National Interest and Freedom of Expression: Do the Media have the Teeth to Bite?

NEWS DIGEST – In Nigeria, apart from the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature, the media are regarded as the Fourth Estate of the Realm. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides freedom of expression as part of fundamental human rights. At the level of the African Union (AU), the right to freedom of information and freedom of expression is also recognized.

The Nigerian Constitution of 1999 (as amended) equally guarantees the freedom of expression, specifically Section 39 of the Constitution which assigns a constitutional right, power, role, obligation, and duty to the press. Nigerian Constitutions since then have upheld this role. Section 22 of the same Constitution recognizes the media as the “Fourth Estate of the Realm”.

It, therefore, means that the media oversees the government and its agencies, thereby keeping them on their toes. The Freedom of Information Act establishes that information should be made available and that citizens should feel free to express their personal views.

Surprisingly, the watchdog of the society is in the chain, and the million-dollar question is, if the watchdog of the society is in a chain, how will it bite? In other words, the investigators are being investigated, or the guidance in Nigeria is being guided. The inference could be drawn from section 39 of the 1999 Constitution, subsection 3, which states that “nothing in this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society for the purpose of public safety, public morality, or public order”. Invariably, the right given to the media by the “right hand” in section 39, subsection 2 has been also taken away by the “left hand” in subsection 3 of the same Constitution.

The implication of sub-section 3 in section 39 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution is that journalists have no entitlements to any right in the Constitution that is not available to other citizens. For example, it is unethical for journalists to disclose the sources of their information. But it will amount to Contempt of Court in Nigeria for a journalist to withhold information from a judge that would enable him or her to deliver justice on a case forming the basis of a judicial inquiry. This is because journalists have no legal entitlements protecting them against anti-press provisions in the 1999 Nigerian Constitution, unlike the US Constitution where journalists cannot be compelled by the judiciary to disclose the sources of their information.

Incidentally, the law of defamation, copyright, contempt of court, privacy, sedition, obscenity, among others also serve as an impediment to the practice of the journalistic profession in Nigeria. Assessing some of the comments and reactions I have read so far, these laws have removed the teeth of the watchdog on one hand, and on the other hand put the watchdog in the chain, which means that it can only bark but cannot bite.

In a democratic system, where the media can only bark, but cannot bite, it becomes difficult to achieve national interest in terms of development. However, in a democratic system where the watchdog is operating with the 32 teeth intact and is not in the chain, there is a tendency that corruption will not grow, as it will be eaten up by the watchdog. No wonder, Jefferson’s preference for “newspaper without government” over “government without newspaper” appears apt in this context.

Thus, for the media to have the teeth to bit, there is a need to put on a thinking cap by all Nigerians to ensure that the media are given the mandate to operate without much restriction or interference. Again, the chain that is on the watchdog neck must be removed, so that it can be able to run or go after people. There is no doubt that today, the guidance is being guided in Nigeria, and this may take one to the question of who guides the guidance in Nigeria? This question should remain a thorn in everyone’s mind for now as it will be addressed in the next article.

Aondover Eric Msughter, Department of Mass Communication,

Skyline University Nigeria

This opinion piece has been published on NEWS DIGEST with very minimal editing to preserve the original voice of the author. NEWS DIGEST does not bear any responsibility for the contents of this opinion as all views belong to the author.