We all know that the essence of governance is to see to the security and welfare of the citizenry and promote good governance in such a way that it would be able to give all the people resident within a defined territory a sense of belonging. This is the essence of governance all over the world. All over the world, operators of the constitution and those who hold political power make efforts to ensure that the economic system is planned and promoted in such a way that the material resources of a particular nation are harnessed and utilized as best as possible for the common good of all citizens in that defined territory. It is for this reason that the Freedom of Information Act has been enacted in several countries to ensure transparency and accountability in governance. It recognizes specially, the promotion and protection of the rights of citizens to freedom of opinion and expression and access to information as a basis to the democratic way of life.
The Commonwealth has also acknowledged and underlined the link between freedom of information and good governance. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGOM) held in Durban , South Africa , in November 1999, the body adopted a set of Freedom of Information Principles, which had earlier been endorsed by Commonwealth Law Ministries. It unequivocally declared its recognition of: “the importance of public access to official information, both in promoting transparent and accountable governance; and in encouraging the full participation of citizens in the democratic process.” (From Report of the Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Document No D/CN.4/1995/32.
In Nigeria , the Freedom of Information Act has been enacted with the objective of promoting good governance and the overall socio-economic and political development. It is important I highlight the fact that “the Freedom of Information Act is consistent with the vision of the Executive arm of Government about the elements required to transform Nigeria ’s economy, as enunciated in its National Economic Empowerment Development Strategy (NEEDS) document. Chapter 6 of the NEEDS document identifies a Right to Information Act as one of the two priority legislative interventions to bolster Nigeria ’s economic transformation; the other being the Fiscal Responsibility Bill. The NEEDS document states expressly that: “Right to Information Act will engender openness and feedback through a process of streamlining and rationalizing the system for information collection, collation, storage, and dissemination on a timely basis”, in addressing what the document calls a culture of “corruption and abuse of positions and privileges”. (From NEEDS documents published by Nigeria’s National Planning Commission, Abuja and Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Bill submitted by the Senate Committee on Information by the Freedom of Information Coalition, March, 2005)
IN NIGERIA – PUBLIC IS HUGELY UNAWARE OF THEIR RIGHTS OF WATCHING THE WATCHERS/WATCHDOGS Since the main objective of governance is: “to see to the security and welfare of the citizenry as well as ensure fairness, transparency and accountability”, there must be in-built mechanisms to check possible excesses and ensure that the rights of the individual are protected and respected. May I submit, with every sense of responsibility, that this factor easily remains one of the strongest weapons of the press, which must also be protected by Freedom of Information Laws to ensure that the Fourth Estate of the Realm plays its part well in acting as the watchdogs of the society. A pertinent question that should be asked at this stage would be: who monitors and checks the watchdogs that may also abuse their powers? It is important to highlight the fact that institutions and individuals are also protected against possible abuses by the press. The law of tort, sedition and some other legislations exist to regulate the conduct of the press. Of course, there are constitutional provisions which regulate the general conduct of the citizenry. Corporate organizations and individuals form part of societies and are, therefore, to be protected by the media. The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists in the United States, for instance, gives, the responsibility of the media as the “public’s right to know of events”.
