Information As A Public Good And The Quest For Press Freedom

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The theme for the World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2021 is “Information as a public good” per UNESCO, and the day was observed in Nigeria as elsewhere according to tradition. It is a day to Promote the Freedom of the Press, to Fight Against Oppressive or Tyrannical Governments that seek to curtail this fundamental right, and also a day to honour our fallen heroes – innocent journalists like Dele Giwa, Bagauda Kaltho and Chinedu Offoaro who lost their lives at the hands of brutal dictators or “disappeared” on account of simply discharging their duties! We pay tribute to the likes of Tunde Thompson and others who spent years in jail, for simply doing their work as journalists during the dark days of military dictatorship in Nigeria. We pay tribute to functionaries of the Newswatch Magazine, Tell Magazine, the Guardian, Tribune, Punch, Champion, Vanguard, and Daily Trust Newspaper among other print media outfits that risked everything in the course of providing space for champions and advocates of democracy and free speech, through those years often describes as “years eaten by the locust.”

Yes, I agree with Lanre Arogundade that “there cannot be information for public good where journalists are in chains!” Yes, there cannot be information for public good when governments or agencies of government routinely weaponize the law, to punish individuals and group that express dissenting views. We cannot have information for public good when journalists and media houses are targeted mainly for uncovering uncomfortable truths, reporting failures of government or exposing high level corruption.

What is a public good? “Public Good,” also known as “the Common Good” is one of the nine cardinal principles in the Catholic Social lexicon, along with: the principle of Human Dignity and Inviolability, Participation, Distributive Justice, Peace & Non-Violence, Subsidiarity, Preferential Option for the Poor and the Vulnerable, Solidarity, and Human Stewardship over Natural Creation. In this lexicon the common good is defined as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as individuals or as groups, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.”

In ordinary political discourse Common or Public Good refers to those provisions and facilities – whether material cultural or institutional – that a community provides to all members in order to fulfil a relational obligation. They all have to care for certain interests that they all have in common. Typical examples of the common good in a modern liberal democracy include: the road system; public parks; police protection and public safety; courts and the judicial system; public schools; museums and cultural institutions; public transportation; civil liberties, such as the freedom of speech (which includes the press freedom) and the freedom of association; the system of property; clean air and clean water; and national defense. The term itself may refer either to the interests that members have in common or to the facilities that serve common interests. For example, people may say, “the new public library will serve the common good” or “the public library is part of the common good”.

(See Waheed Hussain, “The Common Good,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/common-good/). Societies are organised, and governments exist, fundamentally to protect, to promote and to defend the public good. The whole raison d’etre of the modern state is the realisation of the common good of all.

And how is information a “common” or “public good?” In 1954, Paul Samuelson, then a young economist defined public goods as “…those which we all enjoy in common in the sense that each individual’s consumption of such a good leads to no subtractions from any other individual’s consumption of that good.” In other words, a public good is non-rivalrous in consumption – A’s benefit of it, does not deny B access to it. A public good is also non-excludable in the long run in the sense that A’s access to it does not pose a threat to B. When there is exclusivity of access, that is when one party can prevent the other from the use of a public good. This is potentially a situation that leads not to public good, but public bad or public evil. Exclusivity could be in the form of secrecy, insistence on property rights over the public good, or the use of power or advantages to shut others out, and deny them access, either by force or coercion.

Information a public good: UNICEF has chosen this as the theme for the World Press Freedom Day 2021. This is a follow-up to the key message for the 40th anniversary of UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication on 24th November 2020. The theme is well-articulated by Joseph Stiglitz, American, and leading expert in the economics of information and globalization, who has argued that “information is a public good… and (as) a public good, it needs public support”. We shall interrogate this a little further.

From the traditional communities when early man used his voice to communicate with others in his community, to the Guttenberg Revolution of the 16th century which produced the printing press, the emergence of the computer and latter-day cybernetic revolution, information has always been at the centre of culture, knowledge, and the advancement of humanity. Information is central to the knowledge ecosystem. It is a critical tool for human self-expression, human empowerment and ultimately human actualisation. It has been established that access to information is a fundamental human right in global order, and in most jurisdictions including Nigeria; an acknowledgment of individual’s rights, and the importance of the media as a vehicle for promoting that right. Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria in defining the obligation of the mass media states: “the press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility of the Government to the people”. The Chapter of the 1999 Constitution under reference here is Chapter Two, titled “Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy”. The main assignment of the media is information dissemination, analysis, agenda-setting, knowledge diffusion, and entertainment. Section 22 acknowledges the value of information in the governance and democratic process and as a key tool of development in all ramifications.

