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“THE ROLE OF THE PRESS AS A WORTHY HOPE OF NIGERIA PROJECT”,

THE PAPER DELIVERED AT THE INAUGURATION OF MUSTAPHA AKANBI FOUNDATION

BY

HON. SIDI HAMID ALI,

SEPTEMBER 12, 2006 AT THE BANQUET HALL, KWARA HOTEL, ILORIN.

Your Excellency, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki, Executive Governor of Kwara State, His Royal Highness, the Emir of Ilorin, retired Justice of the Court of Appeal, Alhaji Ibrahim Sulu Gambari, serving and retired Justices of our higher courts of Justice and distinguished gathering.

I feel highly delighted to be here and to participate in this August occasion of the official inauguration of the Mustapha Akanbi Foundation, a Non-Governmental organization, dedicated to delivery of social services to humanity. This to me and I believe to many others come with no surprise. He had always done what he believes in the interest of the less privileged.

Although I am in the midst of Mr. Justice Mustapha Akanbi’s people I believe a very few people know that before his appointment as Chairman of the Independent and Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences, he was the first President of the Court of Appeal, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court or State High Court or even the supreme Court who voluntarily retired before attaining the mandatory age of 70 years as stipulated by the constitution. This perfect gentleman and a jurist of international repute believe that his second in command was very competent to take over from him.

Before delving into the major part of my paper I must pay a tribute to this great jurist the retired Justice Mustapha Akanbi whose dedication to justice and rule of law knows no bound.

I know a case he handled as a practicing lawyer where the State Military Governor was all out to intimidate a top civil servant who he wanted to injure at any cost by using his executive power but Mr. Akanbi as a legal practitioner, felt the need to fight against such injustice and was the only lawyer after five others that were contacted to handle the case had declined it for not wanting to be in the bad book of the Military Governor.

The Lawyer Mustapha handled the case with all seriousness until the man was discharged and acquitted. Another social service Mr. Justice Mustapha affected reconciliation between a lawyer father and his son who the father had earlier rejected and people feared to intervene. But due to Akanbi’s intervention, the problem was resolved.Today the young boy is not only a practicing lawyer but is the head of his father’s highly respected Law firm.

It is common knowledge that when Justice Akanbi was in Kano, he was the poor man’s lawyer. He refused to accept retainership from Bayyajida Amenity trading Company just because he believed that accepting the retainership offered him would be to the disadvantage of the persecuted poor customer/ agents who were often unjustifiably prosecuted in Area Courts. He was known to have taken up cases against a Federal Minister and a District Head he believed were oppressing the “talakawas”.

To come back to the subject of this presentation, the role of the press as a worthy hope in the Nigeria project, we need to look back at the fact that the rise and triumph of Nigerian and African Nationalism during the 1940s and 1950s have been greatly inspired by the role of the press. It is on record that numerous articles, copious books and the electronic media such as broadcasting have all made great impact in the aspects of our history attracting, in the process, wide-ranging interpretations on major issues of our time.

Far back in 1984, I wrote an article which I later developed into a book on the subject of WAI, which I defined as an ideology of the moral rectitude on pages 43 to 45 as follows:
“ Nigeria has a peculiarly interesting press structure which has for a long time presented a difficult problem to our rulers. Under the colonial regime, our national press was an organ of all out opposition, constantly opposing agents of colonial rule. The independent moves led to the birth of nationalist and anti- imperialist newspapers that serviced as vanguard of awakening of the masses.

But some of our leading journalist (national committee) when they were appointed to the editorial chairs (most people) contributed so much to the calamities that befell us as a nation.

 Under civilian rule our press retained the freedom to expose the wrongdoings of those in power. That was a great service in the national interest. But under Military rule, the press played it cool and, to a great extent, to the gallery.
Although the Balewa government had been praised for its moderation and good government, when it was overthrown the same press turned against it. We were told that although Prime Minister Balewa was not corrupt, he accommodated corrupt people. When General Yakubu Gowon became Head of State, he was lauded as God- fearing. But when he fell, we were told he was a dictator and a playboy.

No group of professionals has been subjected to so much hatred, mistrust, suspicion and abuses as Nigerian journalists. They have been criticized and divided by all sorts of people during both civilian and military administrations. Even one time journalist, who became top government functionary, Mr. Ayo Ogunlade, former Federal Commissioner of Information, has had cause to pitch camps against practicing journalists. Always the central theme has been what the real role of journalists should be. It is an age-old controversy. No one can be dogmatic about it.

The fact is that Nigeria has produced some great journalists of whom the country can be justly proud. We have also produced some rotten and lousy journalists. We have journalists who write trash, what in their opinion is what they believe the public want. They are not interested in the truth. Such journalists operate against the true discipline and ethics of their profession, which is to champion the cause of social change for the common good, and reflect the true aspirations of the generality of the people.

Although the colonial and post-independence era are long gone, regrettably, the ghosts of that era still haunt many people when thinking about journalists in relation to government. Many journalists still see their functions in the context of the colonial experience. They still see the government and its agencies as the enemies of, and instructor servant for the oppression of  the society. They base their negative attitude on the antiquated view that “ a true journalist that respects this profession could not be associated with such diabolical institution that symbolizes the common woe”.

