The recent clampdown on newspapers by the Nigerian military authorities is an ignominious and reprehensible act of violence against the media and, by extension democracy. It is shameful, embarrassing and unacceptable that in a supposedly democratic government, the media, a staunch pillar of the society, could be so brazenly muzzled. This certainly portends danger for the country and President Goodluck Jonathan should not just watch the unfolding drama idly but should condemn it and stop what could portray his administration as dictatorial.
The monumental embarrassment came without prior notice. As early as 4.00 a.m. on Friday, June 6, 2014, heavily armed soldiers reportedly descended on newspapers operating from Abuja. They took position at strategic points where distributors, vendors and representatives gather to offload, load and coordinate the day’s sales and distribution. They clamped down on all newspaper distribution vans moving out of the city and detained drivers.
The assault was so fierce that by the following day, all newspapers leaving Abuja were barred from circulation and confined to the vendor’s village in Area 1 of the Federal Capital Territory. A military official later said the action would continue until the Defence Headquarters was satisfied without stating what he meant or the reason behind the crackdown.
Major General Chris Olukolade, the army spokesman, who confirmed the crackdown, said that soldiers were indeed given orders to ransack newspaper distribution vans for what he called “materials with grave security implications.” He maintained that the exercise had nothing to do with the contents or operation of the media organisations or their personnel and acknowledged the media as an indispensable partner in the ongoing counter-insurgency operation.
The Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) reacted appropriately and vehemently condemned the action. Similarly, most members of the Nigerian public have condemned what looked like a return to the military era, calling on the government to let the Press do its work without coercion or intimidation. The unjustified crackdown on all newspapers may indeed have been occasioned by the current grave security situation in the country as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency. But there is hardly a better guise under which a government can begin a systematic circumvention of the freedom of the Press as well as systematic erosion of democracy.
If the army really had intelligence report, as claimed, of insurgents infiltrating the rank of vendors, the right thing to do was not to invade newspaper distribution points and barring the distribution of newspapers. If that was the case, the military should have been more proactive in dealing with it. It should be able to isolate the culprits and, accordingly, deal with them professionally.
What has played out could be a prelude to phantom terrorism allegations against newspaper houses, which could create more problems for the system.
In a democratic dispensation, if any newspaper house was found guilty of any offensive or libelous publication, the right thing to do is for the complainant to go to court and press charges. And for any involvement or collaboration with terrorists or criminals, there is the anti-terrorism law in place under which the culprits could be charged. Freedom of the Press is guaranteed by the Constitution and the media is the Fourth Estate of the realm with a duty to hold governments to account. The Nigerian Press has always been an irrepressible and formidable partner in fostering good governance and national unity.
The brigandage visited on the newspapers, therefore, amounts to a mindless circumvention of the Constitution and an assault on democracy. Gagging the Press, wittingly or unwittingly, is an infringement that must not be contemplated or tolerated.
Whether President Goodluck Jonathan authorised the unwarranted assault on the media or not, he bears responsibility for that irresponsible action, as the buck stops on his table. And history will judge him harshly if he does not speak up against this assault and insist on its never happening again.