Reflections on democracy, the press and sundry assaults
As the atmosphere in Nigeria today remains palpably tensed, with some forces of darkness seemingly seizing the space, it is time for all Nigerians to be vigilant and work for the sustenance of this democracy. The slightest infraction against it must be protested and any attempt at the erosion of its most basic tenets must be resisted.
Misinformation or disinformation on the health of President Muhammadu Buhari as is currently being done and gagging of the press are examples of such deliberate acts of undermining the nation’s democracy which should be protested vehemently by all Nigerians with a view to putting a stop to them immediately.
The matter of assault on the press, especially, may have been sorted out in part but it bears further examination and clarification if only to prevent a recurrence. The summary expulsion of The Punch newspaper’s State House reporter, at the behest of the chief security officer (CSO) to the president the other day was, clearly, an act of aggression against the Fourth Estate of the Realm in the course of performing its constitution-assigned duty. It should never have happened in a democratic system of government; it should not have happened within a government whose All Progressives Congress (APC) party constitution unequivocally vows to ‘prevent abuse of executive, legislative, and public offices…’; and it should not have happened if public office holders such as CSO Bashir Abubakar read and imbibed the letters and the spirit of the extant constitution. And the point must be quickly made that for Abubakar, as a senior official in public service ( he is reported to be a directorate level officer), it would be a pity to claim ignorance of Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) which stipulates that ‘The press, radio, television, and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in (Chapter II) and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.’
Let it be emphatically noted that there is no other professional segment of society recognised and assigned this monitoring role. And no one would dare say that the drafters of the constitution were foolish to so do. Against this backdrop, the expulsion of The Punch’s reporter from his beat was a violation of Section 22 and other implicit issues such as openness in government and the right of the people to know.
The reason offered for his action by the CSO had been detailed in a five-point memo of complaints that, he circulated within the Presidency. He was not happy with a report that lately, on account of President Buhari’s ill- health, not much activities had taken place in certain locations within the Aso Rock Villa; that ambassadors had not been received to present their letters of credence. In short, in CSO Abubakar’s warped wisdom, the state of the president’s health had been unfavorably reported. But, pray, were these issues that he termed the reporter’s ‘grievous mistakes’ really security issues? Certainly not in a polity that is governed by transparent and confident government. To the CSO’s shame today, President Buhari has since gone abroad for treatment of his condition in stark confirmation of The Punch report.
As an official close to the president, it makes sense that the CSO be concerned with the public perception of his principal and his government. But Abubakar exhibited poor taste and a poor knowledge of procedure to not intimate the media unit of the presidency of his planned course of action. Media Advisers to the President were unaware of the summary expulsion of a duly accredited reporter of a major national newspaper from the State House. Besides, he reportedly circulated his list of reasons days after he had chosen to punish the reporter. Abubakar simply acted the accuser, the prosecutor, and the judge in his own case. And, having taken on a magisterial toga of judge and executor, he promptly banished the reporter. This was a hasty, arbitrary, and even arrogant step. It was an insult of the worst kind to the people of Nigeria. It was a crude assault on the finest essence of democracy by such a lowly official.
He arrogated to himself knowledge, role, and competence that he certainly does not possess; he claimed better knowledge of such ‘press reports as serve the best interest of the nation’, of ‘objectivity, which is one of the cardinal principles of journalism.’ He appreciated more than the press ‘the need to be patriotic objective and honest in reporting’ and he even sought to advise the media on the best qualities – ‘mature, professional and patriotic’- of reporters fit for their organisations. What an impudence! What an abuse of a position! What a disgrace!
CSO Abubakar succeeded spectacularly in embarrassing himself, the Presidency, the Federal Government and the person of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Indeed, his action tended to lend credence, rightly or wrongly, to the claim by Reporters Without Borders in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index that Nigeria ranks high among nations that are hostile to press freedom. Nigerians have since been assured that Buhari is committed to press freedom. Now if this is accepted, obviously some persons within his government do not share his values and principle of governance. And this is the apprehension in the country today. Happily, many have appropriately condemned the highhandedness as well as overzealousness of the CSO which has no doubt proven to be cover for mere ‘eye service.’
Times have changed from the days of the jackboots. So too Nigeria, its culture of government and the thinking of the people. There is need, therefore, to re-train and sensitize security personnel on the general provisions of the constitution, especially on respect for their stations, and finally, on how to perform their duties in a democratic culture. Otherwise, they will continue to act at variance with the spirit and culture of civilised law enforcement to the embarrassment of their principals and even the nation.
Nigeria is bigger than any person or any office. The people own the process and put persons in offices as trustees of their sovereignty. Nothing must ever be done to prevent the people from knowing all they must know about the offices and about those who hold such in trust for them.
To do so in any guise, either by gagging the press, not informing or misinforming the people, is to unleash the greatest assault on democracy.