Democracy cannot survive without a free press, but around the world the press is under siege. It is under attack in my country, the United States, and it is under attack in Nigeria as well. The World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, said in 2016 that, “there has been a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels.”
In 2016 Nigeria dropped in it’s ranking from 111 to 116 (out of 180 countries), and the United States ranked only 41st. The Obama administration, for all of its accomplishments, targeted whistleblowers – those who released sensitive information related to counter-terrorism – and the incoming Trump administration has promised to reduce the freedom of the press even further.
Next door in Cameroon, press restrictions have reached dangerous levels. Journalists have been arrested, newspapers banned from publishing, and Internet access restricted in large parts of the country. In November 2016, the speaker of Cameroon’s National Assembly even called the use of social media “a new form of terrorism.”
Here in Nigeria, Reporters Without Borders have described us as a place where it is “dangerous for journalists to criticise the government’s inability to contain Boko Haram… Both local officials and police threaten and abuse journalists.”
Two nights ago, one witnessed another alarming example of this crisis of freedom. The Publisher of the award winning online newspaper, PREMIUM TIMES, Dapo Olurunyomi, was arrested. Happily, he has now been released. There is concern that his arrest is related to the news organisation’s investigation of charges of corruption against the military.
The role of the press – absolutely crucial in any democracy – is to inform and educate its citizens, to analyse and criticise the government and other institutions, and to highlight problems of corruption and incompetence and lack of accountability.
Freedom of the press, along with free and fair elections, civil liberties and political freedom, and the rule of law and due process, is one of the four pillars of democracy anywhere. Democracies fail when any of these pillars is destroyed.
I have worked with many of the journalists at the PREMIUM TIMES. I have the utmost respect for their honesty and integrity. They are working hard to improve Nigeria and to preserve the freedom and integrity we all wish for this country. Anyone concerned with democracy must support the freedom of the press.
Margee Ensign is President of American University of Nigeria and Chairperson, Adamawa Peace Initiative (AUN-API).