Assembly leadership reportedly refused to receive the protesters.

Led by the National President of the NUJ, Malam Garba Mohammed, the journalists delivered copies of a letter containing their grievances to Acting President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, the Governor of Lagos State, Barrister Babatunde Raji Fashola SAN and the Inspector General of Police, Mr Ogbonna Onovo, whose letter was delivered through Lagos Police boss, Mr Marvel Akpoyibo.

In the letter, the journalists raised an alarm, over the killing of their members since the 1986 episode when the Editor In Chief of the Newswatch Magazine, Mr Dele Giwa, was bombed to death by yet to be identified agents. Since then, the list has grown longer and longer. In the past couple of years alone, as many as six members of the media have been slain, and in not a single case were the security agencies able to convincingly and conclusively bring the culprits to book. Those on this tragic list are: Bagauda Kaltho of The News, Tunde Oladepo of The Guardian, Godwin Agbroko of Thisday, Omololu Falobi of The PUNCH, Abayomi Ogundeji of Thisday, Bayo Ohu of The Guardian, Edo Sule Ugbagwu of The Nation, Nathan Dubak and Gyeng Bwede of Light Bearer, among others.

Perhaps because the security agencies are not well trained and equipped to investigate and solve murder crimes, some evil people in society have decided to abandon the lawful means of settling whatever grievances they may feel they have against media practitioners, opting to sort out matters their own murderous way. The laws and conventions provide that the public, especially those who are named in the course of a journalist’s assignments, have a right of reply, which they usually get when they demand for it. Those who feel that their names or persons have been defamed have a right to sue for libel, just as the nation’s chief tax collector, Ifueko Omoigui Okauru, recently sued an Abuja-based newspaper for libel, claiming the sum of N10 billion damages.

In addition to the growing insecurity of journalists, there are other factors that militate against the ideal of ensuring the public’s right to know is adequately addressed. Nigeria is one of the countries where information gathering is a harrowing process. This is why investigative journalism is difficult in Nigeria . The Freedom of Information Bill, which was introduced at the National Assembly in 2000 once made it through the legislative process but was refused presidential assent by former President Olusegun Obasanjo on frivolous grounds. Since it was returned to the two chambers, the lawmakers have not shown any further interest in treating a Bill that will not only help curb corruption but fulfil the public’ right to know.

We call on all concerned to place hands on deck and let us together address these problems, including the poor remuneration in the industry. Journalists should also spend a little more time and effort to evolve means of solving their social and welfare problems. They should form non-governmental interest groups, which will work with the NUJ to ensure that issues bordering on the well being of journalists are no longer neglected.