PRESS FREEDOM: A MIRAGE
Being a lead paper presented at the Intellectual Forum of The Press Club, Unilag by Sarayi Taofeeq Afolabi, a final year student of the Department of English, University of Lagos.
It is with profound honour and great pride that I present this paper before this beautiful audience, the first edition of the Intellectual Forum of the Press Club, University of Lagos. I am most grateful to the authorities for granting me this privilege of presenting this paper at this time when press freedom is a pivotal topic.
For the purpose of today’s discussion, I would outline the various aspects of the topic. The topic, Press Freedom: A Mirage is a broad concept but we will be talking about the pivotal aspects. I will be talking about the nature of the Press in itself, how freedom is undetachable from the press, the nature of press freedom around the world and finally, the impediments and challenges that make press freedom a mirage. Merriam Webster dictionary of English language defines “press” as the process of gathering and publishing or broadcasting of information. As we all know, the press has always been under scrutiny because of the nature of the news itself. The news sometimes is controversial, sensitive or provoking and revealing. Mirage refers to a situation whereby we hope for something but in the real sense, it is not possible to achieve. A lot of mirage exists in our world today. While everyone craves for peace, war is inevitable, while we all crave for a good life, the distribution of wealth cannot in anyway be equal. The concept of freedom itself is also another controversial topic. To what extent can a human being be free and to what extent can we refer to ourselves as being free. These are the provocative questions that this topic poses and in due course, we would attempt to answer them. In recent times, the nature of the press has been expanded due to the advent of social media platforms and the internet at large. On these platforms, citizens connect and view first-hand information. This unique brand has made it possible for people to work as freelance journalist, bloggers and so on. On both sides, whether traditional outlets (newspapers, journals, magazines,etc) or modern outlets (cable networks, blogs, online media firms, etc), the principles of journalism remain untouched. The principles of fairness, objectivity, balance, actuality, originality must and should be adhered to. When these principles are compromised, the fourth estate is surely compromised.
The nature of societies around the world also determines what kind of press outlet operates. This can be proved through the press freedom index by Reporters without Borders where Western liberal democracies occupy the topmost positions in the rankings while conservative societies are characterised to have lesser press freedom. This is due to the nature of legislation and system of government we find in these countries respectively. For a press to be termed as free, it must have some salient features; they are: plurality, independence and lack of censorship and control. While these principles are self-proclaimed, they have never been self-executed. While the press is supposed to be free, various impediments make freedom of the press a mirage. In so many societies, we find the press being silenced and stifled. In some other cases, we find the wrong perception of certain kinds of people in the press. We find many press outlets towing the ideological line and embracing racist and ultra-nationalist ideas rather than be objective. Press outlets have been accused of influencing the quality of news. To cap it, we find situations where members of the Press have been harassed, arrested, detained, imprisoned and sometimes murdered.
Press freedom remains a mirage when government keep checks in form of censorship and licensing to stifle the press. In some countries, we find cases whereby journalists are required to obtain permits or licenses not from their professional bodies but from the government. This action, while some might argue that regulations are necessary, in practice is used to silence the press on sensitive government and political topics. It does not help in expanding the scope of the journalism as many freelance journalists find it hard to thrive. Journalists in these societies abstain from covering certain kinds of news because of the fear of license rebuking.
Furthermore, another important issue that makes press freedom a mirage is government covert actions. In countries around the world, the right to information is entrenched in the constitution. In Nigeria, it is called the Freedom of Information Act, in the USA, it also termed Freedom of Information Act. This act dictates that the public has the right to all government information regardless of the status of the information. While this law is perfect in principle, it is flawed by the human actions. Governments around the world withhold information in form of “state classified info” from the eyes of the public. This action undermines the essence of effective journalism. In extreme cases whereby details of these information is leaked into the hands of journalists or media houses, they stand a chance of been charged for espionage and treason and will be labelled as enemy of the state even though what they present is true in its entirety. This is to show how brutal the state can be with regards to whistle-blowing. The case of Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder and Chelsea Manning are vivid examples of state action against whistle-blowers. Manning was imprisoned for releasing state classified information regarding U.S’ role in Iraq and Afghanistan. While a particular law grants Manning the right to release this information to the public (FOI Act), another law (the Espionage Act) criminalises releasing these information. This creates inconsistency in the system and erodes all efforts to having a free press.
Also, a free press remains a mirage when members of the press are deliberately attacked and killed by those who want to conceal the news from publication. In 2016, Al-Jazeera reported that over 93 journalists were killed on duty while UNESCO puts the figure at 101. In a report by Reporters Without Borders, it is stated that these journalists were targeted deliberately because they were journalists. We can call this an act of killing the messenger. A free press is not achievable when the society is hostile towards journalists who release important information.
Free Press remains a mirage where government has excessive control over state-owned media stations. We find situations whereby the populace loses faith in State owned press outfits because precedents have shown that they only serve the good of the government and are never objective. We understand the fact that the government is entitled to a press outfit but the idea of controlling what is being said on the press platforms makes freedom of the press problematic. Also, as an extension to government influence on the press, the idea of using press platforms for political propaganda and defamation threatens all efforts geared towards attaining a free press. We find a vivid example in Nigeria during the 2015 elections where it clears that certain TV stations were distributed along political party lines. This action made the populace lose faith in the objectivity of these TV stations. When objectivity of the news moves from a constant to a variable, this is problematic for the freedom of the press.
Finally, with all these said, it is pertinent to note that while so many factors endanger the actualisation of a free press in today’s world, it is still important for the press to be objective and fair in all ramifications. The bold principles of actuality, originality, balance and so on must remain the watchword of the press personnel. With these principles upheld, the notion of a free press remains a promise land, we shall get there.
Thank you for listening.