Published On: Mon, Aug 20th, 2018

OPINION: Before Buhari Tampers With Press Freedom Again

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                       By Martins Oloja

Even if we encourage ourselves by wishing for peaceful coverage of the 2019 election processes, as journalists, there are warning signals for us to prepare for war with this administration. Reason: most of us are beginning to discern that despite their assurances since May 2015, they are set to tinker ruthlessly with press freedom for their ‘Project 2019’.

On March 16, 2015, the then candidate Muhammadu Buhari told the newspapers’ proprietors and editors: “I won’t tamper with press freedom…”

Buhari, who then said a change revolution was imminent in the country without firing a shot also assured the influential members of the Newspapers’ Proprietors Association of Nigeria( NPAN) and the Nigerian Guild of Editors ( NGE) at an interaction in Abuja: “I want to give you my full assurances that in this democratic dispensation, I will ensure that the Nigerian constitution is upheld. This includes respect for the media, respect for the right to free expression and freedom of speech….I have said elsewhere that I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future. Dictatorship goes with military rule as do edicts such as Decree 4…However, I am a former-former…, note the emphasis on the word ‘former’– military ruler and now a converted democrat, who is ready to operate under democratic norms….I give you my full assurances that the Nigerian media will be free under our APC government.”

After his speech, Buhari responded to questions from some publishers and editors at the session.

But it was not without some drama when the President of NPAN, Prince Nduka Obaigbena, asked Buhari if he was ready to apologise  to two journalists who were jailed in 1984 under Decree 4.

Immediately after Obaigbena asked the question, the Director-General of APC Presidential Campaign Organization then, Governor Rotimi Amaechi said: “Gen. Buhari had already answered that question by saying he cannot change the past but he can change the present and the future.”

Sadly, there have been stark realities and recent signals that the Buhari administration will not honour his covenant with the Nigerian Press organization: he is set to tamper with press freedom again, this time for re-election.

No doubt, the administration’s hit men will go after opposition figures ruthlessly and the independent journalists will be treated as part of the opposition and detained.

In the end, the loose cannons and spokespersons in the administration will give the journalists of conscience the Jones-Abiri treatment: link them to terrorism and other related criminal activities, detain them and tell the human rights and international press bodies that the journalists are all criminals and scoundrels.

Even when they report the truth, they can be charged with a dead law such as sedition and there will be court orders to detain them as they just did to “Premium Times” Samuel Ogundipe the police curiously detained and asked to disclose the source of his information about police letter.

Sadly, yes sadly, some media organs and even journalism professional bodies, which artfully serve the interest of state actors and governing parties will keep quiet as we did to Jones Abiri before “The Guardian” robust editorial exposed the lies, complicity and curious silence of even the Nigerian Press Organisation when the International Press Institute (IPI) asked for the release of Jones Abiri on 23 June this year when President Buhari was declaring the IPI annual convention open in Abuja.

Recall that government had lied to the IPI saying no journalist was detained in Nigeria and the NUJ officials kept quiet.

Same for citizen Samuel Ogundipe: some local newspapers never published the detention of the “Premium Times” reporter just as some others curiously kept the story inside.

I have a dream that the current DSS acting boss will retire very soon and another hit man, another Daura’s nominee will emerge to replace Daura as DSS chief executive. I remember my old Pastor Kunle Omotosho’s book titled, “Goliath Hath Children” in which he exposed the hasty celebration of the enemies of Goliath who did not know that the fallen strongman, (Goliath) actually had some chips off the old blocks, yes, some callous children too who actually rose to terrorise the Davids of the time.

Behold, I have a dream that this Inspector General of Police who meretriciously responded the other day to Acting President Yemi Osinbajo’s directive to overhaul SARS that same day with just a name change and replacement of Commissioner in charge of SARS and ordered arrest of three journalists of “Premium Times” that same day, will do more when election campaigns proper begin soon.

Certainly, the Commander-in-Chief who appointed the hit men, including the EFCC Chairman who wears Buhari’s second-term campaign lapel everywhere he goes, the IGP, etc returned to the country last night. He is expected to nominate a new DSS boss who may be more resourceful than Daura.

It is within his powers to even reinstate the man (Daura) who kicked out his former boss, Kayode Are, (former DG, DSS)from his Lagos home on December 2, 2015, detained Jones Abiri for two years and denied it, raided the homes of Court of Appeal and Supreme Court Justices at dawn, broke into Akwa Ibom Government House’s cash vaults and claimed he carted away dollars never reported as exhibits anywhere.

