APPLYING THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION LAW IN MEDIA ROUTINES

Seeing mass media to operate without constraint especially from government and regulating agency is called press freedom and it has been a serious issue since the earlier days of the media establishment because of the power and position occupied by the mass media in the society. The mass media as an agent of mass mobilization, mass education, mass information and as an instrument of mass deception if used unjustly.

Due to the above notion of the press, government at different countries often finds it uncomfortable to allow the press to exist uncontrolled. The media is seen as a volatile and flammable that can ignite and fuel issues through its agenda setting power and its believability.   A free press is sin qua non to democracy and it is regarded as advanced level of freedom of expression and speech (Okoye, 2007).

The major determinant of the press freedom in most country is the government. The type of government and political system operating in a particular society determines how much freedom the press will enjoy. This also agree with the position of the Normative Press Theory according to Anaeto,  Onabanjo and Osifeso (2008) cited in Siebert, Schramm and Peterson (1956) stated that “the press takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates”. The press and other media, in their view, will reflect the “basic beliefs and assumptions that the society holds”. In the western liberal tradition, this refers to matters such as freedom, equality before the law, social solidarity and cohesion, cultural diversity, active participation, and social responsibility. Different cultures may have different principles and priorities.

The more liberal, free market and democratic a society is, the more freedom of expression and free media it operates. The control of the mass media is also known as regulation. Regulation refers to the whole process of control or guidance, by established rules and procedures, applied by governments and other political and administrative authorities to all kinds of media activities. Thus regulation is always a potential intervention in ongoing activities, usually for some stated “public interest” goal, but also to serve the needs of the market (for instance, by supporting competition) or for reasons of technical efficiency (for instance, setting technical standards) (McQuail, 2010).

Regulation takes many forms, ranging from clauses in national constitutions and laws to administrative procedures and technical specifications. Regulation can be internal as well as external. In the former case, we are usually speaking of `self-regulation’, where internal controls are applied, sometimes in response to public pressure or criticism from outside (Okoye, 2017).

Government attempts not only to control but to subjugate the press through obnoxious laws had been an enduring problem in the history of Nigeria Press. The press has been striving to wriggle itself out of these unfavourable laws, but the government believes that giving the press the freedom to operate as an independent entity may be suicidal.

Usually, government feels that it is logical to restrain the power of the press and if possible have a total control of the press. To government, the press is an instrument of people in power and should yield itself to their dictates. But the press fights fiercely to resist this obsequious stance government wants to subject it to because the press belief that they are to serve as watchdog of government and not to be used as government extension of ministry of information or for propaganda tool. This gives rise to clashes between the press and the government. While government uses its authority to subjugate the press, the press resists by remaining tenacious in its fight for freedom.

However, since the time of colonial masters, journalists and freedom fighters have been clamouring for press freedom which was not full given like they are enjoying in United States of American. In fact the nation’s 1999 constitution that was expected to provide this freedom was just the replica of the 1979 constitution where the freedom was just give and take, going by the section 22 of chapter 2 of the 1999 constitution as amended  as culled from Arowosegbe (2007).

“the press radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all-time be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contain in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the public”

 

The constitution gives the press a constitutional duty but failed to empower them by law until the recent, May 27 2011 to be précised, when the former President Goodluck Jonathan assented to a new Freedom of Information Act. “The Act is to make public records and information more freely available, provide for public access to public records and information, project public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy, protect serving public officers from adverse consequences for disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorization and establish procedures for the achievement of those purposes and related purposes thereof.

As good as this new Act, yet, many journalists and media outfits are still facing various challenges, tough time, intimidation and oppression from government agents especially the Nigeria police and DSS. On August 14th 2018, a Premium Times reporter, Samuel Ogundipe. The police alleged Ogundipe for the offences of theft and unlawful possession of restricted and classified documents inimical to state/national security that can jeopardise peace, breakdown of law and order capable of precipitating crisis in the country. The document has to do with the preliminary report of the Inspector General of Police to the Vice President who then acting as the President on the siege laid on the National Assembly by the Department of State Security a week earlier. Also, another journalist Jones Abiri was kept incommunicado in the DSS dungeon for two years until August 15th 2018 that he was released (Ogundipe, 2018).

It should also be recalled recall that last December 2017, the Nigerian Army had similarly accused Premium Times of ”unwarranted and serial provocative, unauthorized, libellous and defamatory publications against the person of Lt. Gen. T.Y. Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff and Nigerian Army counter-insurgency operations in the North East”. The police also invaded the Abuja office of the online publication and arrested Premium Times publisher, Mr Dapo Olorunyomi, and its judicial correspondent, Evelyn Okakwu, and took them to the headquarters of the Federal Capital Territory Police Command where they were held for several hours for charges bordering on criminal libel (Ogundipe, 2018).

What has become obvious from the foregoing is the intimidation journalists and media houses for writing stories which are considered embarrassing or defamatory to persons in positions of power and have failed to come to terms that we are in a democracy and that freedom of the press is the pillar on which other societal freedom rests and holds the sacred duty of holding government accountable to the people by shedding light in the dark places of government. To this end, the research examines the prospects and challenges facing journalists in Rivers state in applying the Freedom of Information Law in media routines.

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