TWO distinct things that happened in quick succession in the country recently signalled the continued threat to press freedom and the survival of the media in Nigeria. One was the action by the Presidency in restricting the number of media houses covering Aso Rock. The second was the disruption by soldiers of the circulation chain of newspapers across the country in the wake of the lockdown imposed in parts of the country because of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second derives from the first since the restriction was done at the highest level of political power in the country.
In slamming the restriction order on the press corps, with the exception of 13 media organisations covering the State House, the Presidency had alluded to the need to adhere to the salient measures being adopted to tackle the pandemic. In a statement by the Director of Information, State House, Mr. Attah Esa, the Presidency justified the discriminatory order as being in compliance with the “social distancing rule and accommodation of not more than 50 persons at any gathering.”
To be sure, we believe that there can be no half measures in the fight against the pandemic that has put the entire human race in dilemma. Thousands of persons have lost their lives to the virus, just as hundreds of thousands of others are hovering between life and death even in the developed nations. However, the excuse the Presidency gave for issuing the order barring the press from the Villa is a mere alibi to undermine the Nigerian media in its fundamental rights and authority as the voice and conscience of the people, the bridge between the government and the governed. That is why the criteria for excluding certain media organisations from the State House while retaining others was not specified. It will be recalled that in the wake of its second term inauguration, the Muhammadu Buhari administration held a ‘thank you’ dinner for ‘friendly’ media houses. Quite a number of the media houses which have now been excluded from the Villa were not invited to that gathering.
In civilised democracies, the practice in difficult situations such as the current one is to ask members of the press corps to nominate among themselves, those that would be receiving the news on behalf of others, thus eliminating any perception of bias. But Nigerian leaders apparently only practise ‘democracy’ when it is convenient for them to do so. Operating in a terrible and hostile environment and economic climate, the media has become the main target of vicious actions and policies by the Nigerian State which, unfortunately and ironically, perceives it as an enemy rather than a critical partner and stakeholder in the collective patrimony, and the drive to guarantee transparency and accountability in governance. Indeed, it can be said with justification that all the crude actions taken against the press constitute a direct assault on public sensibilities. The assaults undermine the provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) on press freedom.
If the lessons of history are anything to go by, the increasing assaults on the media constitute a potential threat to the polity and the democratic ethos. The press exists to gauge the pulse of the governed, convey same to the government, and maintain a delicate balance of objectivity and fairness without compromising professional standards and ethics. There is certainly a tinge of hypocrisy in the acknowledgment by those in political power that the media constitutes the fourth estate of the realm going by their utter disdain and disregard for the place, roles and functions of the press.
The foregoing notwithstanding, it is not too late for those in power to immediately retrace their steps and toe the path of constitutionality in the overall interest of the country. An important institution, the media outlives every regime. Its virtues of resilience, courage and strength derive from service to humanity. It aims to assist in putting in place a responsible and responsive leadership that upholds justice, fairness and equity. The time to restore sanity is now, especially given that the government needs the full support, collaboration and cooperation of the press and all other major stakeholders in the drive to rid the land of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gagging the press will be counter-productive. No effort should be made to undermine the veritable platform that the media provides to educate, enlighten and create awareness on the dangers posed by the disease to the country.