The freedom of the Nigeria media took centre stage at the 2021 Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) Press Freedom Awards, held last week, with the theme: “Press Freedom, Democracy and Good Governance,” as part of activities to mark the World Press Freedom Day. CHIZOBA OGBECHE was there.
The World Press Freedom Day is celebrated on May 3, to call attention to the role of free media in producing and disseminating information as well as serving as a reminder to governments of the need to respect press freedom.
This year’s World Press Freedom Day was marked with the theme: “Information as a Public Good.” According to UNESCO, Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, “This year’s World Press Freedom Day theme 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 is of urgent relevance to all countries across the world. It recognizes the changing communications system that is impacting on our health, our human rights, democracies and sustainable development.
“To underline the importance of information within our online media environment, WPFD 2021 will highlight three key topics: Steps to ensure the economic viability of news media; Mechanisms for ensuring transparency of Internet companies;
Enhanced Media and Information Literacy (MIL) capacities that enable people to recognise and value, as well as defend and demand, journalism as a vital part of information as a public good.”
As part of activities to mark the day, Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) held the third and fourth editions of the Press Freedom Awards which was instituted to recognise journalists who have faced harassment, threat, physical injury, imprisonment and even death in the course of discharging their legitimate duties.
It is worth noting that this year’s Awards was a combination of the 2020 and 2021 editions as the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown for the greater part of 2020 prevented the hosting of the Awards even after winners in different categories had emerged.
Celebrating courage, sacrifice
Speaking during the Awards, the national president of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Chris Isiguzo, noted that the Awards celebrate the important principles of press freedom, defend the media from attacks on their independence and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
He said, “Press freedom is an indispensable pillar in the architecture of any democracy. No democracy can thrive without citizen’s adequate access to transparent and reliable information.
“Press freedom is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions. Press Freedom is a catalyst in the mobilisation of the citizenry to hold their leaders accountable as well as promotes speaking truth to power.
“Many journalists in Nigeria have faced harassment, threats, physical injury, imprisonment, and even death in the course of discharging their legitimate duties. It is the courage and sacrifice of these journalists that we are celebrating by organising the third and fourth editions of the 2020/2021 NUJ Press Freedom Awards.
“The event is also honouring media owners, corporations, political and public office holders who have actively supported press freedom in Nigeria.”
Speaking further the Isiguzo stated, “We use this opportunity of the World Press Freedom Day celebration to call on the security agencies to be more proactive in tackling the rising insecurity in all parts of the nation.
“Nigerians are tired of stories of banditry, kidnapping and all sorts of vices almost on daily bases. It’s appalling, disgusting and has made Nigeria a laughing stock. Enough is enough to destruction of lives and property; we need to live on peace.”
Listing the categories of Awards, he said, “The awards are in six categories: Torch Bearers of Press Freedom Awards will be given to journalists who have faced harassment, physical injury, imprisonment or death in their line of duty.
“Press Freedom Platform Awards will be given to media houses that have supported press freedom, while Corporate Friend of the Media Awards will be given to corporate organisations that have supported press freedom.
“Defender of Press Freedom Awards are given to leading political leaders, captains of industry and experienced journalists and other Nigerians that have actively defended press freedom.
“Life Time Achievement Awards will be given to those who have shown resilience in supporting press freedom and/or have provided media platforms for journalists to practice their craft.
“Distinguished Friend of the Press Awards are given to public and political office holders who have made outstanding contribution to the defence of press freedom/or have actively supported press freedom.”
Ensuring environment for press freedom
On his part, the chairman of the occasion, who is also the chairman, Senate Committee on Appropriations, Barau Jibrin, commended the NUJ and the Nigeria media for their role in nation building, noting that freedom of press should be recognised at all levels.
“We are proud of the Nigerian media. They are a very important partner to the National Assembly in the discharge of our duties. Journalists are the voice of democracy. The government should ensure peaceful environment for press freedom to thrive,” he said.
He said the theme for the Award was apt and would help the media and other stakeholders further strengthen the nation’s democracy, and that, “We need to always discuss topic likes this.”
Protecting right to free expression
Similarly, the guest lecturer, who is the speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, said, “The right to free expression is one of the fundamental safeguards of our democracy.
“The right to share one’s perspective, to engage in the free exchange of ideas, to criticise the institutions of public life and the individuals who hold, and exercise power is a natural right. It does not derive from any manmade laws; it is a fundamental, inalienable part of our humanity.
“Protecting this right is our collective responsibility. The free society we aspire to depends to a large extent on protecting the right to free expression.
“It is immaterial whether this right is exercised by a lone preacher standing in the public square, by an academic promoting views that contest established theories, by the journalist holding power to account, or by a stranger on the internet, taking advantage of protections of distance and anonymity to espouse their truths as they understand them. And it certainly does not matter that you disagree with the views being promoted.
“Yet, the exercise of individual rights does not excuse behaviour that knowingly or otherwise, puts the wellbeing of others at risk. We each exist as part of a community and the fundamental rights we hold as individuals impose on each of us a responsibility to act in the best interests of that community.
