THE HEROES OF DEMOCRACY IN NIGERIA:
THE ROLE OF THE PRESS IN SENSITIZING THE CITIZENRY
“The only position that occurs to me that a man can successfully fill by the simple fact of birth is that of an idiot… “The born editor, who has succeeded greatly without special preparation is a man with unusual ability and aptitude to his chosen profession, with great power of concentration and sustained effort.’’ (Joseph Pulitzer, founder of the Pulitzer School of Journalism at Columbia University)
It is appropriate to say that the history of the evolution and sustenance of democracy in Nigeria will not be complete without a generous mention of the contributions of the Nigerian press. Media practitioners have for long been formidable pillars that have suffered incalculable oppression, in the process of consistently standing against bad governance and injustice. Great harm has come to many practitioners who were locked up in detention for long periods in the course of the performance of their functions. We will not go into specifics. Reports in the media have largely bred intolerance and media censorship by some governments, military and civil democratic regimes inclusive. Even, as some governments, especially the military exhibited their powers nakedly, the press marched along undeterred, in its avowed mission of ensuring that sanity prevailed in the polity. In this edition, TERRIFIC HEADLINES recalls an incident that occurred 37 years ago, when Prince Tony Momoh, then Editor of the famed ‘Daily Times’ successful challenged the Nigerian Senate on professional and human rights grounds. This piece becomes important when it is realized that the press is a veritable tool for shaping human conducts and so, could assist the nation greatly in evolving an enduring democratic culture.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
In Nigeria, the Right to Freedom of Expression and the press is enshrined in chapter IV sub section 39 of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) says that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”. To buttress this point, the landmark judgment delivered by Mr. Justice Candido-Johnson, acting Chief Judge of Lagos State (as he then was) in a suit instituted by Tony Momoh, then Editor Daily Times against the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1980, following a report published by the Daily Times edition of February 4, 1980 is instructive. The learned Chief Judge declared unconstitutional, a resolution of the Senate inviting Tony Momoh to appear before it to declare the source of the information published that Senators were in the habit of lobbying for contracts instead of facing their lawmaking functions on the grounds that such would amount to an infringement on the right of the editor.
The interesting case exhibits in very clear terms the freedom of the press in Nigeria as enshrined in the extant constitution. The then editor of the Daily Times newspaper, Prince Tony Momoh had gone to court under the provision of order 2 rule 1 of the Fundamental Rights (ENFORCEMENT PROCEDURE) RULES 1979 seeking an order to quash the Resolution of the Senate inviting him to disclose the source of a news item contained in the newspaper edition of Monday the 4th of February, 1980. The article in question had ignited a feeling of outrage among the Senators because it alleged that they were in the habit of parading offices of Permanent Secretaries and Company Directors to look for contracts In the suit number E/27/80 filed before a Lagos High Court, Prince Tony Momoh had sought protection of the Court on the grounds that “the Resolution is an infringement on the Fundamental Rights of the applicant under SECTION 36 SUBSECTION 1 OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA, which provides that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”. But that freedom is not absolute, because the constitution also protectspeople from excesses of the media that may occur from time to time, hence laws are available on Slander and Libel.
