By Odimegwu Onwumere
The persistent struggle for a fair treatment of the rich and poor, particularly the way each camp voices out in a lopsided society, continues to challenge the populace. Not only it is complex to understand the voices of the poor by the rich, it gets more cumbersome applying human rights measures under the constitution to soften the differences.
The rich commands the voices that turn lives and the society around irrespective of how the press in Nigerian democratic dispensation captures the situations. This highlights the fact that some draconian measures commonly applied by the rich against the voices of the poor in Nigeria, are systemic and unconstitutional. It comes to what will be referred to as freedom of the press being no longer a guaranteed right for all citizens, but the rich.
There is a serious glitch here. It is because the press is not allowed as it should be to do its job in search of information and place its findings where they ought to be for diligent sense making. Nigeria in a democratic setting knows the importance of the “rule of law” and “due process” for playing professional roles to enable order and meaning to foster.
As this is not auguring well, it is critical; it is supposed to be said that the face of the press is being routinely manacled. Nigerians notice that their popular citizen journalists are being scuffled to flee. Underlying the scenario is the power of the rich to control the voices at play. The rich are not rethinking their undemocratic actions against the voices of the poor for the betterment of Nigerian people. The rich do not buy the notion for free and fair categories of press work being indispensable to the growth of democracy in Nigeria.
The Rich use falsehood against the Poor
What Nigerians have observed is rather the use of horrid and malevolent falsehood, indeed, a bludgeon of political opposition in the country, to humiliate the poor masses. For example, Mr. David Mark was the former Nigerian Senate President and a very influential person in Nigerian legislative politics. As part of measures to further the roaring voices of the minute rich against the immeasurable number of poor Nigerians, David Mark some years back on a Thursday, July 26 2012, called on the authorities to checkmate the use of social media in the country.
Nigerians have asked why? What was he insinuating if not to render the free electronic press to be outlawed? He was thinking that silencing the citizen journalism will offer him and his likes a selective journaling right to discuss issues of his own interest for Nigerian people in his own terms.
Criticism hurts but it brings at the same time some painful corrections and reflections for improvement. Given the alarming utterance from David Mark, the masses saw his grey move as insulting and going back to the dark ages. David Mark’s intention was to frustrate the dynamics of public criticism of government. Mark’s hindsight was that the media in foreign voices has been so hypnotised by influential people to chastise the government with voices for change and opportunity for good life. He proffered to let leaders live without the ills of their respective societies being hoisted in the air. It was Mark’s view to make the situation believable as a fad in Nigeria.
How the Rich use the media
Since journalism is a pool of voices of the masses, the rich has always advanced a clampdown on the voices of the poor. The rich has taken over the television, radio and print, which in the past constituted sundry forms of mass media outlets.
In this era of the Internet, the rich choose and decide which voice should be heard. The rich see their own voices as well-reasoned against the clattering voices of the poor. One may see the voices of the poor on a national issue as a sense of crowd mentality as opposed to the voices of the rich regarded as democratic voices. But it is ironic that only the rich go into politics and occupy positions of authority to speak for the vulnerable poor. Yet the poor are politically systemic and searchingly left desperate. Being poor is to become incredibly an inexpressible being.
Having said that, the rich systematically stereotype the voices of the poor as degrading popular opinion on the one hand, but the voices of the rich as supreme for action on issues on the other hand. Success is measured by what voice one can render. Only those who have amassed wealth and achieved a good quality of life can talk, the rest are to listen. The rich see the voices of the poor as not speaking at the right time, no matter the technological activism characterising the democratic sphere.
Is it not self-evident to say that the mass voices represent the oppressed population from the oppressor voices of the rich that are mostly heard on issues that affect everyone? Is it not the rich that move forward along with the political development compass by dragging on the poor masses to follow?
The Rich control the means
Modernity is not an infraction of being heard and counted but so it appears for the rich on the contrary. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Podcasts and so on, comprise the digital communication skills, yet, not even the clanging voices of the poor masses on the social networks have saved Nigerians from tumultuous politics of the few rich.