“The preacher may preach, but he must not incite his worshippers to acts of violence against others or sabotage against the state. In the same vein, the journalist’s right to hold power to account exists alongside the responsibility to ensure that the claims you make are supported by evidence.”
Gbajabiamila, who was represented by a member of the House of Representatives, Peter Akpason, noted that: “Dinner events rarely provide an adequate arena for exhaustive consideration of weighty issues. However, it is just as rare to have so many leaders of our nation’s press gathered like this.
“Therefore, I will in the brief time I have with you today, crave your indulgence to speak from the heart about the status of our democracy and the future of our country.”
According to the speaker, “Journalists are the fourth and last pillar of democracy after the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. You have a responsibility to uphold democracy as much as any legislator or judge or other government officials. Whereas it is the role of the government to build an economy that works for all, ensure access to justice and protect the lives and promote the welfare of all citizens.
“It is the role of the press to ensure that the exercise of state and economic power is fair and proper and in service of the greater good. You can only live up to this responsibility when you commit to the vigorous pursuit of elusive truths, and dedicate yourselves to the service of paramount principles.
“Unfortunately, a number of those who practice journalism in our country have failed and are failing to live up to the responsibility imposed by the power you hold.
“Far from giving voice to the aspirations of our nation, or holding the powerful properly to account, much of journalism in Nigeria has become an endless pursuit of clickbait through the careless writing of falsehoods and malicious publication of half-truths.
“I know that some of those who hear me say this will respond with an accounting of all the numerous ways the state has failed to protect the constitutional right to free expression.
“Indeed, on too many occasions the authority of the state has been exercised in ways inimical to free expression and freedom of the press. Despite the constitutional guarantee of a free press, the practice of journalism in Nigeria is still fraught with dangers that shouldn’t exist in a free democracy.
“The statutory framework that protects the practice of honourable journalism requires an overhaul to protect our brothers and sisters in the press who ask the hard questions that reveal defining truths.
“So, we arrive at the recognition that all of us, government and journalists alike have not always lived up to the responsibilities we owe to our country and each other.
“Let us all choose today to rededicate ourselves to the unyielding pursuit of excellence in governance and journalism, recognising that what is at stake is not profit or promotion, political power or personal ambition, but the very survival of our country.
“Nation-building is a joint task. Each of us has a role to play if we will in our lifetime achieve the best vision of a country that works for our nation’s people.”
Free press as democracy stabiliser
One of the recipients of the Distinguished Friend of the Media Award, the speaker of the Abia state House of Assembly, Chinedum Orji, noted that free press helps in stabilising democracy and good governance.
Speaking to journalists, Orji, who pledged more commitment towards the promotion of press freedom, said the award had motivated him to do more in ensuring that media practitioners operate under friendly atmosphere.
He commended journalists for their contributions in strengthening democracy in the country, and urged them to remain steadfast despite the daunting challenges.
Also, the chairman, Whistler Communications Ltd, Chief James Ume, who bagged the Defender of Press Freedom Awards, said the Nigeria media has come of age and has what it tasks to compete favourable with their counterparts in other parts of the country.
Ume, who was represented by the general manager, Whistler Communications Ltd, Mr. Christian Chukwu, advocated for enabling environment for practitioners to effectively discharge their duty of holding the government accountable on behalf of the people.
Those honoured in the Distinguished Friends of the Media include: Speaker, House of Representatives, Governor of Bayelsa state, Senator Douye Diri; Group Managing Director, NNPC, Mr Mele Kolo Kyari; Speaker, Abia State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Chinedum Orji; and Chief of Staff to Akwa Ibom state Governor, Mr Akparawa Ephraim Akparawa Inyang-Eyen.
For the Defender of Press Freedom Awards were: Senator Jibrin Barau; Managing Director, Rock Global Investment Network Ltd, London, Dr. Samson Agada Omale; and Chairman, Whistler Communications Ltd, Chief James Ume.
Similarly, the group managing director, Daar Communications Plc, Mr. Tony Akiotu and the director-general, Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Yakubu Ibn Mohammed, received Lifetime Achievement Awards.
In the category of Press Freedom Platform Awards were Arise News Television and Nigeria Info FM, while the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and Access Bank bagged the Corporate Friends of the Media Awards.
Seventeen journalists, who had suffered acts of brutality, harassment, arrest, imprisonment and assaults in the course of their jobs, were honoured with the Award of Torch Bearers of Press Freedom.
They were Charles Eyo, Mary Ekere, Henry Umoru, Emelda Joy Odor, King Solomon Ekhalyeme, Kehinde Shonola, Adepoju Tobi, Daniel Eniola, and Wale Amoo.
Others were: Isaac Ayodele, Prince Bamigbala Ademola Michael Otogo, Abiodun Williams, Bunmi Azeez, Kayode Jaiyeola, Sunday Adesanya and Abiodun Omotoso.