Custodian Editorial: On the Protection of Free Speech

Posted on

As a child, I once dreamt that my father was imprisoned by then military dictator, Sani Abacha. When I woke up, I was simultaneously terrified and delighted. Terrified that it might be a sign of what was to come. Delighted that my hero was still around. This would be the first time my parents hear about this dream. It was a cross I bore on my own. When Abacha died in the middle of 1998, I joined the people on the streets in dancing for joy. Nightmares like that are commonplace in the homes of journalists. My brother and I were lucky. For the family of my dad’s friend and one of my mentors, Kunle Ajibade the story would be different. His son, coincidentally named Mayowa was unable to see his Father for an extended period of time. It goes without saying that the thought of missing out on the important moments of one’s children’s childhood is the one thing every parent never wants to go through. Blood makes family but shared times are the ultimate fortifier. It’s obviously a con of the job: Every journalist worth his salt knows that at some point they could be vulnerable to attacks and condemnation from the subjects of their exposés.

Of late, this idea of restricting the press via intimidation has been more prominent. In the Nigerian context, there’s been news of the abduction of one Thomas Thomas, Editor of the Uyo based Global Concord publication. The paper has gained a reputation for being critical of the Akwa Ibom government so they’ve been identified as perpetrators. What happened to Mr Thomas? He was secretly arraigned before a court (the charge carries a 14 year jail term) with the Akwa Ibom government suggesting that by publishing a story critical of the Godswill Akpabio led government, he had fallen foul of the Akwa Ibom State Internal Security and Enforcement Law 2009. When did we start arresting people by kidnapping them? It’s like the Abacha days all over.
In the foreign context, three Al Jazeera journalists, Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in jail on charges of defaming Egypt and aiding banned Islamists. There’s also been the heart wrenching tale of James Foley, an independent photo journalist who was covering the Syrian war who was beheaded by the Islamic State Militia.

Journalism can be a thankless task. These days, as with all things the internet has destroyed, the profit margin of the average media house would indicate a downward curve. Readers are willing to enjoy the news services provided and reluctant to part with their money. The political and economic ruling class are always happy to condemn the Press because the journalistic lens tends to be focused on them. It shouldn’t be so. It’s like we forget that the Watergate scandal that caused the impeachment of a sitting US President was the handiwork of two inquisitive journalists.  When Lance Armstrong tried to weave a tale of credibility, it was journalists like Paul Kimmage and David Walsh who were consistent in asking the questions that needed to be asked. They even went as far as the courts to ensure their freedom to publish well sourced pieces wasn’t curtailed. Journalists are important because they unravel the lies we are told. Recently, the Guardian and the Sunday Times have done an amazing job in uncovering the corruption of FIFA and the deplorable working conditions in Qatar.

The thing about trying to restrict press freedom is that it sets a dangerous precedent. For one, it tends to be against the law. The Nigerian constitution makes room for the right to freedom and expression of the press. It’s one of the oldest rules in the book. My other grouse is that it leads to a chilling effect where other journalists fearful of what could come start to censor themselves. Journalists should never be put in a position where they have to be fearful. Nothing good can ever come from censorship.  Applying Pop Psychology, I would suggest it is an admission on the part of the person doing the censoring that there’s something to be hidden. It hints of someone running scared because someone is getting close to their secret. People don’t cover up if they don’t have anything to hide. It is imperative more attention is drawn towards Mr Thomas’ plight. The Nigerian media have to fight for one of their own. If they don’t, who’ll be next? A thought must also be spared for the family of Mr Thomas during what must surely be tough times.