by Reuben Abati
Our attention has been drawn to a statement by the Leadership Newspaper titled “Statement on the Arrest and Detention of LEADERSHIP journalists” (April 10), the latest episode in the matters arising from the same newspaper’s publication of an alleged “Presidential Directive” which we have had cause to disavow because the basis of the story proved to have been a dubious ‘bromide’ containing nothing more than “a mishmash of carefully arranged and concocted lies, presented to the public as evidence of a document emanating from the presidency.” Yet, the Leadership newspaper insisted that “it stood by its story.”
As a responsible government committed to providing good governance and protecting the rule of law, the rebuttal from the presidency was appropriate; yet its symbolism runs far deeper. It ordinarily ought to have motivated all concerned with or related to the process and issues contained therein, particularly the publishers and editors, to double check their claims, and where errors had been made, to quickly retract the story. This would have been in line with the ethics of professionalism, good conduct and unbiased reporting.
This approach reflects the crucial role of a bridge which a best-practice media performs, in the management of the civil engagement between elected officials and the citizenry. Underpinning this social contract is the principle that the freedom of expression goes hand in hand with great responsibility. Given the Leadership Newspaper’s insistence that it stood by its story, questions are automatically raised about professional ethics and the social responsibility of the media, which certainly, by the rules and codes of practice of the various media associations in the country do not accommodate the publication of falsehood, or inciting material, or the abuse of the media’s constitutional mandate.
The circulation of a fictitious ‘presidential directive’ that seeks in the main to cause civil strife, engender a breakdown of law and order, and negate the values of our democracy is a very grievous act indeed that should not be ignored. At its core, such a disruptive act erodes the ethos of governance and professionalism and naturally stirs up those entrusted with the protection of law and order; as it should also, every responsible citizen, interest group and the entire media. In that regard, President Jonathan did not have to issue any orders before those who have as much constitutional responsibility as the media; that is, the police, see the need to act in the public interest.
Without holding brief for the law enforcement and security agencies, such a publication, like all others that threaten our democracy and undermine law and order, become the duty of the Police as an institution to investigate. The Leadership newspaper should see this as an opportunity to co-operate with the police as required by the laws of the land. The Police have not done anything outside the law. The trite rule is that nobody is above the laws of the land. It is also within the powers of the Police to invite persons for questioning and to conduct investigations, which is what they have done so far in “The Leadership case”. Or are the editors of the Leadership newspaper insisting that they are above the laws of the land?
This administration believes in and has demonstrated its commitment to press freedom times over. The Freedom of Information Bill (FOI) was signed by this President into law and under this government the Nigerian print and electronic media has grown in number, reach and in terms of freedom to practise. It will be disingenuous to suggest that there is a clampdown of any sort or an attempt to stifle the press.
Why shouldn’t journalists normally cooperate with the police in this instance? We believe that it has to do with the fundamentals of professional ethos that make journalists operate with a different set of loyalties and a different set of outcomes. Yet, there should be no contradiction under normal circumstances where the pursuit of peace and democracy deepening is concerned. This should ordinarily have been an opportunity for the ‘media’ to help our democracy by collectively rejecting the publication of pure falsehood.
As recently as March 12, 2013 in the United Kingdom, detectives working with the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Elveden, an on-going British police investigation into corrupt payments to public officials, placed two journalists under covert surveillance by police investigating corruption and bribery allegations against journalists. This process was considered a crowding out of press freedom with a number of people settling for an open invitation by the police for questioning, as was done in previous invitations with regards to Operation Weeting – covering investigations of The News of the World which led to numerous arrests, detentions and eventual convictions.
The developments at The News of the World, which centre around the resort to illegal means to obtain and/or publish otherwise dubiously obtained information led to the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry, a judicial public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. The Inquiry published the Leveson Report in November 2012, which reviewed the general culture and ethics of the British media, and made recommendations for a new, independent, body to replace the existing Press Complaints Commission, which would be recognised by the state through new laws. Some of the changes recommended include sweeping measures that will allow police officers to demand information from sources; rights for police to seize materials from the press, changes that may force journalists to reveal whistleblowers’ identities; and other rule changes that may define freedom of speech. To show the extent of an ordered approach, part 2 of the inquiry has since been deferred until after criminal prosecutions regarding events at The News of the World are concluded.
In Nigeria, the place of our media is well regarded by the government and its freedom within the law, is regarded as sacred. The Nigerian media is self-regulated and is required to abide by defined codes of ethics. The incident with the Leadership newspapers is not an attempt by the government to muzzle a critical bridge in the societal value chain. Rather, it reflects the professional gaps that need to be bridged within the profession as the media continues to play its very crucial and necessary role in nation-building.
This development therefore offers the media an opportunity for introspection, one that requires an emphasis on the responsibility of a media house as regards issues of ethics and professionalism; and extends in the main to how such a media house builds corporate governance rules to ensure that reckless, unfounded and grossly misleading publications have no place in the esteemed profession and outputs from its stable.
Nigerians fought so hard to end an era whereby serious attempts were made to muzzle the media and our recent history will attest to the heroic role played by the media in our emergent democracy. We intend for that to continue and welcome unfettered contributions, investigations and accountability audit of those holding public office today and tomorrow.
What must not be encouraged is voodoo journalism or the deliberate and malicious attempt to use a medium that is designed to inform to now take on the inglorious task of being a mouthpiece for a narrow agenda based on disinformation, deliberate scaremongering, civil society baiting and the offer of media platform(s) to those hell-bent on causing disharmony through well-woven conspiracies.
This government is proud of its record on press freedom, its relationship with and promotion of access for the media and civil society. The publication of a spurious document and the alarmist approach to the routine invitation extended to the Leadership journalists should of itself provide proof of a choreographed attempt to deliberately cast the administration in bad light; especially given the synchronized communications from the newspaper, the Action Congress of Nigeria, and others.
Once again, we urge the Nigerian public and the media to pay careful attention to those who parade themselves under different garbs and push forth information intended to subvert the cause of peace and order. The Nigerian government remains a committed advocate of a free but responsible media that can and should hold the government to account even as it seeks to educate and inform the citizenry for whom we are all responsible. This is the social contract we are all agreed to, for and on behalf of the Nigerian public.