President Buhari can reinstate Daura and nothing will happen. In February this year, the President ignored the Health Minister and asked the suspended NHIS Executive Secretary, Usman Yusuf being investigated by the EFCC and ICPC to return to his office and that ended the investigation.

There was a confirmation that the Acting President actually obtained some digital evidence from the President before the sack of former DG, DSS, Daura two weeks ago.

But that evidence will not be significant if the Commader-in-Chief decides to reinstate Daura. After all, there is no Gani Fawehinmi here anymore to issue a statement against indecency and impunity and thereafter head for the court to charge the leader with indecency and improper reinstatement.

Before we recall Femi Adesina’s assurance on November 26, 2016 that Buhari had no intention of tampering with press freedom again when he spoke with then new executive of State House Correspondent’s Corps, we should remember that the present administration has no respect for the independent press, after all.

And that is why “The Punch” State House correspondent, Lekan Adetayo who was unceremoniously sent packing by the CSO to the President, Bashir Abubakar since April 2017, has not returned to his beat because the powerful CSO refused to apologise as decently demanded by the management of “The Punch”. The President, his Information Minister and his two spokesmen who are former Presidents of the Nigerian Guild of Editors have not intervened since April 2017.

In the same vein, before we quote our only Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka who in June this year at the same IPI convention curiously noted that President Buhari would not tamper with press freedom again, we should also remember that even in global context, strong men would always temper with press freedom. They will tell you they will not tamper with freedom of expression, but as Idi Amin of Uganda, once a strong man, had noted, unfortunately, there would be no freedom guaranteed after expression.

First, they came for the jugular of free and independent press when they collaborated with the federal legislature to introduce an anti-  social media bill, sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC, Kebbi State). The sponsor said then that the bill was intended to prevent unwarranted negative spotlight on public and political office holders. All stakeholders roundly rejected the hateful bill as a masked gag on the media.

Then in March this year, they came with another toxic one called “Hate Speech Bill” again sponsored by Senator Sabi Abdullahi (APC, Niger State), who said the bill, which carried a death sentence seeks “to eliminate hate speech and discourage harassment on the grounds of ethnicity, religion or race among others. The veil is not there as it is obvious Nigeria’s state actors would like to limit press freedom through that subterfuge approach.

According to a provision in the bill, “any person who uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes and/or directs the performance of any material, written and/or visual, which is threatening, abusive or insulting or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words, commits and offence”. The penalties are scary: a jail sentence of not less than five years or a fine of not less than N10 million or both and a death sentence “where any form of hate speech results in the death of another person”. Both bills are dead.

But in the media, we are still vigilant as “the snake, (the antisocial media and hate speech bill) “is only scotched and not killed”.

Barely a month ago, the same stakeholders were in the same National Assembly where they had to condemn the appearance of a more hateful, anti-media bill called “Press Council Amendment Bill 2018, to regulate the news media and ‘assist’ in registering journalists in Nigeria.

So, as the lion returned at the weekend from the U.K, we will remember that in 1984, he fulfilled his promise in a “Sunday Concord” interview that he would tamper with press freedom. He did and two journalists at “The Guardian”, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor were jailed on July 5, 1984, no thanks to Decree.No.4 enacted because of the perceived role of the press in the then N2.8 billion oil money controversy when Buhari was Petroleum Resources Minister.

All told, state actors who seek to suppress press freedom for politics should note that no strong man in history has survived attempts to suppress freedom of expression, which is fortified by the notion of press freedom.

So, they should expect tough questions now on their stewardship and service delivery in the last three years and three months. Reason: Nigeria is too important to be left to the whims and caprices of strong and hit men in the country at this moment.

Besides, Nigeria’s state actors should take some time to study most of the significant editorials in the 350 U.S newspapers and magazines the “Boston Globe” coordinated last week on the U.S President’s consistent attack on press freedom.

All the editorials concluded that, journalists are not the enemy (of the people).

Specifically, our state actors should read a U.S Supreme Court’s ruling on a libel case in 1964 on the role and freedom of the press as quoted (last week too) by “The New York Times” sued then:

“Public discussion is a political duty… to the extent that, that discussion must be, “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” and “may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials”.

I hope some news media managers in Nigeria too would learn from this judicial pronouncement, which defines our role at such a time like this, even as we enter the most sensitive election coverage in our history.

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