Nigerians woke up on Friday June 6, 2014, to the creeping reality that the nation’s press was under siege when there were no vendors on the streets with their trademark horns to announce the availability of the day’s newspapers. Table vendors had no newspapers on display. Soldiers and Department of State Security (DSS) personnel, acting on instruction ‘from above’, had foisted this pernicious social order across the country by intercepting, impounding and, in extreme cases, destroying newspapers as they were being distributed, or preventing them from getting to the distribution centres. It was a most gory assault reminiscent of the military era and a signpost of further deterioration of the health of democracy in Nigeria.
Not since the inglorious days of the Newspaper (Amendment) Act of 1964 and several draconian and repressive decrees churned out by past military regimes have Nigerians witnessed such a brazen assault on the press and freedom of expression as what transpired in the past few days. That this is happening under a democratic dispensation heightens the agonies of the people and raises general apprehension of what lies ahead.
It is thus obvious that the President Goodluck Jonathan government is panic-stricken. Indeed, reports, last Friday, said Jonathan, at a summit of all political parties in Abuja, raised alarm on alleged plots to scuttle democracy. But it is public knowledge that the military and its civilian collaborators, some of whom are still in power and working hands in hand with Jonathan, are the real threats to the nation’s democracy, certainly not the media.
But clarifications offered by both the military spokesperson, Major-General Chris Olukolade and President Jonathan’s Senior Special Assistant (Public Affairs), Dr. Doyin Okupe, said the embarrassing repression was based on ‘intelligence reports’ of movements of materials ‘with grave security implications’ across the country, ‘using the channel of newsprint-related consignments’. The FG might have justified the siege. But the excesses that accompanied its execution and the selective persecution of perceived opposition media outfits raise questions on the credibility of the reasons given for the act. The puzzle becomes even eerie, given that few days before the siege, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) issued an order to the nation’s electronic media that henceforth, they must furnish it with the list of guests in any live political programme two days ahead of time. To demonstrate its resolve to enforce the directive, the NBC went ahead to suspend a popular political programme of an Abuja-based FM station, Vision Radio 92.1.
Nigeria may be passing through difficult times that would require the cooperation of every group in the country, including the media. But such cooperation cannot be achieved through crude coercion. It must be understood that the media is not left out of the monumental harm the pervasive insecurity in the land has done to the country. Therefore, Abuja must see it as an ally in the resolution of the crisis. It is most unfortunate that the action being interrogated might have arisen from certain misconceptions, especially the official, yet false classification of a section of the press as hostile.
President Jonathan must beware of what advice or ‘security reports’ he receives and acts on, especially at this critical time of the nation’s life, when many of those managing the nation’s security establishment can scarcely be trusted. He should, in the first place, appreciate the fact that Nigeria is a liberal democracy. Besides, the 1999 Constitution (as amended), under which he ought to operate, is very clear on his powers and limitations. It is, therefore, imperative that the President must weigh his actions so as to remain on track. A virile press is the conscience and voice of any nation and its people. It is an integral part of all liberal democracies. The military has very circumscribed roles to play in any democracy that is deserving of its name. Nigeria is still living with several scars occasioned by the monstrous stifling of the press during the periods of military interregna. Therefore, soldiers should restrict themselves to their barracks and statutory roles under a democracy. There are existing institutions and laws to take care of infractions by the press. The greatest mistake the Jonathan government would risk is thinking it has friends in the military.