THE NIGERIAN PRESS COUNCIL — A publication of the Nigerian Press Council allocates the responsibility of monitoring the press by the organization. It states in part that: ’’the protection of the rights and privileges of Nigerian journalists is an integral component of the Press Council’s functions. Late Alade Odunewu a highly respected professional with pen name ‘Allah De’ in his satirical columns written when he worked with the Nigerian Daily Times headed the Press Council for several years. Recorded in a publication of The Nigerian Press Council is its responsibility of promoting high professional standards for the Nigeria Press. ‘’Its vision is to create a culture of Ethical Press in Nigeria driven through research and documentation of contemporary press development; training and workshop for journalists; accreditation of programmes in tertiary institutions; enquiring into complaint about the press and monitoring the activities of the press. It appears that the ordinary Nigerian is largely unaware of the existence of this regulator. The Press Council acts as the buffer between the media and the public. It ensures the maintenance of the highest ethical and professional standards in the media. The functions of the NPC as set out in section 3 of its Act include the following:
- Enquire into complaints about the Press and the conduct of any person or organization towards the Press;
- Monitor the activities of the Press with a view to ensuring compliance with the Code of Professional and Ethical Conduct of the Nigeria Union of Journalists;
- Receive application from, and documenting the Print Media and monitoring their performance to ensure that owners and publishers comply with the terms of their mission statements and objectives in liaison with the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria;
- Research into contemporary Press development and engage in updating Press documentation;\Review developments likely to restrict the flow of information and advise on measures aimed at remedying such developments;
- Ensure the protection of the rights and privileges of journalists in the lawful performance of their duties;\Foster the achievement and maintenance of high professional standards by the Nigerian Press
- The Council is, therefore, statutorily expected to monitor the activities of the media. Essentially, this is performed through content analysis to ensure that the Code of Professional and Ethical Conduct is strictly adhered to.
- The Council also reviews media laws, policies and programmes or developments perceived as hostile to the Press in its performance and advise on possible remedy.
THE PROFESSIONAL, EXISTING PRACTICE & CONSTRAINTS On the issue of mental quality, Nwanze (1991:5) states thus: ‘’A journalist must be a person of higher than an average intelligence, a thorough education, sound training and discipline. He/She must be sharp-witted. At least a diploma in journalism should be the basic entry point into the profession. He must have “nose for news”, a discriminator)’ (skeptical) mind and a taste of all aspects of learning- classics, Immunities, science(s) technology and current affairs. Knowledge of typing and shorthand is required of him.’’ The Code of Ethics Journalism entails a high degree of public trust. To earn and maintain this trust, it is morally imperative for every journalist and every news medium to observe the highest professional and ethical standards. In the exercise of these duties, a journalist should always have a healthy regard for the public interest. The code that was drawn by practitioners stipulates that: ‘’ Truth is the cornerstone of journalism and every journalist should strive diligently to ascertain the truth of every event. ‘’We, Nigerian journalists, give to ourselves this Code of Ethics. ’’It is the duty of every journalist to observe its provisions.” Let us not forget that the press is part of the society and is also bound to react, or be influenced positively or negatively by the society within which it operate.’’ Additionally, there is the issue of training and retraining because a journalist must be more knowledgeable than the public he/she is trying to inform. How much of training and retraining media owners decide to promote affect the quality of their products and ultimately what they feed into communication channels and the society.
In the United States, the same code of ethics of media practitioners instructs that ‘’Journalists must be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know the truth. ‘’Accordingly, gifts, favours, free travels, and special treatments or privileges which can compromise the integrity of Journalists and their employers must be avoided.’’ But how attainable is this requirement in situations where there is the problem of poor remuneration, or no remuneration at all by several employers of media practitioners? This is where media proprietors and entrepreneurs must do more by way of paying even more than living wages to their employees if we must expect proper professional conducts by the press. And the media, while subjecting themselves to their code of ethics, must also be under-watch; but supported and protected in the performance of this noble role by appropriate laws and delegations. Freedom of Information is an essential ingredient of governance and indeed, a potent vehicle for the evolution and sustainability of a virile and sound polity. This is the essence of democracy, which we all are trying to build in our dear country.
BALANCING PROFESSIONALISM & NATIONAL INTEREST President Muhammadu Buhari’s message on the occasion of the year 2021 World Press Freedom Day reveals that the president reiterated the commitment of his administration to freedom of the press, and urged media professionals to wield such freedom responsibly. A statement released by his Special Adviser on Media, Femi Adesina, reveals that the president admonished that ”The media must be sensitive to what we are going through as a country; anything that will exacerbate the situation and further inflame passions and emotions should be avoided. ‘’The media needs to ensure that while informing, educating, entertaining and setting agenda for public discourse, it does not encourage incendiary words and actions that could further hurt our unity in diversity.
