By Sunny Ikhioya

BACK in the eighties, it was in the  tradition of Nigerian journalists to travel to “Afghanistan” when the fire at home was burning. Things were happening here in Nigeria that needed to be reported and analysed but the military government was breathing down the throat of writers courageous enough to report things as they were.

Decree 4 had just been promulgated; Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor already clamped in jail, more sanctions awaited those who were bent on going on the path of those two journalists. It was then Sonala Olumhense took us on a trip to Afghanistan, as an escape from the events at home. Eventually, there was a regime change, but those days are on record as challenging in the history of press- government relationship in Nigeria.

In the midst of intimidation, threats, physical abuse/arrest and outright sanctions on media outfits that are seen as not complementary to government, are we returning to the days of “Afghanistan” in the Nigerian press?

Incidentally, Afghanistan is back in the news, with the overthrow of the US-backed Kabul government by the Taliban, making it the hotbed of world news at the moment. But should we put aside the attack on the Nigerian Defence Academy, NDA; kidnappings across the land, growing decline in standards of living, increasing polarisation amongst ethnic, religious and regional groups, general insecurity, intra and inter-party squabbling, for a journey of escapism to Afghanistan?

That is the challenge for the Nigerian press and social commentators. In fact, editors of various news media organisations are alert nowadays, perusing through articles, in a tooth comb manner, looking out for offensive pieces that will cause embarrassment to government or bring it down. It has become very challenging for all, but how do you attain credibility when you are working under intense censorship of your deliveries. When you suppress facts as a result of the hammer hanging over your head?

This is the dilemma media organisations in Nigeria face in the year 2021, over 22 years into our Third Republic or do we say, third trial at democracy. If we are repeating the negativity experienced in 1984, in this age and time, can we say that we are making progress?

What should media professionals do under such circumstances? It is interesting to note that there is nothing new under the sun; we have gone through these phases before; incidentally some of those in government today were at the receiving end in those critical days. How did posterity record the end of that regime?

It is also a happy thing to note that some of the old war horses are still in their beats; is history repeating itself? If the regime could not defeat the press in those days of military absolutism, is it likely that a democratic government will succeed, where the military failed?

The answer to this question will determine whether we will return on the fancy flight to Afghanistan or remain in Nigeria. We cannot go back to Afghanistan because the world has moved on; even if we have decided on going round in circles here in Nigeria, the outside world is making progress.

With breakthroughs in technology and the Internet, news reporting has changed. The news of happenings in far-flung places are dropping on our handsets as they are taking place, from sources outside the main media. If government is censoring news from the major media and people are getting same from independent sources, how will the main media achieve relevance?

The worst thing that can happen to any major news medium is to see credible news breaking and they are not part of the reportage. That is why a journey into the escapism of Afghanistan, in this age and time, will not work. The press is the fourth estate of the realm, which “refers to the press and news media both in explicit capacity of advocacy and implicit ability to frame political issues”. It is, therefore, a sacrosanct responsibility which cannot be put aside for anything else, even at the risk of personal freedom and physical damages.

The press owes it to the public to maintain this role and maintain the balance of society as well as put other powers of government in check. It is equally important to note that, as the situations are changing in other areas, our politics must change also.

The era of absolutism is gradually eroding; what is in vogue now is openness and free speech under a democratic setting. They go hand in hand. You cannot practise democracy and be stifling the press; that will be a grave error. Government needs the press to sell its programmes and policies to the people, the press needs information from government to disseminate to its readers, listeners and viewers; each needs the other to stay alive.

If anyone in government is thinking otherwise, that will be a grave mistake. IBB celebrated his 80th birthday recently and the mileage he got from the press coverage was worthy of note. People in government must remember that their stay is for a time; they will go back to their individual homes and what they did while in government will still be in the hands of the press who do the recording.

We must operate in a free and fair manner that will encourage the journalist to confront the challenges of society with all boldness and not be suppressed by ephemeral threats by government. We cannot go back to Afghanistan, we must remain in Nigeria to report and comment on the things happening here so that the nation can move forward.

Positive reporting go a long way in the building of nations and criticisms help to put government in check. No forward looking government should attempt to suppress press freedom. The laws are already there for anyone who chooses to engage in malicious campaigns against individuals and institutions; when and where such is discovered, the culprits must be fished out and openly dealt with according to the laws of the land, just like those who purveyed a fake headline on the the Imo State Governor recently.

In summary, openness and fairness is the best route for any government to win over the press; no need for draconian laws because unpopular laws never work. The Nigerian journalists must record and report the news the way they are, without any colouration or intimidation; anyone that chooses to bring disrepute to the body should be appropriately dealt with; we remain and die here in Nigeria, no going to Afghanistan.

Ikhioya wrote via www.southsouthecho.com

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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.