Cases where the few rich in the political arena read emails from the masses but quickly consider those emails as no useful voices but theirs must matter at will. The practices and changing moves of the rich are endless. The rich would prefer spending hours on the phone with their fellow rich people on grey areas of concern and in turn decide on what issues become law or not.
Nnabugwu Chioma, a sociologist echoing Karl Max, said that those that control the means of production consequently are those who control thought production too. The media is owned by the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production) and the media is the strongest weapon employed to control the thoughts and activities of the oppressed and vulnerable poor.
He added that the media defines the world as it is and helps to sustain the status quo ante. The bourgeoisie, owner of capital, determines who is heard and who is not. With the media they suppress every voice critical of the status quo. Even writers who are too critical of the established bourgeois culture don’t get published or advertised by the media. That is why you can be yanked off the social network if your thoughts are way off the mainstream.
Mark of inequality
It is obvious that the Internet technology has been in the world for decades now and statistics has shown that 4.4 billion people around the world are yet to have access to the internet. In earnest, the number represents the infinitesimal account of poor people from the huge data whose voices are not heard in this digital era. It is noticeable that the number of people who were connected to the internet, but are disconnected due to poverty, as it is a crying shame. Voice is heard of the capable only. Pay per voice matters.
A commentator on Ken Taylor’s work, a philosophical analyst, titled, Political Activism in the Digital Age, said, “Digital tools are definitely a mark of inequality; so how reliable is cyber activism to achieving certain goals? Not only that the fact of the cyber tools being so incredibly unstable and in constant evolution, it naturally causes generational gap regarding the use of these tools. Social and political activism mediated by the use of cyber tools from the comfort of one’s couch is surely happening, but could it be that we are facing an elitist type of activism that represents only a certain cyber elitists?”
As part of measures to show that the oppressed masses cannot influence the congress, the world witnessed when the European Union fingered Google Inc., of hostility on its market strength. What follows was the EU being bent on looking into suggestions to mirror the biggest Internet Companies in the world, just a week following the accusation.
In a report by Amy Thomson and Stephanie Bodoni of Bloomberg Business of May 4 2015, “The European Commission proposed rules for the technology industry with implications for everyone from room-sharing website Airbnb Inc., to e-commerce and search companies like Amazon.com Inc., and Google.com establishments.
It shows “in particular, that the EU’s executive arm will examine whether extra regulation is needed to curb Web companies’ market power, according to a draft of the proposal obtained by Bloomberg. The language echoes a separate four-year-old EU probe into Google’s power over the Web, which is looking at allegations that the company favors its own services and paid ads over rivals.” Can technology as power be limited to creating opportunities for voices of reason and participation?
Clampdown on the media
Conversely, the Nigerian military in 2014 clamped down on newspapers in what it tagged as “routine security exercise.” To suppress the voices of the poor from knowing what the elites said in the newspapers, thousands of copies of Leadership and Daily Trust Newspapers were confiscated in Minna, Niger and Sokoto State areas. In the South-West, distribution vans of The Nation Newspapers were impounded to unleash the melancholy of clash of interests.
Many Nigerians were surprised when the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan defended the military’s actions, while at the same time it exonerated Jonathan from giving such a censorious order. It came to knowledge that the Federal Government disallowed circulation of newspapers in the Federal Capital Territory and many parts of the country, apart from the cities mentioned above.
It is of note that The Punch Newspapers of June 7, 2014, pointed out how “Armed soldiers stormed the newspaper distribution centre at Gariki, ‘Area One’, Abuja, marching out marketers of media houses, distributors and vendors. They prevented marketers from off-loading newspapers from distribution vans that brought the newspapers to the centre. The soldiers searched each of the marketers, distributors and vendors, before allowing them to enter the centre.”
The Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Newspaper Distributors in Abuja, Oladipupo Moses, according to a document, said, “The distribution vans in custody of the soldiers included those of The Guardian, Leadership, Thisday, Daily Trust, Sun, Pilot, Newswatch and The Mirror. The soldiers, led by an officer in a green tracksuit, said henceforth, all the distributors and the vendors must operate with identity cards.”
