Claire Pierangelo
Claire Pierangelo

By OBINNA EZUGWU

The United States government, has expressed concern over what it called attempts to deny journalists of freedom to do their job in Nigeria, noting that it particularly takes note when legislation is introduced, which could have significant consequences for the freedom of the press.

U.S. Minister Counselor in the Senior Foreign Service and Consulate General in Lagos, Claire Pierangelo, who expressed these concerns while making her opening remarks during a Press Freedom Event titled “A Conversation on Press Freedom, Freedom of Expression and Civic Space in Nigeria,” held at Consulate General’s residence on Wednesday, particularly noted that the Nigerian government’s ongoing suspension of Twitter and stated intent to introduce registration requirements for other social media platforms are deeply worrisome.

She, however noted that it is encouraging to know that there were meetings between Twitter and government’s technical committee last week aimed at resolving the suspension.

Pierangelo maintained that the “Biden-Harris administration is committed to putting human rights at the heart of our foreign policy and that includes press freedom and freedom of expression,” noting that media freedom and freedom of expression are vital to a thriving democracy.

“You will agree with me that a free press is a core pillar to a democracy. There’s a reason why the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely,” she said.

“I have been in Lagos as Consul General since 2019. I have spoken with hundreds, perhaps thousands of Nigerians about democracy, elections, and the history of Nigeria. These conversations have shaped my perception that Nigeria has a vibrant democracy and a relatively free press.

“However, some concerns remain about the freedom of journalists to do their job. We take note when legislation is introduced which could have significant consequences for the freedom of the press.

“In addition, Nigerian government’s ongoing suspension of Twitter and stated intent to introduce registration requirements for other social media platforms is deeply worrisome. Banning or significantly restricting social media, including under threat of prosecution, undermines Nigerians’ human rights and fundamental freedoms. We are encouraged by the meetings between Twitter and government technical committee last week aimed at resolving the suspension.”

Pierangelo asked media practitioners in the country and the civil society to remain very vigilant, emphasising that the press must be both independent and unbiased.

“In view of these recent developments, you — reporters, editors, media executives, and civil society representatives — must remain vigilant to protect the right to freedom of expression and press freedom. To fulfill its highest civic purpose, the press must be both independent and unbiased. Without independence, a media outlet functions as a public relations mouthpiece for the government and other powerful interests,” she said.

“In the same breath, history is full of cautionary tales showing that when governments try to limit citizens’ right to talk about certain topics, important conversations are pushed into the shadows allowing individuals to express their opinions — no matter how much the government and other citizens may disagree with them. Rigorous debate promotes transparency and social stability.

“The United States, however, understands that with more freedom comes more responsibility. Advances in technology and increased reliance on social media platforms as sources of information make the accuracy and objectivity of your reporting crucial. More than ever before, good journalism relies on accurate, in-depth, and critical reporting of facts on matters of public concern or interest.

“One of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, put it well when he said, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” Jefferson also added, “[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

“A very special program is in store for everyone today. Our distinguished speakers and panelists have taken time out of their extraordinarily busy schedules to join us to share some valuable insights about press freedom, free speech, and the civic space. Thank you for joining us.”

In his remarks, Mr. Lanre Arogundade, Executive Director, International Press Centre who gave an overview of press freedom, freedom of expression and civic space in Nigeria, noted that freedom of speech is under assault in the country, the depth of which is not often reckoned with.

He regretted that the practice of arbitrarily shutting down media organisations for long periods, as was the case with the suspension of Human Rights Radio, Brekete Family, for months over the action of one presenter, Ahmed Isah, not only denied many others source of livelihood, but also denied the populace access to information.

He said, “We are probably not sufficiently grappling with the depth of the precarious state of press freedom and freedom of expression; the ominous darkening cloud over the civil space in Nigeria. Yes, we document incidents of attacks on journalists and the media, including arson and killing, and there are numerous. Yes, these facts and figures contributed to the situation where, for instance, Reporters Without Borders ranked Nigeria 115 out of 180 countries in their 2020 world press freedom index.

“Yes, we have been kicking as we should, against what I personally chose to call attempts at legislative coup against press freedom and freedom of expression. For example, we have been speaking against the bills seeking amendment to the National Broadcasting Act 2010, the Nigerian Press Council Act 1992, and the Electoral Act 2010 Amendment Bill. Yes, we do all thes, but what I doubt is if we sufficiently document the pain to which these attacks subject journalists involved, in terms of psychological trauma beyond the damage recorded on cameras; the despair into which the relations of the killed journalist are permanently thrown; the losses incurred when the National Broadcasting Commission arbitrarily shuts broadcast medium; the violation of the constitution such act constitutes, and most significantly the assault it constitutes on the rights of the citizens to know. And that right of the citizens to know is the root that produced the right to freedom of expression from which press freedom grows as an important branch.”

Panelists: Managing Director of Arise TV, Ms. Ijeoma Nwogwugwu; Principal Council, Jiti Ogunye Chambers, Mr. Jiti Ogunye and founder, Foundation for Investigative Journalism, Mr. Fisayo Soyombo, all took turns to emphasis the importance of press freedom, as critical ingredient of democracy, while decrying attempts by the government to limit civil space during the panel discussion moderated by Mr. Mike Okwoche, Senior Anchor at TVC.

Mr. Mustapha Isah, President of Nigeria Guild of Editors, in his goodwill message, said the guild of editors will continue to resist attempts by the government to impose restrictions on the media, noting that those the media exist to hold accountable, cannot be the ones to regulate them.

“Press freedom is not even a privilege for journalist because we are simply expressing our rights as citizens, practicing free speech in our everyday job. The press only provides the platform for a multiplicity of voices to be heard,” he said.

“The Nigerian guide of editors will continue continue to make a case for self-regulation of the press, as against any form of state-backed media regulation. It is an ongoing debate, and what some of are saying is whether those we are supposed to hold accountable be the people to regulate us. Won’t the abuse that privilege? Is it not illogical for those that we should hold accountable to be the ones to regulate us?”

Mr. Isah cited the Nigeria Press Council (NPC) Amendment Bill sponsored by Hon Segun Odebunmi, as an example of how bad things can go for the press if its regulation is be left to the government alone.

Describing the bill as obnoxious and dangerous, he called on all lovers of free speech to resist it, while noting that Ghana, Nigeria’s West Africa neighbour, already has thriving and vibrant media sector, not subject to the kind of stifling witnessed in Nigeria.

“The bill being proposed by Hon. Odebunmi is an obnoxious bill; it’s dangerous. It says for instance, that if you publish fake news, the reporter will pay N2 million, in addition to going to jail. The newspaper will also be fined N10 million and will be in suspension for one year, while the victim of the fake news will be paid N20 million as compensation. Just imagine that.”