By Clarion Oyeronke
Freedom of expression is essential in a free state. As such, freedom of the press to speak truth, uncover information and demystify opinions without being gagged should be absolute and germane with a strong sense of responsibility in a democratic secular state like Nigeria.
The press has been seen as an arm that is responsible for surveillance and a correlation function in the society. The role of the press is not only invigorating, it functions much more than gathering of news and dissemination of information. This has become more apparent today as there have been both covert and overt vices endangering the society, which are mostly corrected by the effort of the press.
The press, through broadcast programs and the printing press, interprets information about events in the environment and give prescriptions for action in response to these events.
However, in Nigeria, the emergence of the principle of freedom of expression affiliated with liberty of the press could be traced to the recommendations of the Minorities Commission of 1957, which stated that the Fundamental Human Rights, which freedom of expression is a necessary part of, should be inserted into the Constitution. This led to the entrenchment of the freedom of expression in section 24 of the 1960 independence Constitution. Same is also provided for, in section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 , as amended. This section, states that: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”. This Constitutional backup therefore entrenches the rights of freedom of the press. Therefore, Nigeria as a nation should give room for independent press without any interference or threat thereof.
The libertarian theory of the press also recognized the press as the “fourth estate of the realm.” That is: the Legislature, the executives, the judiciary, then the press. This theory postulated free press without the interference of the state as they serve to check the excesses of all the other arms in the pursuit of information disemmination. Here, an the press is free to publish what it uncovers. This theory has indeed done justice to how important a press should be in a democratic state, in order, to checkmate and investigate the activities of other forms of governments for proper implementation. The press being associated with other organs of government serves as a watchdog. The press, is thus seen as an essential component of a rational society.
Absolute press freedom is important in a democratic state like Nigeria when openness without secrecy in her activities is considered. Every citizen is entitled to information about happenings in his society. Only the press has the skillset and professionalism needed to source for these happenings and in return provides adequate information to the public as at when due.
However, in our present day Nigeria, elected or appointed office holders, power bearers, are considered supreme and not to be opposed and criticize as though the press is subordinate to the state. Media houses today, especially government owned, carry out their duties in accordance to the states dictates. Attacks on authority is seen as an offence which could lead to assassination, suspension, sack, jail, etc. All these factors continue to pose as obstacle to the press from being socially responsible to the society – its independence lies not within but lies in the hands of governments in power.
The importance of the press and free press is a prerequisite to the existence of a total democratic society. The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free states (where freedom of information is manifestly prevalent) as observed by Sir William Blackstone. If the press is given the supremacy to source for the truth and compel it, vices like corruption, frauds, embezzlement, unaccountability will be dispensed. The press apparently is an important element to be considered in a country seeking development. It responsibilities emphasize on economic development such as social change, and nation building as it overriding objectives.
Nelson Mandela said, ‘freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it is demanded by the oppressed.’ Therefore, the press is demanding for the right to tell the truth and express certain opinions without being biased. There should be no form of interference or hindrance by existing government or threats to life and publications to the media. The press should be allowed to fulfill their duties with obligations to maintain the stability of the society. The press need that right to print what seems worthy without libel, and deep sense of responsibility to ensure public service. The media should be opened to anyone who has something to say, thereby, giving room for social development in the country. However the press while setting out it duties should maintain it’s professionalism, be aware of its editorial biases, and live up to the ethics and principles of best media practice and principles with the singular goal of speaking truth to power, expose all forms of vices, and serve public good in the best interest of all.