In a landmark and historic judgment, the then acting Chief Judge of Lagos State, Mr. Justice Candido Johnson declared the Resolution of the Senate unconstitutional on the ground, that it was an interference with the fundamental right of Mr. Momoh, conferred upon him by section 36(1) of the now rested 1979 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The freedom guaranteed by this section was subject only to the restrictive provision of section 36(3). The judge, in addition, held the view that section 36(2) of the constitution would appear to extend the protection of section 36(1) to the contents of any medium for the dissemination of ideas and opinion. Consequently, “good judgment dictates that the editor should not fold his arms but should resort to obtaining relief as he has done in this case.” The invitation sent to Mr. Momoh was in the judge’s view “apparently innocent but with inherent mischief”. The mischief was that the editor would be asked to disclose the sources of his information in publishing the grapevine. (From Landmark Judgment on Press Freedom by Dr. OluOnagoruwa and records of proceedings of the Lagos State High Court)
The media could be the purveyor of good news. Conversely, they could convey sad news. In truth, Nigeria has been blessed, and is still blessed with some of the most vibrant information gatekeepers, information organs and practitioners in the world. These are practitioners who have proven mastery of the art of communication over time, that have rubbed shoulders successfully with their colleagues all over the world. Tony Momoh, journalist and lawyer, who later served as Nigeria’s was to later develop the idea of advocating for changes in the ways of life of Nigerians by his ‘Letters to My Country Men’when he served at the Hon. Minister of Information. He was the trendsetter of the “Mantra” – “Change” for adoption for national regeneration in his letters.Through his letters, he reached out to Nigerians encouraging the citizenry to imbibe the rights values and virtues. It is also important to acknowledge the role played by the press in the emergence of the Fourth Republic. The period of the military rule witnessed the emergence of a militant press that refused to be cowed, even as Government bared its fangs. It is important to salute the Nigerian press for its courage, fortitude and resilience in the nation’s quest for the evolution of an enduring democratic culture. Indeed, the history of political activism would not be complete without an allusion to the commendable role played by the Nigerian media.
These highly articulate, resourceful and daring media practitioners who have been able to hold their heads high in international circles. They partnered with Civil Society Organizations to defend the interest of the masses. ‘Guerilla Journalism’, at a period, became the style of some journalists who operated from hide outs to avoid possible arrest and detention by government, and risked their lives. They performed wonders in periods of crises.The News magazine, & Tempo, TELL Magazine,Newswatch Magazine andNewbreed Magazine stand out as worthy heroes. Those who operated RADIO KUDIRAT from outside Nigeria deserve no less acclaim, and special recognition. RADIO KUDIRAT, floated by patriotic Nigerians was better trusted by the people than the information organs of Government that always made biased propaganda. I remember I was a neighbor to a senior Secret Service officer in the Government House, Osogbo and we jointly listened to Radio Kudirat in the evenings. It was a difficult period when one could be picked on a flimsy excuse. Therefore, I never asked him questions and was always ‘’deaf and dumb’’ whilst we listened to Radio Kudirat until I returned to my own apartment. I deflected questions that arose in the course of our listening to the radio station. I realized that the Secret Service official might have been doing his job; but I could not plead same alibi if caught listening to the radio, because that was not my brief as a Chief Press Secretary. I never knew how they operated but they could be simply equated with principalities and powers quoted in the Holy Bible.
And so today, TERRIFIIC HEADLINES salutes those who started the struggle: Herbert Macaulay Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo founded and managed newspapers in pursuit of the ideals of democracy and the evolution of an egalitarian society. Other notable figures that utilized the media for activism were Ernest Ikoli, Anthony Enahoro, Dutse Mohammed Ali, and Mokwugo Okoye. They were succeeded by a crop of highly dedicated and committed professionals, many of them emerging as post-independence media activistswho later shifted roles to that of canvassing for development: Lateef Jakande, Babatunde Jose, Laban Namme, Henry Odukomaiya, MCK Ajuluchukwu, AladeOdunewu, Abiodun Aloba and Peter Enahoro; who were forerunners to brilliant minds like AreoyeOyebola, Segun Osoba, Felix Adenaike, TunjiOseni, Peter Ajayi, GbolaboOgunsanwo, and Sam AmukaPemu. This generation of sound minds, in turn, bred Olatunji Dare, Stanley Macebuh, Sola Odunfa, Idowu Sobowale, Femi Sonaike, Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese, Lade Bonuola, OnyemaUgochukwu, Kunle Adeleke, and TonnieIredia. We equally salute their compatriots in Civil Society organizations: Wole Soyinka, GaniFawehinmi, BekoRansomeKuti, Alao Aka Bashorun, FelaRansomeKuti, Kanmi Isola Osobu, Ayo Obe, BamideleAturu, FunmilayoRansomeKuti, Femi Falana and OlisaAgbakoba; to mention a few. The Civil Liberties Organization, the Nigerian Bar Association, the Nigerian Medical Association, the Academic Staff Union of Universities and the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas (NUPENG)are some of the organizations that partnered with the media to check the excesses of governments.