By Taiwo Okanlawon
”Keeping Power in Check; A conversation on the Shrinking Media and Civic Space in Nigeria” was the theme at the Colloquium and public presentation of “Testimony To Courage,” Essays in honour of Dapo Olorunyomin, a veteran journalist and publisher of Premium Times which held at NECA Hall, Ikeja Lagos on Thursday.
The panel discussion which was moderated by a renowned journalist and author, Kunle Ajibade, had eloquent speakers such as a veteran journalist, Richard Akinnola; Country Director, Amnesty International, Osai Ojigho; constitutional lawyer, Jiti Ogunye; civil rights activist and Executive Director, Enough is Enough Nigeria, Yemi Adamolekun.
Speakers at the event, including journalists, lawyers, authors and members of the civil society berated the President Muhammadu Buhari administration for the attack on press freedom.
Special Guest at the event, former lawmaker, Senator Shehu Sani, lamented that the current administration was worse than the former for its autocratic tendencies.
In his words, “Keeping power in check is of importance most especially in this stage of our history.”
“Twenty years ago, toward 1999 elections, there was this belief among many Nigerians that democracy will usher in a new era of freedom of liberty, of justice. In the last two decades, we have seen how that belief, how that expectation, how that desires have slowly evaporated in our history and in our lives.
“In this country today, we have seen how those who were at the forefront of the war against authoritarianism have now transformed themselves doing far worse than those they have inherited power from,” he added.
The former senator said the Federal Government’s aim by bringing bills that would regulate the activities of NGOs and now of social media was to achieve silence when presiding over the people’s affairs.
“You are not sure of your release if you’re arrested because court orders mean nothing to them and this can fester and grow as long as there are fear and silence and I think it is important for each and every one us to know that the future of our democracy is dependent on decadency, we must not shy away from the truth, political parties as they exist today cannot defend democracy,” he said.
Renowned poet, Odia Ofeimun, while delivering his keynote address at the event said an illiterate society could not keep power in check, while leaders who did not do well, by pursuing “perpetrators” only complicated matters.
He also said much of what was described as hate speech would have been accepted as debatable topics in a normal society.
“There’s no way a government in power will do the work they are meant to do the right way. We have to make them do it our way,” he said.
Earlier, the President of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, Chris Isiguzo, said Nigerian journalists were facing tough times under the current administration.
He said, “this is not the best time to be a journalist in Nigeria in view of what is already going on but we are not going to shy away from our duty of holding government accountable.
“The main ingredient of democracy is the media, free press, respect for rule of law, these are gradually declining in our society but no matter what, we are not going to allow political actors to derail this democracy, no matter what it takes, we will remain committed.”
Isiguzo further said that lack of tools to work with and good pay made Nigerian journalists’ job arduous unlike in other climes.
“It is said that the media in Nigeria are not doing well but I always disagree with them because for us in Nigeria, it is like to racking water from stones. If we compare what is available to our contemporaries in other climes, you will agree with me that we remain the best not just in Africa, but one of the best in the world.”
“It is only here that a journalist gets job and he will start working without working tools but even at that, we still remain committed. Many of our colleagues are still currently being owed arrears of salary,” he said.
Isiguzo, however, vowed that the union was ready to engage media owners currently owing their workers, using Alternative Dispute Resolution to make sure that their workers were paid what was commensurable.
On her part, Olabisi Deji-Folutile, a former Editor, Saturday Punch and a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors said the country was currently in an era where criticism could be misinterpreted as hate speech.
“This is not the best of times for media and civil rights organization in Nigeria. For those who are out there, the fear is palpable. We are in an era where whatever constructive criticism could be misinterpreted as hate speech and these have set a lot of people in fear. According to reports, 19 journalists are in various detention across the nation,” she said.
Deji-Folutile further said every lover of democracy should be genuinely concerned about what was happening in Nigeria, charging them to make sure the Nigeria leaders were not turned to autocrats.
“Democracy thrives in an atmosphere of a free press and what happens when you cannot criticize, when you cannot say anything against the government of the day?”
A constitutional lawyer, Jiti Ogunye during the panel discussion said the current democracy was incapable of being grown, saying the country must work hard to replace it with the one that could be grown.
“You only keep power in check if you have the power, but we don’t have that power to check here in Nigeria,” he said.
Another panelist, Richard Akinola also confirmed that the judiciary under this democratic dispensation was worse than the judiciary in the military era.
“I can sight endless examples that show that the judiciary was independent,” he said.
The chairman of the occasion, a human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, in his remarks said the attack on free press in the country might be over a third term agenda by the Federal Government.
“The media must not be silenced. You may have a third term campaign soon. Very soon, they will destroy all possible opponents. And by the time they bring in the third term agenda, the media would have been gone. But we are not going to allow it. No dictatorship can defeat the Nigerian people,” he said.
He also accused Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu of the Abuja Federal High Court of bias against his client, Omoyele Sowore, saying the judge had already sentenced Sowore and Bakare, without trial by confining their movement to Abuja.
He, however, noted that steps were being taken for the matter to be moved from the court and Abuja in particular since the alleged crime was not committed there.The lawyer said Nigeria had “gone to the dogs” and only the media could help.
He stated, “Nobody has been given the kind of bail (condition) Sowore was given. All those who looted the treasury have never had their movement restricted. Sowore has been granted bail, but his movement has been restricted to Abuja. His family is in America. He does not live in Abuja. He has no house in Abuja. Yet, he has been asked to stay in Abuja. The trial may last for 10 years, but he cannot leave Abuja. It has never happened in Nigeria before. Sowore has been banned as a journalist from speaking. As a politician, he cannot address a rally until the case is determined. We don’t know how long it will last.”
Falana said since he had been practising law for 37 years, he had never witnessed the sort of drama that transpired in the court on Wednesday during the trial of Sowore.