By Bolanle Bolawole
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Celebrated and accomplished journalists and writers, lawyers of immense stature, and professionals of all hues are stripping themselves and dancing naked on the altar of political partisanship; even those who pretend at calling them to order are no less guilty of similar offences! In writing this, may I also not fall into the same miry clay! The stakes are high; the presidency of Nigeria is touted as the most powerful in the whole world and, perhaps, the least accountable both to the people in whose name it holds power and to reason and commonsense. “L’Etat, c’est moi” (“I am the State”) the apocryphal saying of France’s King Louis XIV, said on 13 April 1655 before the Parliament of Paris, is typical of whoever is the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Hence, the competition for power here is cut-throat. Just as Lawino, the character of Prof. Okot p’Bitek, graphically painted the picture in her “Songs of Lawino” in response to her husband, Ochol’s “Songs of Ochol”, only the barrel-chested, the brave, bold and audacious dare go to the political battle field where power is contested with all sorts of weapons brought to bear. Is that not why they say politics is a dirty game and that decent men and women should steer clear? The opportunity cost of such action is, however, grievous for, like Edmund Burke posits, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
I am, therefore, of the opinion that “good men” and good women should step into the murky waters of politics and participate fully for, if we fail to do so, we shall be leaving the field wide open to all manner of political hyenas and jackals and we shall, thus, lose our right to complain when good governance eludes the polity. Political apathy seemeth in recession and I am happy about it. More and more otherwise “I-am-not-interested-in-politics” persons are now picking up interest, not least of all Christians and their leaders who used to pour scorn on political participation. Participation in politics helps to make the political system healthy. Political theorists long ago concluded that when citizens take interest in the way they are governed and also in how their leaders are elected, the chances they will enjoy good governance – and that bad governments are punished – are enhanced. Punishment and reward remain the best weapons to influence the political behaviour of the elite or ruling class. Where this is slack or lacking, impunity reigns and good governance takes the back seat. In tandem, a society desirous of making qualitative progress must endeavour to be ruled by its best. Where the least qualified bear rule over their superiors, as we have witnessed in Nigeria time and time again, the tail cannot but wag the dog.
I was impressed, therefore, when I saw the quality of media professionals, allied and/or related professionals that were picked to manage the media of the two leading political parties – the ruling APC and the opposition PDP. I was, however, sorely disappointed when they started the mud-slinging that called their professionalism into question and threatened to ruin their hard-earned personal integrity. I, therefore, wrote “The rage of presidential spokespersons”, published in this same column of 30 October, 2022 (Page 22). My purpose, which was to remind the concerned spokespersons of their illustrious antecedents and heritage that must not now be destroyed on the altar of fleeting political patronage, was served. Our profession must not be allowed to go to the dogs. Responding, Festus Keyamo, SAN (APC) said: “Egbon, well noted. Correction taken!”. Aare Dele Momodu (PDP) said: “Well written as always, Sir!” Respect begets respect; so I thank my two brothers lined up against each other for agreeing that they can creditably discharge the onerous assignment thrust upon them in a decent and decorous manner. They have since lived up to that expectation. Responding to a similar concern I expressed to Dr. Femi Orebe, Dele Alake’s response was: “We know this but when a lie goes around a thousand times without rebuttal, it begins to sound like the truth. Bolawole’s recipe was ok in the old days without social media – not now” We shall return to that shortly.
Journalism is a very special and indispensable profession by virtue of the tasks entrusted unto it; hence, it is called the Fourth Estate of the Realm; the three other Estates being the Executive (First Estate); the Legislature (Second Estate); and the Judiciary (Third Estate).To underscore this importance, the Freedom of Information Act 2011 was enacted to protect press freedom as well as give journalists’ unfettered access to information deemed to be in the public interest. Contrary to what some ignoramus may think or say, this power is held in trust for, and exercised in the interest of the people and not in any way personal to the individual journalist. Journalists glean information only to serve it to the people – to inform, to educate, and to entertain. Hence, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States of America, was quoted as saying: ”And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter” (1787). Yet, Jefferson was said to be one of the most vilified presidents of the US by that country’s newspapers. Therefore, the fact that a leader is put under scrutiny or is even wrongly vilified by the media is not enough justifiable reason to clamp down on the media. There are enough laws in the statute book to deal with the excesses of the media, if any. Press freedom ought to be taken as given. Interestingly, the same rulers that clamp down on the media when they are in government always turn around when they are out of it to take advantage of the same media to enforce their rights! There is hardly anyone who pilloried the media while in government who, outside of it, did not leverage on the same media to fight against the abridgment of their rights or advance one cause or the other.
