Press Freedom Day: Beyond Information For Public Good

World Press Freedom Day is celebrated on May 3rd each year. The day proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993, acting on the recommendation of UNESCO, to “celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence, and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.”

Importantly, World Press Freedom Day is a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abridgment of freedom. Stressing the importance of Press Freedom Day, Director-General of UNESCO, Auderey Azoulay said, “Press Freedom is the cornerstone of democratic societies. All states, all nations, are strengthened by information, debate and exchange of opinions. At a time of growing discourse of mistrust and delegitimization of the press and journalism, it is essential that we guarantee freedom of opinion through the free exchange of ideas and information based on factual truth.”

This year’s World Press Freedom Day theme “Information as a Public Good” serves as a call to affirm the importance of cherishing information as a public good, and exploring what can be done in the production, distribution and reception of content to strengthen journalism, and to advance transparency and empowerment while leaving no one behind. The theme recognizes the changing communications system that is impacting on our health, our human rights, democracies and sustainable development.

UNESCO Director General, Audrey Azulay in her message stated said, “The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, Information as a Public Good, underlines the indisputable importance of verified and reliable information. It calls attention to the essential role of free and professional journalists in producing and disseminating this information, by tackling misinformation and other harmful content”.

This year’s World Press Freedom Day, marks the 30th Anniversary of the UNESCO Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press. That declaration led to the recognition by the UN of the World Press Freedom Day to be celebrated every 3rd of May.

After 30 years, the historic connection made between the freedom to seek, impart and receive information and the public good remains as relevant as it was at the time of its signing. The importance of freely accessing reliable information, particularly through journalism, has been demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic: in times of crisis, information can be a matter of life or death.

The COVID-19 crisis has placed journalists and quality journalism and public interest media once again at the center of the global discourse. Reporting on the crisis, through initiatives such as the popularization of scientific facts, the compilation and frequent updating of data, fact-checking or monitoring spending, has proved vital. Around the world the covid-19 pandemic has forced the closure of media houses, reporters have been harassed and attacked for their reporting on the handling of the pandemic, and the public struggled to discern verified information from the falsehoods that have flooded the internet.

Ensuring the safety of journalists is the primary way by which we can foster the independence and freedom of the press, as crucial for democracy. Such a goal is also vital to ensure public access to information.

In performing its many functions in a democratic society, the press derives its general power and support from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which unequivocally guarantees the right to freedom of expression to all human beings: that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Although freedom of expression is a universal right, it is a special collective right for the journalist. In a democracy, for instance, if the journalist is denied this right, which is exercised through freedom of the press, the entire electorate is denied their right to information on the goings-on in their constituencies. Consequently, democracy can neither grow nor be consolidated.

The press is an indispensable part of any liberal society or democracy. It can, in fact, be described as the ‘oxygen of democracy’. In addition to its numerous other functions, the press is the principal tool for the dissemination of information on politics in this Information Age, ensuring that society is adequately informed to enable the people understand political issues and effectively participate in politics and the democratic process.

The press is also expected to be the watchdog of the society, keeping an eye on political leaders who are governing with the mandate of the people. In this regard, it serves as the mechanism for ‘watching’ political office holders, with the aim of encouraging them to pursue the fundamental objectives of the state. In addition, the press does not only set the political agenda, it also purveys and moulds public opinion by providing the platform for the expression of opinions that could enhance participation in the public sphere and enhance democratic principles.

The Nigerian Constitution has always obligated the press to perform the statutory roles of upholding the fundamental objectives of the state as well as upholding the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people. Sections 21 and 36 of the 1979 Constitution and 22 and 38 of the 1989 Constitution guaranteed freedom of expression and statutory roles for the press, while such guarantees are enshrined in Sections 22 and 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).

Specifically, Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) guarantees freedom of expression by giving everybody the right to own any medium of communication, while Section 39 states the statutory roles of the press in upholding the accountability and responsibility of the government to the people. In spite of these constitutional provisions, there is no clear indication of strong and special forms of protection for the press to carry out its constitutional obligations without interference, threats to life, or extra-judicial repercussions.

In Nigeria, Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which gives the press the statutory role of watchdog, is curtailed by Section 45 of the Constitution that unequivocally states that the role of the Press as provided in Section 22 can be abrogated by any law reasonably justifiable in a democracy.

Nigerian press has faced several challenges since 1960 but no challenge has been more of a problem than the menace of military rule and threats to the freedom of the press and the capacity of the press to fulfill its mission as the voice of the voiceless and defender of the oppressed. So serious is press censorship in Nigeria that between 1903 and 1998, there have been 29 anti-press legislations in the books. No other industry has been confronted with such a degree of official antagonism.

Perhaps, this is why many media professionals believe that there is no absolute freedom for the Nigerian press as there have been many instances of brutalization of journalists and impunity against the press in Nigeria. Even the Freedom of Information Act that supposedly gives the press and individuals the freedom to gather information does not enhance absolute freedom of the press because some sections of the Act indirectly curtail free access to information.

It is incontrovertible that the functions of the Press cannot be performed without the guarantee of the safety of journalists and media workers. Indeed, the safety of journalists is essential to the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the right to development.

Freedom of the press, in its true sense, protects journalists and other media professionals from all forms of impunity. Thus, a high degree of press freedom is essential for building inclusive-knowledge societies and democracies and for fostering dialogue, peace and good governance Strong freedom of the press is essential to ensure the safety of journalists and to eradicate impunity and violation of human rights. Without freedom of the Press and adequate safety for journalists, it is impossible to have an informed, active and engaged citizenry. In a climate where journalists are safe, citizens find it easier to access quality information.

Therefore, the special protection that strong freedom of the press should provide journalists and media workers should be holistic to include preventive, protective and pre-emptive measures. Sadly, such freedom of the press, and the safety it should guarantee for journalists, is still largely a mirage. Instead, the Controversy on whether or not freedom of the press should be distinct from the general freedom of speech or expression remains unabated.

In Nigeria apparently, the paradigm is that press freedom is derived from the freedom of expression, and, therefore, the press does not need any special protection. This position might be the explanation for why the Press continues to operate in dangerous environments. Thus, journalists all over the world, and particularly in developing countries like Nigeria, continue to work under risks of intimidation harassment, violence, arbitrary arrest, kidnapping and even extra-judicial killings.

Nigeria is one of West Africa’s “most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists,” an international media watchdog has said.   Expanded state surveillance, the spread of disinformation, and arbitrary arrests of journalists who report critically on the ruling political establishment were cited as the main obstacles to press freedom by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). 

A free press makes for a free society. The work journalists do is critical for everyone in Nigeria and the law should never silence the truth.

As Nigerians joined the rest of the world to mark the day with President Muhammadu Buhari felicitating with journalists, there should be greater understanding for the duties and responsibilities of journalists and the need to ensure that press freedom becomes a culture in the interest of the greater good of Nigeria.

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