As the world marked the 2019 press freedom day, a media resource centre in Nigeria has launched a new web tracking tool meant to collate attacks on journalists in the country, due to rising cases of abuses against the press.
Pressattack.ng was on Friday in Abuja unveiled by Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, PTCIJ at a packed event celebrating the 2019 World Press Freedom day. Journalists, academics, lawyers, politicians and civil society groups were in attendance.
“Where crimes are not documented,” said Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher of Premium Times in an interview with News Central, “we provide excuses and grounds for their repetition and impunity.”
Olorunyomi said the platform is a collaborative effort with “about nine newsrooms” but anchored by his medium, an online paper, which is one of Nigeria’s foremost investigative journalism outfit.
“A whole lot appears to be happening against journalists that is not being captured. We wanted to create a mechanism that will make this possible.” Olorunyomi told News Central.
“What we have seen in the past ten years in Nigeria is a cause for alarm, a warning shot. Between 2010 and 2015, there were 43 attacks against journalists. Surprisingly, between 2015 and first quarter of this year, it has escalated to 165. If one were a doctor trying to capture the blood pressure of a patient, that is enough to quickly put this guy on an emergency.”
A tool to track abuses against journalists
The newspaper publisher identified government policies and indiscretion of officials including many constraining laws curtailing freedom of expression and association as stifling press freedom in Nigeria, thereby endangering the safety and welfare of journalists.
The journalists’ reporting platform is “created to track abuses on the rights of the press and to ensure that journalists whose rights have been abused will get a prompt response, once our team has been notified. To have a catalogue of submitted evidence for litigating cases of attacks.”
Asked if it could be replicated across Africa, the newspaper boss said the preview had already generated interest within the continent’s media ecosystem.
“Interestingly, when South Africans saw it, they said that they were going to send someone on internship to come and learn how we built this and how we are running it. It is still a work in progress for us too.”
Intellectuals debate press freedom
The 2019 press freedom day was another opportunity for Nigerian intellectuals, public officials and media experts to review some of the contentious issues depriving journalists of a free environment to practise their profession.
“Most press outlets are owned by businessmen and this threatens press freedom itself” said Lai Osho, a media professor and university don.
He said media investors work for interests that may not necessarily be in favour of public interest. “It is not a question of government, we need to look at the totality of the environment in which the media operates. The political economy within which the media operates matter alot.” Osho explained.
“Press freedom is about the diversity and the freedom of space within which the media operates. It is not just about the fight between media practitioners and the government,” Professor Osho said.
The failure of media platforms to regulate each other or allowing staff to unionise for effective supervision by a central organisation was identified by unionists as responsible for the easy clampdown of journalists by security services and government in Nigeria.
“When we are not ready to regulate ourselves, someone else will regulate us,“ said Shuaibu Liman, National Secretary of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ. He assured that the union was often available to safeguard media rights but asked journalists to learn how to regulate themselves first through self-censorship.
Foremost African lawyer and human rights activist, Femi Falana said any public officer who feels offended by a publication must not use the machinery of state to kick against the reporters or publishers but should rather file a civil case in court without resorting to self-help or using state resources to intimidate others.
Falana said the use of security personnel by public officials to clampdown on those who criticise their actions in the course of their public duties is an abuse of trust and a violation of the Nigerian constitution.
“It is assuring that, amid the chaos of ideas in a highly competitive media environment that often prioritises the shallow and sensational over the vital and essential, one can see flashes of brilliance in our journalists — sometimes at considerable risks to themselves.”
-Bukola Saraki, President of the Senate said in his speech at the press day.
A jurist at the ECOWAS Court, Justice Dupe Atoki sought the decriminalisation of press laws in line with such countries as Ghana and Rwanda. She said Liberia has a pending bill that also aims to decriminalise libel acts. Panelists concluded that such anti-press laws across the continent are offshoots of colonialism.
The new press attacks reporting platform was endorsed by the panelists with many asking for more collaboration within the media to make it a success.
“We have two coalition platforms, one on investigative journalism which is called leaks.ng which brings to a total of nine newsrooms doing collaborative work on investigative journalism and we have around 11 working on the whistleblower protection mechanism. So, that’s the beginning of collaboration.” Olorunyomi said of plans to make the platform an industry success.