Critique the Constitutional Provision for Press Freedom in Nigerian 1999 Constitution

1 January 2017

In America they say freedom of the press is democracy. With more than 100 national, local, and state-owned newspapers and publications; print media in Nigeria is one of the most vibrant in all of Africa. While on a superficial level, it appears the media in Nigeria enjoy a considerable freedom, in reality however, independent journalism is not as common as it may appear. Despite the transition from military to civilian rule in 1999, clampdown, assault, beatings, unfair arrests and police raids of media house has continued.

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Between June 2002 and September 2003 alone Media Rights Agenda (MRA), a Lagos based nongovernmental organization which promotes press freedom and freedom of expression, recorded more than fifty cases of reported abuses against journalists and other violations of freedom of expression. The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders in 2010 listed Nigeria Police Force as the leading abuser of journalists’ rights. On Saturday, April 24, 2010, Edo-Ugbagwu, a judicial correspondent of The Nation newspapers was murdered in Lagos.

Also, Godwin Agbroko and Abayomi Ogundeji of Thisday newsapeprs, Omololu Falabi and Bayo Ohu of The Guardian were all brutally killed in Lagos by unknown gun men recently. All these killings and the initial reluctance of the national assembly and the president to pass the Freedom of Information Bill have further raised the question of press freedom once more in Nigerian democracy. The assault on the press is a fundamental breach on democratic norms and serves to remind Nigerians of the dark days of impunity during the Military era.

Justification for Press Freedom in Nigerian 1999 Constitution Nigeria is operating now as a democracy so the freedom of expression – including freedom to hold opinions, receive and impart ideas without interference – should be a fundamental right guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the African Charter On Human and Peoples Rights, (ACHPR), the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 and other regional and international treaties to which Nigeria is privy.

Moreover, Section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides: Every person shall be entitled to freedom to hold opinions and impart ideas and information without interference. There is a reason why press freedom is included in the Nigerian constitution. The idea behind freedom of the press is that an informed public has a fighting chance against any government who will like to possess complete power over them.

According to established human rights provisions it is quite clear these acts of intimidation and harassment are unconstitutional, an abuse of due process, and a negation of the gains so far made in Nigeria’s fledgling democracy. Democracy flourishes under a free press. It is a system that provides for the right to freedom of expression. And it is the foundation upon which rests other freedoms. If politics is about development and the ultimate goal of any political system is to ensure the improvement of the security and welfare of the citizenry, then the resort to assault on the Media negates fundamental rights and the rule of law.

It merely demonstrates impunity, and intolerance to alternatives views. The brutal murder of Dele Giwa should specially be remembered this day and the question repeated: who killed Dele Giwa? The prime suspect in the murder, Ibrahim Babangida, should be made to answer this question as he prepares to run for the presidential election. When it is impossible to retort through the media, any injustice occurring against the people by those they supposedly voted in to advance their wellbeing, it means the country is headed down the road of totalitarian rule.

In the last 12 years since the return of the country to civilian rule, the Nigerian Press has been under serious threat by Law enforcement agencies and other government organizations. When Channels Television was closed in 2008, the CEO John Momoh apologised to the government but the initial suspension of its license over a story on the purported plan of President Umaru Yar’Adua to resign was a sign of an unspoken threshold beyond which criticism is not tolerated in Nigeria. (Who knows what that purported resignation would have been the best of the sick president? Limitations to Press Freedom in Nigerian 1999 Constitution The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria grants to Nigerians the Right to Freedom of Expression and the Press. In Section 39 (1) it states: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinion and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. ” However, in sub-section 3, the same constitution takes away with the left hand what it had granted with the right hand in section 39. Sub-section 3 states: Nothing in this section shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society: (a) For the purpose of preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and independence of courts or regulating telephony, wireless broadcasting, television or the exhibition of cinematography films or (b) Imposing restriction upon persons holding office under the government of the federation or of a state, members of the armed forces of the federation or members of the Nigeria Police Force or other government security services or agencies established by law. In chapter 2, titled Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy, Section 22, the Constitution imposes some obligations on the mass media. It states “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people. ”

But how is the press supposed to discharge these weighty responsibilities if its voice is padlocked not only by the limitations contained in sub-section 3(a) and (b) of section 39 but also by the Official Secrets Act, 1962, and other enactments? Clearly, the Official Secrets Act prevents a journalist from receiving and or imparting information that is available to a government official by the virtue of his office.

Section 1 of that Act makes it an offence for a person to transmit any classified matter to a person to whom he is not authorized on behalf of the government or to reproduce, retain or obtain any classified matter. Section 2 brings down the hammer on a public officer who avails any unauthorized person of classified matter under his custody or control by pronouncing him guilty of an offence. But secrecy in matters of public interest is a violation of the principle of the people’s right to know.

It is also antithetical to the principles of transparency and accountability in governance. * Defamation: this include Libel and Slander: In Law “Libel” refers to everything printed or written which reflects on the character of another, and is published without lawful justification or excuse, whatever the intention may have been, while “slander” on the other hand was described as A false and defamatory statement concerning a person made by word of mouth or in other transient form. Sedition: Sedition is a comprehensive term and it embraces all those practices, whether by word, deed or writing which are calculated to disturb the tranquility of the state, and overthrow the government. When therefore any write-up or speech or any device of communication whether by sign, tapes, caricature etc, that has the effect of producing any of the above, such a write-up notwithstanding the constitutional freedom of expression amounts of sedition.

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