Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Unwarranted military siege on Nigerian media

“A free press is the conscience of a nation and a practical means of achieving good government”
–A former UN Secretary General, Dr. Boutrous Boutrous Ghali.
Last weekend’s attack on the Nigerian media by the military High Command is unwarranted, condemnable and shameful. The Nigerian media fought for the democracy we currently enjoy and no amount of “scapegoatism”, threats and molestation will be successful against it. The media survived Decree 2 and 4 of 1984 and all other draconian legislations promulgated by the military junta. They endured proscription, molestation, incarceration and assassinations of journalists. If they did survive under the autocratic regimes of the military, they readily will outlive the current siege on their businesses and practice.
What really happened on Friday, June 6 and Saturday, June 7? In a Gestapo-like fashion, newspaper distribution vans were ambushed by soldiers across the country. The vehicles, their drivers and other staff accompanying the circulation vans were unlawfully detained for hours, their wares (newspapers) were also seized under the pretext that there was an intelligence report that some of the delivery vans might be used for transporting “materials with grave security implications.”
Indeed, we are in an unusual time. Anything is possible in the ongoing war against terror. We once thought Nigerians could not be suicide bombers. Now, there are many of them and just last Sunday, a female suicide bomber with an explosive in her Hijab reportedly blew herself to smithereens also killing a soldier who was conducting search on her at a military barracks in Gombe. Yes, there could be blacklegs among the staff of the newspapers who may have sympathy for the terrorists. Although, considering the fact that media houses have previously been attacked by the insurgents and some of their employees killed and property destroyed, the possibility of a sell-out is far-fetched. However, much as I am in support of thorough checks of newspaper delivery vans to be sure they are not being used to compromise national security, this should be done with civility and decorum. Once they are frisked, searched or screened and nothing incriminating found on them, they ought to be allowed to go about their normal duty. Why seize newspapers? Why detain the drivers and circulation staff of the newspapers? Why molest the marketers, distributors and the newspaper vendors?
Funke Egbemode of the Daily Sun was on point in her article of Sunday, June 8 titled, “Futility of killing the town crier”. The columnist in her largely satiric piece was spot on when she opined that:” … what exactly is stopping the circulation of newspapers supposed to achieve? …If the Ministry of Defence got ‘intelligence reports indicating movement of materials with grave security implications across the country, using the channels of newsprint related consignment’, how does seizing newspapers at the airport, copies that would be screened before they are freighted fit into that bill? The newspaper vans that were searched for explosives, were there bomb squads there in case they discovered bombs in our centre spread? If you arrest a newspaper van at 3.00am and you did not release it till 9.00 am, can anybody explain why it took six hours to determine if a newspaper has bomb…?” Unfortunately, none of the unions and regulatory agencies in the media was consulted before the latest siege.
The Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria in its press release described the situation as an “attack on free speech by soldiers…” Its President, Nduka Obaigbena, described the assault on freedom of expression through the stoppage of distribution of newspapers as inconsistent with the values of any democratic society and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project was absolutely right when it pointed out that, “The seizure and censorship of major newspapers critical of government’s policies amount to undue and impermissible external interference in the operations of independent media houses. This apparently unlawful action has in turn negatively impacted on the citizens’ effective enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
The situation has worsened the operating climate of Nigerian newspapers many of whom barely manage to keep afloat. Even when there was no assault on newspaper production and distribution, many of them record low patronage and large number of unsold copies. This is mainly because of the diminishing purchasing powers of newspaper readers and more importantly the advent of online newspapers aided by the social media. This phenomenon has affected the newspaper value chain. The newsprint and other publication material suppliers, the marketers, distributors and vendors are all groaning due to large number of unsold copies. Even prompt payment of staff salaries and allowances have become a serious challenge to most newspaper publishers. The loss incurred by newspapers affected by the military assault of Friday, June 6 and Saturday, June 7 is huge and the Federal Government under whose supervision the Nigerian military is must take full responsibility and pay compensation to the media houses for the gargantuan loss they have incurred while the crackdown lasted.
The Nigerian government, nay, the military, needs the press and should do nothing to alienate members of the Fourth Estate of the realm. Apart from the Nigerian constitution guaranteeing the right to know and express opinion, there are other international instruments and protocols to which Nigeria is a signatory which confer similar rights. Also, the current administration has been previously applauded for signing the Freedom of Information Act.
Of course, there are exemptions to every rule; there are laws against libel and sedition and should any media outfit breach its ethical code, such can be disciplined through administrative and judicial processes. As stated earlier, much as I am not against the military taking prompt action on intelligence report at its disposal, such could and actually should be done professionally, without intimidation and within the ambit of the law. I do not see the need for further delay or detention of newspaper circulation vans and staff after they had been searched and certified free of anything incriminating.
As rightly observed by the third United States president, Thomas Jefferson, (1743-1826), “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost”.