So, I took special interest as I read Azuka Onwuka’s “When media men attack press freedom for politicians” (The PUNCH, Tuesday, December 20, 2022, back page). For one, the headline was captivating. For another, the writer comes across to me as one brilliant, younger generation of writers the older generations of writers should be proud of. He started by quoting Evelyn Beatrice Hall, author of “Friends of Voltaire”, to wit, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. That quote, very germane to the question of free speech or freedom of speech, is also often set out this way: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it/I detest what you write but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write it” Zeroing in on Dele Alake and Bayo Onanuga, media buffs working in the corner of the APC presidential candidate, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Onwuka went down memory lane on the heroics of the two illustrious pen-pushers, especially in the fight against military dictatorship, leading to the attainment of the democracy that we enjoy today. There is no denying the fact that Onanuga and Alake paid a steep price, in company of many others, my humble self inclusive, to birth the democracy that we enjoy today; so Onwuka was right to praise them for that but trying stylishly to withdraw the same praise in another breath does not sit pretty with me.
Onwuka said: “These two men engaged in this fight against military dictatorship in their 30s. It is, therefore, incongruous and completely out of tune with character that such men who defended free speech in their 30s against powerful dictators would be fighting against media freedom in their 60s in defence of a politician” This statement is too sweeping; it is also totally incongruous with the evidence. I do not think Alake and Onanuga are fighting against free speech; on the contrary, as Alake posited above, and which I have come to see for myself as the presidential campaigns have progressed, they are fighting to defend their principal against stalking by political opponents and their (paid?) agents – and I consider this action of theirs legitimate. Stalking a politician is not free press. Is it by force that a man must talk to you or grant you interviews? Is he the only politician around? If he is not willing to talk to you for whatever reason, why not approach other politicians? There are too many of them around who are even begging for the opportunity; why the insistence that it must be this man or nothing? Stalking, I repeat, is not free press or press freedom!
Tinubu has his own media organisations: Is this how those ones have been stalking Tinubu’s opponents? Why insist, by force and by tulasi, that Tinubu must appear before you? If, as Onwuka himself admitted, every president since 1999 – Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Jonathan and Buhari – “had refused to attend televised debates”, why is it now an unthinkable offence that another politician is toeing the same line? Onwuka said our past presidents, in shying away from the media “had come up with different baseless excuses” But they won their election all the same! Does that tell you something about the limitations of media hype? Journalists who will speak the truth must admit that it is dangerous to submit to press grilling by unfriendly journalists. Now, it is trite that one of the factors capable of impeding press freedom is the ownership structure of any media. No media can go against the interests of its owners. I worked in government- as well as privately-owned newspapers. In none of them is “proprietary interest” treated with levity.
Furthermore, he who comes to equity must come with clean hands. If you own a media organisation in which you treat the staff as slaves; salaries are not paid, yet you live the life of royalty and now you mount the high horse and begin to pontificate on what is moral and what is not, you must be told to first remove the log in your own eyes before going after the speck in the eyes of others. Physician, heal thyself!
To conclude, it is not press freedom to stalk a politician. It is, in fact, a flagrant abuse of the awesome powers and privileges of the media. The journalists acting in that manner are acting unprofessionally and deserve to be called to order. They are the ones puting press freedom to the sword. They are the ones jeopardising free speech. Asking that they be sanctioned, like Alake and Onanuga are reported to have demanded, is, therefore, in order. And that does not in any way vitiate Dele Alake and Bayo Onanuga’s illustrious records as defenders of press freedom.
Last word: I wish my readers merry Christmas! In the midst of the “kosi-kosi” ravaging the land, may the All-sufficient God provide all our needs in His riches in glory in Jesus name! Don’t forget, you need Jesus to live a fulfilling life here on earth and to enjoy paradise in heaven.