Buhari he said, ‘’Maintained that licentious freedom was different from freedom with responsibility, and charged the Nigerian media to embrace the latter, rather than the former. The statement also quoted Buhari as pledging greater cooperation with the media to discharge its duties in line with the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day which is “Information as a Public Good”. The statement quoted Buhari as describing freedom of the press as “an irreducible minimum in a democracy that will flourish”, adding, however, that the freedom must be used responsibly. “Everything that is permitted must have rules of correctness, particularly in a polity seriously challenged as ours now.’’
LEGAL BASIS AND FREEDOM OF THE PRESS If the press must succeed in playing this very important role, it must certainly be empowered legally to function in any given society. Therefore, the freedom to seek information is guaranteed by a number of international instruments, to which nations of the world including Nigeria , are state-parties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “This right is similarly guaranteed in Article 9(1) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, which is part of Nigeria ’s domestic law under the African Charter (Ratification and Enforcement) Act”. (From Chapter 10, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990). Given the fact that freedom of the press and recognition of the fundamental human rights of the individual, including the freedom of thought and expression are the prominent hallmarks of democracy, it goes without saying that every sane society must make conscious efforts to protect these rights.
FREEDOM NOT ABSOLUTE — TASLIM OLAWALE ELIAS — It must, however, be noted that these rights cannot be absolute, in the interest of the society which is open to possible abuses, as would also be seen through instances I will be quoting in the course of this DISCOURSE. It is for this reason that eminent jurist, Late Professor Taslim Olawale Elias, one-time Chief Justice of Nigeria and later President of the World Court at the Hague in his publication “The Press Law” submitted that: “it is clear that in Nigeria, the right of men and women to entertain the widest varieties of opinions and to give tongue to them without let or hindrance, which is an essential condition of a free society, is guaranteed.” In the exercise of our freedom, therefore, we have to observe, in the interest of others and the state, such laws as the laws of libel, obscenity, sedition and the Official Secrets Acts.” These are the boundaries which exist, even in speech. Part of the social responsibility of the press is its role of assisting the nation to pay greater attention to the needs of the people and also promote national interests as obtains in foreign media. It is important to state that this initiative would, in the final analysis benefit collectively, a plural society.
THE DIMENSION OF PATRIOTISM Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, (2006) former president of Nigeria made an allusion to the relative freedom enjoyed by the Nigerian media at the Leon Sullivan Summit in the United States. Obasanjo asserted that: ‘’Our press is as free as any press on the planet. ‘’Our media also share the same unsavoury tendencies as the rest of the world media. ‘’For instance, our media make a capital of our tragedies and problems and parade our weaknesses before the world, as extravagantly as possible. ”So it is easy for those who don’t know us to be the victims of Afro-pessimism”. We must realize that we can never be perfect and that it will take some time before our region of the world moves away from the back row in the comity of nation. ”Our media should therefore allow some measure of patriotism to come into play while presenting the country to the outside world. ”The Nigerian media, and indeed others in the developing world need to brace up to the challenges posed by modernization.”
REGULATING THE GLOBAL FLOW Elsewhere, Obasanjo (2002) in his address to the UNESCO General Conference in Paris highlighted the need to close the existing imbalance in the flow of information among the peoples of the world and suggested clearly that peace is one of the strongest ingredients of development. “The global village will not owe its existence solely to scientific, technological and economic advances. It will survive only when its development processes incorporate educational with the cultural, the social with the spiritual, and the religious with the traditional. These are the true indices for the intellectual content of the emerging new world; if that world is to be peaceful and harmonious”.
It goes without saying that the media, of which Information and Communications Technology is now part, must commit to the agenda of development by offering practical suggestions and solutions to societal problems while acting as watchdogs in the task of setting the agenda in motion.