The Rich suppress every voice critical of the status quo
Disturbed by such acerbic act of the soldiers, the Reporters Without Borders rebuffed the arrest of Journalist Tukur Mamu, with the controversy that followed the arrest with a warrant issued by an Abuja judge at the behest of FCT minister.
Calling on Journalist Mamu’s release, the international body involved said that the journalist’s arrest and initial transfer to an unknown location, constituted a grave violation of freedom of information, and for that reason, “we call for this journalist’s immediate release, urging the authorities to make public the charges against him.”
In October 2007, the publisher of a private newspaper, Weekly Events, in Akwa Ibom State, Jerome Imeime was arrested by men suspected to be agents of the State Security Service, (SSS). Imeime was charged with sedition, over a story critical of a local state governor. The masses question the audacity and hope of the press freedom in these situations.
Furthermore, “… it was the second time this year events were targeted by suspected government agents or supporters over its critical coverage of Governor Akpabio, according to CPJ research. In June, 15 armed men stormed the paper’s printing plant and seized about 5,000 copies of an edition alleging a criminal indictment against the governor. The authorities concerned denied their involvement in the raid,” as reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The international group added that in June 2006, the Director Imo Eze and Editor Oluwole Elenyinmi of the bimonthly Ebonyi Voice were jailed for two months on sedition charges over a story criticizing the governor of southeastern Ebonyi. The same month, African Independent Television (AIT) presenter Mike Gbenga Aruleba and senior Daily Independent correspondent Rotimi Durojaiye were also arrested and charged with six counts of sedition over a story about the Presidential Jet. The charges were the subject of a pending appeal by the defense before Nigeria’s Federal Court of Appeals, on the grounds that they are unconstitutional, argues the lawyer, Femi Falana.
War against the voices of the poor masses
The occupation of oppressing the voices of the poor by the rich perhaps earned Nigeria a ranking at 115 out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. As if that was not enough, on Wednesday March 25, 2015, the Nigerian military arrested two journalists working for news television, Aljazeera, in Maiduguri, Borno State.
The journalists whose names were given as Ahmed Idris and Mustafa Andy were later accused of loitering in areas where combat operations were still going on.
As part of measures in the war against the voices of the poor masses, a source said that the Nigerian military had, last year, cautioned journalists against unofficial movements in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe States, where it was fighting Islamic extremist sect known as Boko Haram.
What was experienced under the presidency of Jonathan against the voices of the poor masses was a play compared to what the Nigerian media experienced under the presidency of Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
In 2008 alone, Yar’Adua had publishers and editors from the Leadership Newspapers arrested. Sources said, “The newsmen were arrested by the police less than 24 hours after they had been interrogated by the SSS who in the recent past, shut down and arrested the journalists at Channels TV in September; arrested also were the Nigerian political bloggers Jonathan Elendu (who cannot leave Nigeria) and Emeka Asiwe (who has not been heard from since his arrest in October of that year).”
Prior to the arrests, the editors and journalists at Leadership Newspapers were interrogated by the Inspector General of Police, Mike Okiro, who ‘invited’ them to the Police Headquarters in Abuja. The journalists were then also ‘invited’ by the SSS, which reports directly to the President, for further interrogation over the course of several days, the source said.
Channels T.V, and a popular programme on African Independent Television (A.I.T), was proscribed by the Federal Government. In all of these instances, the offences of the journalists, editors and their newspaper houses, were not made known.
A Lagos-lawyer, Mr. Festus Keyamo, said in a public representation on the matter, that “The irresistible conclusion we can draw is that the Yar’Adua administration has refused to be an Open Regime where the flow of information is always guaranteed, leading to all kinds of speculations by the Press.”
Courts are not best equipped to defend the poor. There are cases were petty criminals are sent to long terms in prison while the rich who pilfered the public coffers are allowed to walk the street free. “Upholding the rule of law at all times” is certainly not for the rich. The rich gamble with the law to live above it.
The Rich do not respect Due Process
When the late President Yar’Adua was heading to Saudi Arabia for the ‘Hajj’, in 2008, for the purpose of protecting the voices of the rich, Nigeria’s military superiors were relieved of their jobs on allegations of coup attempts against the president within hours. The president’s party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), made the disclosure. The bane of the story was that the government did not want the poor to know that their president’s health had deteriorated. There and behold, instead of the supposed hajj mission it turned out that he was in Saudi Arabia for imperative kidney surgery, which the government, nonetheless, covered up.
