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Towards protection of journalists

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ACCORDING to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), in 2018, over 80 journalists were killed, with 49 deliberately wasted and 31 killed while on duty. Three journalists were reported missing, 60 held hostage and 348 detained.

This indicates an increase from the previous year which recorded 82 fatalities. The most dangerous countries for journalists in 2018 were Afghanistan with 16 fatalities and Mexico 11, followed by Yemen 9, Syria 8, and India 7.

This report features as the world celebrated the fundamental principles of press freedom. A day proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993 as a response to a call by African journalists who in 1991, produced the landmark Windhoek Declaration on media pluralism and independence.

The theme of the day, “Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation” aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 16 set by the UN General Assembly in 2015 which concerns issues of peace and democracy as preconditions for equitable and sustainable development.

The goal states that when freedom of expression and safety of journalists are protected, the media can play a vital role in preventing conflict and in supporting peaceful democratic processes. It therefore urges states to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.

However, ensuring the safety of journalists is the primary way by which we can foster the independence and freedom of the press, as being crucial for democracy.

Arising from its meeting to mark the day, the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), called for more protection for journalists before, during and after elections. In a statement signed by its President and Secretary, Funke Egbemode and Victoria Ibanga respectively, the guild noted that this year’s theme provided an opportunity for stakeholders in the global democracy enterprise to re-examine the contributions of journalists to the propagation and sustenance of democracy.

It called on relevant authorities in Nigeria to begin to see journalists as partners in development and voice of the voiceless rather than treat them as meddlesome interlopers and enemies of the people.

While making reference to growing deaths among journalists, including denial of their fundamental right to life in the course of discharging their duties, the body appealed to Nigerian security agencies to ensure the safety of all journalists ,especially during elections.

The body noted that the media has the capacity to support peace and reconciliation processes among political actors, hence should be allowed to play its constitutional role. It regretted that there was a clear and present threat to achieving that goal and referred to global statistics to support its crusade for the protection of journalists.

According to the group, “the International Federation of Journalists noted that in 2018 alone, at least 94 journalists were killed across the world. The 2018 figure indicates an increase from the previous year which recorded 82 fatalities.”

The guild condemned modern day leaders whom it said “do nothing except denounce the media as biased to the extent that factual information reported by the press is now termed ‘fake news’ to the detriment of the journalism profession.”

Speaking on how journalism can rise above emotional content and fake news during elections, a communication consultant, Senoir Fellow at the School of Media Communication, Pan African University and Pioneer Managing Director, Anambra Newspaper and Printing Corporation, Josef Bel-Molokwu, noted that elections are largely about emotions, and emotions often peak at frenzied levels, especially in societies like Nigeria’s where elections are winner-take-all issues.

This, according to him “gives the press the heavy responsibility to rise above partisanship, irrespective of media ownership and structure.

It is partisanship that engenders undue emotionalism, which, in turn, spawns false reportage and malicious commentary but if the press could resolve to eschew partisanship, the twin evil of emotional and false writing would be, at least, minimized. However, in the contemporary society, journalists face all forms of hazards such as killing, maiming, imprisonment as well as verbal attacks.”

To counter speeches meant to demean journalists, Dr. Molokwu, who is also the former Director-General of the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria, advised journalists to hold their heads high, and perform their duty with optimum decorum and integrity, resisting banal flaws like corruption and cringing which will help journalists to command respect from all quarters, and at all times.

On the role of the media in sustaining democracy, he opined that the mass media in well-structured societies are synonymous with democracy. “They hold the ace as to what democratic principles should be. In fact, I call the press the ‘First Estate of the Realm, not the Fourth’, as espoused in Britain, and upheld everywhere through the ages. The Press must self-correct in every society, so that it can objectively set and uphold lofty agenda, without fear or bias.”

Responding to the issue of applying the electoral regulations to the internet for democracy to thrive, he said, “though, no special rules or regulatory instruments need to be drawn up for Internet-based media channels in electioneering, the worry about “controlling Internet media content” in electioneering is largely unfounded.

The point is that the Internet is merely an expander and accelerator of media content and channels. In other words, they are mass media, just that they are broader and faster. The rules governing what we now call the traditional or conventional media, visa vis elections, should automatically apply to the web-based media and the practice thereof.

“I think the custodians of media regulatory mechanisms are merely so frightened by sheer magnitude and speed of the Internet that they imagine that new, special sets of regulation networks need to be created. The versatility of the World Wide Web, in itself contains inherent tools that can be effectively used to contain the abuses occasioned by non-media persons violating media practice norms.

That is where the crux of the challenge lies: the abuses we notice in elections media content – especially on social media platforms – are largely not by media professionals, but by enthusiasts driven by many forces, including imagining themselves to be journalists.

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