There is also indeed the common, but untenable, belief that journalists in government are, by and large, sycophants, incapable of exercising their freedom and independence of expression. Those who put forth such views betray a pitiable ignorance of the true roles of journalists as moving forces in the process of positive social change and social progress.

It is not controversial writers, who incite one group against the other and screaming headlines in the media, who are true journalists. It is true that some journalists are comfortable and feel important only when their names are associated with controversial journalists should work for the government, and thereby sacrifice the glamour and fame that come from working in the commercial or private partisan mass media.

When journalism is seen as both an institution and an instrument of social change, then it becomes obvious that journalists cannot be anti-government agents, for to be that is to be against the very essence of the profession. It is not only contradictory in terms, It is also unspeakably absurd.

For journalists to be true to their calling, they must be responsible citizens. That means they must be totally committed to the welfare and progress of the country and its entire people: they must be patriotic and loyal to the government of the country. And patriotism and loyalty are not synonymous with sycophancy. Criticisms and disagreements there must be, but they must be constructive and objective and must be expressed without malice or bitterness. We can not deny one fact and that is today Nigeria is at a cross road that we must all put our hands together to see to the ultimate. We need to believe that, we can not run away from the fact that took place in 1938. At that time an eminent Nigerian Journalist was persuaded by Lagos elites of those days to context for a seat at Lagos City Council which was vacated by the famous Mr. Abayomi who was going to Britain for studies. The late Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe an Ibo man sponsored a Yoruba Mr. Akinsanya. The election was hotly contested with Ibos supporting a Yoruba man while Yorubas were all out for an Ibo man. Mr. Ikoli won. The next thing was the statement that Akinsanya lost because of tribalism. He used his press power to send that idea. We can therefore not run away from the role the press has played and continues to play in the political and economic life of this country. Freedom of the press in Nigeria is a topic, which cannot be exhaustively treated without delving into the country’s march to nationhood. It is therefore a topic that is as controversial as the concepts of democracy, social justice and even freedom itself. We must all agree that, cast or disseminate information is the right to publish, print, broadcast or disseminate information in any form with responsibility, without outside interference, censure, or control. It is important to note the key concepts here-to disseminate news with responsibility and without outside interference, censor, or control. Now what constitutes responsible dissemination of news without interference? This is where the problem of press freedom starts: in its definition.

Freedom of the press is closely allied with freedom of religion and of speech, since it is an extension of spoken opinion or beliefs. It is also based on the right of citizens to have free access to information on public issues and other areas of human inquiry. But then, should press freedom be absolute? What, if any, are the limits that have to be placed on this freedom? How far can one go in the exercise of this freedom? Certainly, one should not publish material that is offensive to public morality or intended to defraud. At times of war or some other form of emergency, it may be necessary to restrict or censor the press to ensure that no information that may be used to detriment of society is disseminated.

Freedom of the press is therefore not absolute; it is conditional within the context of its exercise. The profoundness of this problem is better appreciated when we consider that there is no unanimity among the nations of the world as to what press freedom actually is.

“The citizens of the USSR are granted by law freedom of the press” and the USSR information services and press such as Radio Moscow, Pravda etc have never relented in their attacks on the Western nations “for monopolizing vital information against the interest of the exploited masses.” The Constitution of the United States of America states that: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press, or of the right of the people peacefully to assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances”. Of course, the United States press believes it is the freest in the world and that the defunct socialist press believes it is the freest in the world and that the defunct socialist press was only a spoken spies of the government.

Media organizations are established by governments or private interests for the purpose of disseminating ideas and information; yes, but doing so from a certain viewpoint, which may be formal or informal, conscious or unconscious. Viewpoint, whether this is right or wrong is immaterial; I simply state it here as an incontrovertible fact. When an editor selects news items for broadcast, he does not do so on basis of some value-free principle. Even when a journalist, as Albert Camus advises, has dedicated” his work to the cause of the truth and human freedom rather than dancing to the tune of his sponsor”, he finds himself subconsciously informing and communicating with his sponsor’s publishing goals. 

However, just as important as the right to publish without interference, is the obligation and the duty to publish with responsibility. The test of the journalist lies in his or her ability to recognize the nuance, the delicate balance between a different presentation of information and a misleading and fraudulent presentation; between exercising this right to publish, and exercising self- censorship, guided by the over-riding consideration of improving society. The challenge to the journalist is to be able to recognize the difference between reflecting his sponsor’s legitimate viewpoint, and abetting him in anti-populist and anti-state actions, and the courage to say no, and if necessary, quit with dignity.

We thank the Almighty God that the role of the press had indeed been acknowledged when the Federal Government operatives openly claimed that the loss of the constitutional extension or third term as is popularly called was defeated because of the role of the press. This view cannot be denied as the constitutional amendment affected over 110 sections, yet all the public were fed with was the third term agenda. This clearly shows the truth that the press in indeed a mass communicator with unique role. It is a medium that educate, inform and entertain which at the end leaves impressions on the minds of its readers for the progress of society if honestly delivered.

 

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