This type of information handling will not happen in USA, Canada, Britain, Germany, Belgium, Australia and France among others where voices consist in the rule of law and the right to be informed in a democratic space. Inability to handle criticism does not mean that the press operators must be shut down and become incarcerated. President Jimmy Carter of USA just gave a press interview today (see CNN, Aug 20, 2015) explaining his health and prognosis of having a malignant cancer spread to his brain and treatment regimens planned for him. The history of his family with pancreatic cancer was highlighted. Can this happen in Nigeria with the press eager to track down the information for dissemination? Denial or refusal to reveal the state of health of a public officer is sufficient to call out the person on charges of lying, a felony, a crime that will make a political wave of pundit irascibility and criticism.
The Rich do not reverence the constitution
On March 28, 2014, a veteran journalist and associate editor with The Sun Newspaper, Mr. Ebere Wabara was abducted in his Lagos home, in a Gestapo-like manner, by police officers from the Abia State Police Command on the orders of Abia State Governor, for sedition.
In their continuous pursuit to be suppressing the voices of the poor, the rich wouldn’t abide by the dictates of many legal pundits, who have said that, the Law of sedition, agitation or rabble-rousing is a historical-object of imperial rule that passed away with colonialism. The rich would not listen even as foremost constitutional lawyer, Professor Itse Sagay (SAN), said the Court of Appeal abolished the Law over two decades ago.
“Sedition is a colonial law, which went away with colonialism. It was a law meant to protect the government from being brought into disrepute. Now we have a constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. As such, the law of sedition can’t co-exist with the provisions of the constitution on freedom of speech and expression. The Court of Appeal declared over 20 years ago that sedition has ceased to exist and that is the way it must be,” Professor Sagay said.
Human rights barristers like Fred Agbaje and Festus Keyamo, in their split capitulations enormously accede to Professor Sagay.
“The law of sedition, which is grounded in Section 61 of the Criminal Code, is one of the colonial laws Nigeria inherited. It must be treated as a replaced, rejected and discarded law. Under this seditious law, any publication that brings the government into disrepute is actionable. But in the State vs. Nwankwo in 1983, the Court of Appeal in Enugu declared the law as not only contrary to the constitution of Nigeria, particularly the provisions on freedom of expression, but also one law that can no longer stand the test of modern jurisprudence,” argued Agbaje.
On the part of Keyamo, “The court was vehement in its assertion that Nigeria is no longer the slave-yard that colonialists thought it was. The Court of Appeal has placed a nail on the coffin of the law. Where a writer exceeds his bounds, there should be a resort to the law of libel, for in fact, criticism is an indispensable right in a democracy.”
This dissertation has basically shown the importance of understanding Nigerians right to hunt for information and disseminate the same for performance, knowledge and empowerment. Nigerians have a right to express themselves in various ways as provided by the constitution of Nigeria. Freedom of press is a democratic tool. Public officers, elected and appointed, must be ready to allow professional story tellers, entertainers, and information writers to do their own side of the service of delivering insights, flashing out and correcting abuses, as well as fostering issues of public engagements for growth. It is not right to hinder information for that will amount to obstruction of knowing and growing competently. Mankind grows with what it knows.
Government is not a secret institution and political gladiators must from this submission understand that. Government workers must be aware of the fact that criticism brings correction and improvement and must be considered as part of doing one’s job for public interest and advancement.
A governor or a president who terrorises the press with libelous actions is not ready to work in good faith. To avoid criticism that will derail a government, the government needs to govern well and critically explain well all details of government programs and actions. A government should have nothing to hide.
The oath of office calls for leading in truth and to the best of one’s ability. So why get scared when the press is scrutinising what a government is doing or has accomplished to inform the governed? Nigerians call for a zero tolerance of hiding information for constructive education and empowerment of the people.
Odimegwu Onwumere is a Poet/Writer; he writes from Rivers State. (firstname.lastname@example.org). Tel: +2348057778358.