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Monday, May 09, 2022

Digital siege: Before we reject press freedom index - ITREALMS

Features@ITREALMS ... making leadership SENSE with digital news!
A few days ago, Nigeria joined the information world to commemorate the 2022 World Press Freedom Day. REMMY NWEKE in this piece underscored some highlights the country must scale to come out of the digital siege "... As one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are often watched, attacked, arbitrarily, arrested and even killed."
FG rejects press freedom index

Recently, the Federal Government of Nigeria said it rejected the 2021 World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) which identified Nigeria as a country not conducive to journalism practice, according to the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed argued that the Nigerian press is among the most vibrant and freest in the world.


The minister was reacting to the information delivered by the President of International Press Institute (IPI) Nigeria chapter, Mr. Musikilu Mojeed-led executive when they paid him a courtesy visit in Abuja, decrying the rankings on Nigeria as a place not conducive for journalism practice.

In 2021, ITREALMS gathered that the countries that ranked highest on the Press Freedom Index comprised of Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Costa Rica, Netherlands, Jamaica, New Zealand, Ireland, Portugal, and Switzerland, while the United States of America took 44th position.

What about press freedom?

Following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference, the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993 declared May 3 of every year as World Press Freedom Day (WPFD), essentially to raise awareness on the importance of freedom of press and remind governments at all levels to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Thus in celebrating the fundamental principles of press freedom, WPFD tends to evaluate press freedom around the world, defends the media from attacks on their independence and pays tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession, as well as to hold governments and leaders accountable.

The 2022 WPFD’s theme was “Journalism under digital siege” which focused on digital challenges in relation to media and press freedom enmeshed in misinformation and disinformation to name a few.

Gauging press freedom in Nigeria 3 years after?

On April 26, 2020, the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) ranked Nigeria 115th out of 180 countries surveyed with a score of 64.37. In 2021, the index ranked Nigeria 120/180 thereby scoring 60.31 and as at April 30, 2022, Nigeria added some nine points on the negative note to climax the position of permanent violence against the press with 129/180 and scoring 46.79.

Hence, the index in summary indicted Nigeria as one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are often watched, attacked, arbitrarily, arrested and even killed.

In evaluating press freedom, ITREALMS gathered that WPFI team considered things like the media background, political context, legal structure, economic and social context respectively as well as safety of lives and properties, especially in relation with journalists.

Media background:

According to RSF, Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, has a rich and diverse media landscape. The print media have been in sharp decline in recent years but there are still around some 100 publications, of which The Punch, The Nation, Vanguard, Guardian and The Premium Times were listed as some still in the stream, with avalanche of news magazines cutting across some industries in the economy. For instance, there is over 10 specialized news magazines in the Information and Communications Technologies cum Telecoms.

Noteworthy is that most of the 36 states also have a state-owned daily newspaper that is directly controlled by the state and local authorities. This is aside several hundred of radio stations and TV channels cutting across private and publicly owned.

Strong online force emerging:

ITREALMS exclusively gathered that going by the records of the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers (GOCOP), there are about 82 accredited online entities established based on core journalism ethics whereas there is estimated 20,100 blogs according to FixUSJob.com, with routes in Nigeria, most of them are not members of Guild of Professional Bloggers of Nigeria (GPBN) as at the time of going to the press.

Political perspective:

As said by RSF, the level of governmental interference in the news media is significant, which could involve pressure, harassment of journalists and media outlets, and even censorship. Recalling that in 2021, the Peoples Gazette news site was blocked after it revealed that privileges were given to the son of a member of the president’s inner circle. Twitter was suspended for seven months after it deleted one of the president’s tweets. Media outlets were ordered to delete their Twitter accounts as a "patriotic gesture."

ITREALMS recalls that in December 2019, the Department of State Services (DSS) invited the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Newsdiary Online, Danlami Nmodu, to their Abuja headquarters for questioning over an investigative report on “Kano Ecological Fund Project.”

Legal framework:

The constitution, RSF protects freedom of expression and opinion in Nigeria, but there are many laws whose provisions make it possible to obstruct the work of journalists, such as the laws on cybercrime, terrorism and state secrets, and the penal code which continued to treat defamation as a crime. Several very dangerous laws attempting to regulate social media have been proposed in recent years, causing an outcry.

Economic context:

In addition, WPFI noted that there are many media outlets, very few are in good economic health. Journalists are often paid late and sometimes the salary arrears which run to several months or even years. This, ITREALMS gathered, makes journalists vulnerable to corruption and to “cash for news”, whereby journalists give favourable news coverage to someone in exchange for a reward. As such, politicians, businesspeople and advertisers can influence editorial content.

Socio-cultural context:

Covering stories involving politics, terrorism, financial embezzlement by the powerful or conflicts between communities is very problematic. This was seen yet again in 2020, according to RSF, when an investigative reporter was threatened and several of his sources were killed or died in suspicious circumstances after the reporter had investigated massacres in the central state of Kaduna.

Safety:

For RSF, in recent years, most of West Africa’s violent attacks, shooting deaths and cases of arbitrary detention of journalists have taken place in Nigeria. Fearing for their lives, some journalists flee abroad. Four journalists have been killed since 2019 and there has been no serious investigation to identify the perpetrators.

The major protests that shook the country in #EndSARS2020 also brought on violence against media outlets, some of which were set on fire.

For lots of professional journalists, media freedom is a fundamental right, but nearly half of the world’s population has no access to freely report news and information, according to RSF.

Submission:

Like noted by the Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission, Mr. Tony Ojukwu, on the WPFD2022, "Journalists are oxygen of democracy, agents of change and development" therefore anything that will impair journalism practice affects democracy.

So, be it leaders, lawmakers, politicians and businessmen and women who may have interest in investing in journalism needed to be aware of these facts to ensure they are not find wanting, but rather so all in their powers to uplift press freedom.

And in rejecting the WPFI, Lia Mohammed did not provide empirical evidence to justify his and government position under the General Muhammadu Buhari (retired), other than merely declaring the report as untrue.

An option for FG should have been to take in those outlines in the index and try to work on improving the processes and environment for journalism practice in the country, because in a digital environment journalism has gone beyond mere professional practices to citizens, which often give leads to core journalists to explore further.

By this time next year, one expects to see a better index on Nigeria if FG through all its organs especially the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) involved in information space such as the Nigeria Press Council and National Broadcasting Commission among others.

The time to start is now.

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