Since the press is the voice of the people, it can be inferred from this that silencing the press is equivalent to gagging the people.
According to Christopher Dodd, “When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all other liberties we hold dear are endangered.”
To ensure this freedom is protected, the United Nations set aside May 3rd of every year to mark the World Press Freedom Day.
Press Freedom is interpreted in so many different ways by different people. To Ramon Rocha III, the Director, Publishers’ Development, Media Associate International, “It is the freedom to express without bias or the fear of censorship that which is in the heart of the press, organization or individual, for the purpose of seeing a better society and livelihood for the people.”
This year’s World Press Freedom Day focuses on; freedom of information as a fundamental freedom and as a human right, protecting press freedom from censorship and surveillance overreach and lastly, ensuring safety for journalism online and offline.
Though it’s been established that press freedom is a human right, the perception is that the press in Nigeria does not enjoy total freedom. They are free, but only to an extent.
Gbenga Osinaike, who worked as an Assistant Editor with Punch Newspaper for thirteen years, opined that the press in Nigeria is not totally free and this inhibition on free press is not as a result of censorship from the Government but due to lack of funds.
“Nigerian journalists do not have freedom of press due to certain constraints like social and financial inhibitions. Journalists sit back in their newsrooms and concoct stories, not because they don’t want to go out into the field but due to the lack of funds to investigate. Also due to the lack of funds, the press in Nigeria cannot afford the sophisticated equipment used by international media and for this reason may not be able to report as thoroughly as is expected of a good press.”
Lucas Akinleye, a journalist and publisher with Priceless Innovation Limited believes there is no press freedom in Nigeria, instead what is obtainable is press activity.
“A journalist should be an unbiased umpire, however if you look at it these days, the journalist has the interest of the media owner, the government, politicians and lots of other people. These people are all contending for your conscience as a journalist. So lots of journalists are reluctant to report as they ought to due to the consequences of reporting the truth and sometimes the benefits of holding back. Because of the influence of brown envelopes, some journalists have turned to PR consultants. Don’t make the mistake to assume that press freedom guarantees a hundred percent freedom. There’s no total freedom anywhere, not even in the US.”
The outcome of press freedom should be to foster development and unity in the world. Without the press fulfilling these, the purpose of press freedom will be defeated.
Sunday Oguntola, Assistant Editor, The Nation Newspaper, believes strongly that any report that is likely to bring about strife and violence shouldn’t be publicized. “Freedom means the ability on the part of journalists to report events and issues as they break. It also means being responsible to know when not to report and how to report without bringing about tension and discord in the world.
“We report so there’ll be global peace and unity. Any report that threatens unity or make people to become beasts, I don’t think such reports should be done. It is not everything that happens that should be reported. That’s why we are journalists; we are supposed to be gatekeepers. For example if Muslims are killing Christians in the North, you have to be careful the way you report it to avoid reprisal attacks in the south. I am not saying we should repress news stories, but we have a responsibility in our reports to make sure that our audience is not moved to act violently. I believe that as the press we have the responsibility to lay out all the truths but we have a greater responsibility to ensure that our report promotes peace and tolerance.
Yes, there’s freedom to report, but in our freedom we also have to be responsible. We have the responsibility to report issues in a very balanced, fair and accurate way. By ‘fair’ we need to ask; am I reporting on the facts, have I investigated all the facts, am I so sure, am I putting it the way it ought to be, and after reporting what will be the effect of my report? If we look at the consequences of our report it will help us to know what to report, what not to report and how to report. How is really the key and should promote peace and tolerance.”
In certain countries, particularly in Nigeria, the Government is usually wary of the press and perceives them as out to attack the Government. For this reason they try to control the press and regulate press freedom. The benefit of press freedom is not enjoyed by the people alone, but is equally helpful to the Government.
“The cornerstone of democracy is a freed press.” Milos Forman
“Freedom of press provides the government with the materials needed to make proper decisions…” This is according to Gbenga Osunaike.
Though the general consensus is that the press should be allowed to operate independently and freely, freedom comes with responsibility. Freedom of the press, if abused could cause volatility in the society.
Osinaike referred to a situation that happened not so far back where such freedom almost led to religious crises in Nigeria. “Some years back a girl did a report where she mentioned the prophet Mohammed in a way that was considered offensive, in relation to a beauty contest in the North. You don’t do things like that in a country where religion is really sensitive. Journalists should be sensitive to the sentiments of others. A journalist should not use words recklessly and should not be heavily opinionated but should report objectively.”
Oguntola warned about what could happen if press freedom is abused. “The Rwanda genocide attacks happened because the press was abused and used to propagate their ethnic agendas. We have the responsibility to report issues in a very balanced, fair and accurate way.”
Though press freedom should be broad enough to allow for liberty, there is a limit to that freedom. It is important to note what freedom of the press is not so that boundaries are not overstepped.
“Freedom of press can never be license to say anything one desires. Freedom of the press is not the freedom to slander and attack and must never be used to fight other people’s wars. It does not mean manipulating a story into speaking your views. One might think it common sense but in the world of journalism a lot of what makes sense is lost to the lure of favoritism, greed and fame. Sadly, in this truth-telling business truth is hard to find.” Aysha Taryam.
Rocha III said “It is not freedom to bash other people or speak evil against people, but to be able to speak the truth.”