The 3rd of May each year is a date set aside by UNESCO to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession. In a nutshell, it is a day for stock-taking.
The idea of a press freedom and its fundamental guarantee as a basic and enforceable right are embedded and entrenched both in international and domestic human rights instruments. It forms part of the core content of civil and political rights appellated as the first-generation human rights.
In Nigeria, for instance, section 39 (1) of Chapter IV of the Constitution provides thus:
“Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and import ideas and information without interference.”
We have similar provisions in both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the United Nations Declarations on Human Rights.
Is press freedom guaranteed in Nigeria?
The point must be made, from the outset, that although press freedom is guaranteed under the Nigerian Constitution as a fundamental and basic right, it is not absolute and sacrosanct. And just like all other fundamental and basic human rights, it can be derogated upon in some circumstances.
Pursuant thereto, both sections 39 (3) and 45 of the Constitution make provisions for instances where the right to press freedom and expression may be denied. The reasons for this are not far-fetched.
If the saying that “absolute power, corrupts absolutely” is true to its content, then absolute freedom of press and expression will also corrupt the mind absolutely. The need to strike a balance between the right to freedom of press and expression on the one hand, and the need to ensure ethical standards, professionalism and discipline in the media industry necessitated the derogation and limitation of this right.
There is also the need, in some special circumstances, to ensure the over-riding protection of the the public in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health. This is why some classified or secret information of the State and Government are not allowed to be disclosed or declassified by the press.
In times of Declaration of State of Emergency, the State or Government has the power to enact laws that may derogate, limit, or even deny press freedom. This is necessary in the overall and superceding interest of the State and the public.
It is a legal axiom that: one’s right begins where another’s stops. Therefore, press freedom may be derogated where its uncontrolled exercise may trample or breach other rights of private individuals, especially their right to privacy.
There is also the need to protect other private owners of intellectual property from illegal infringement or theft of their intellectual sweat. Examples are: copyright of books, academic and scholarly writings; patent; industrial design, etc
A recalcitrant press man may use his pen to attract penalty unto himself. For instance, he may be guilty of breach of right to privacy of other individuals; defamation of character; copy right infringement; crime of public incitement; crime of injurious falsehood; crime of sedition; contempt of court where his report brings or is capable of bringing the court to contempt and ridicle, etc.
The Nigerian State and Government on its part has not been fair to the Nigerian press over the years. Press freedom has remained elusive, a far-cry and a mirage in Nigeria despite its constitutional provisions and guarantee.
What we witness today is a Government that is intolerable not only to press freedom, but also to freedom of expression of private individuals.
At the least and innocence of criticisms, the Government will arrest the citizen, detain beyond the constitutionally permissible time limit, humiliate and prosecute him on trumped-up charges.
It is now difficult to decipher what constitutes constructive and objective criticisms on the one hand, and destructive and subjective criticisms on the other.
Both the press and the citizens are living in fear of intimation and arrest for the exercise of one of their fundamental, basic and God-given rights: the right to freely express themselves and their displeasure against the Government they voted to serve them.
Presently, a lot of journalists and other private individuals have been arrested, unlawfully detained, humiliated and are being prosecuted on phoney charges. This is antithetical in any constitutional democracy.
Just like other Labour Unions in Nigeria, activism of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) leaves much to be desired. The sacred responsibility being placed on it to ensure the protection of press freedom of both its members and others is now sacrilegious, no thanks to NUJ.
The members of the press and others are not feeling its impact. They also dine and wine with politicians and Government while their members and others live in fear, while some are languishing in detention facilities.
The right to freedom of press and expression may be constitutionally, but not constructively, guaranteed in Nigeria.
For how long shall the Government continue to gag the mouth of freedom?
Only time shall tell.