The right of an individual to be part of this process is later upheld in the same Constitution in Section 39 wherein it is stated that “without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions”. **This idea of the media and free flow of information is on all fours with the American Constitution, the First Amendment thereof. But more importantly,** Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) describes information as “the oxygen of democracy”, and most essentially, a human right. Many other international organizations including the African Union, the Council of Europe and the Organization of American States hold the same position that the right to freedom of information is sacred and inviolable. Internationally, the standards and the basic principles with regard to right of access to information include people’s rights, obligation of the state to publish information, to be transparent and accountable, and to run an open government, to ensure good governance, to run a limited scope of exceptions where applicable, to provide mechanisms for facilitation of access, as well as adequate mechanisms for the protection for whistle-blowers.

The ideological acknowledgment of the value of information as vehicle for achieving these standards and principles has led to the emergence of a Freedom of Information regime within the international system. The desideratum is that the people have a RIGHT TO KNOW. If the people are informed, then they will be more knowledgeable about how their societies are governed; they will be able to ask questions, to demand information, and to use the media and other non-state instruments (to compel institutions of state) to enforce their rights under the Constitution.

Challenges

The biggest challenge to the people’s right to know has been the refusal of authority systems at various levels of state to allow that part of the international covenant to flourish. The depth and scope of this has varied over the years among jurisdictions and media systems. Dictatorial governments, including some of those with pretentions to democracy have routinely adopted repressive measures, legislative processes, economic policies, and sheer use of force to debar or restrict the people’s access to information. Whereas international covenants refer to “limited scope of exceptions,” usually with regard to national security, privileged state information, or doctor-client confidentiality etc, many governments have opted for a regime of secrecy and repression. Nigeria provides a convincing illustration in this regard through the following among other instances:

The Official Secrets Act of 1962 (No.29 of 1962 Laws of the Federation) (see AG Federation vs. Dele and Concord Press). In 2011, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan passed into law a Freedom of Information legislation. This was hailed as a major breakthrough for the information regime in Nigeria, but the state has since then continued to act as if it is still under the old military regime, even if the FOI Act states clearly that it supersedes the 1962 Official Secrets Act.

Some of the repressive decrees imposed on Nigeria’s information space include: Newspapers (Prohibition of Circulation) decree no 17 of 1967, Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree No 11 of 1976, Newspaper (Prohibition of Circulation) (Validation) Decree No. 12 of 1978, and the infamous Decree No 4 of 1984.

Under the military in Nigeria, journalists were routinely harassed, abused, media houses were often shut down, and newspapers were seized and destroyed. Since the return to democratic rule in 1999, not much has changed. As recently as October 2020, in the course of the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, journalists ended up as victims. At least one media house in Lagos was set on fire. Journalists were detained for simply doing their work. To ensure that information serves its purpose as public good, those in the business of information dissemination must have the freedom to do their work.

It is important to note that the conflict between the people’s right to know as guaranteed by the Constitution, and promoted by the media, and the unholy determination and desperation by authority figures to annul or circumscribe the people’s rights on the grounds that they do not have the need to know, has been responsible in large measure for our continued experience of misgovernance, authoritarianism, unrelenting corruption among public officers, in Nigeria and such other countries where the right to freedom of information is not duly recognised and protected. The attempt to impose exclusivity rights over news by states and powerful institutions, amounts to using information for public evil rather than public good. Now, what should be done to turn information into the public good that it is meant to be?

Digital Disruption of Information Transmission: A Turning Point

There have been major turning points in the global information ecosystem but perhaps the most impactful would seem to be the “technical reproduceability of the age” as defined by Walter Benjamin. The emergence of the cyberspace or cybersphere has changed the information space as we knew it. Technological innovations have now created new norms:

An information age, which generates information at the speed of light. The speed is now so frenetic that it is difficult to keep up with it.

Interactivity and networked technologies have produced a convergence system that threatens the print media. Are we on the verge of witnessing the “death of the print?” This is something that was unimaginable a century ago. But should we allow the newspaper to die? Shouldn’t newspapers be reinvented in digital format in keeping with the spirit of the age?

News was something we waited for, but not anymore. News now travels at the speed of light! A decade ago, we talked about the emergent 24-hours news cycle. That has now become obsolete. News now goes viral with the touch of the button or a computer click.

We are in the age of the citizen journalist, and the democratization or liberalisation of information, with its many implications that must be constantly interrogated by media practitioners and non-practitioners alike.

This is a new age, the digital age, the age of the new media. Everything has changed: the way we conceive and manage the social contract, the way we participate in politics, the way we do business, the way we engage in teaching and learning; even media theory and the economics of information too. Everything is constantly changing.

Have we arrived at Nirvana? Perhaps not. It will be wrong to assume so. The cybernetic revolution in information has brought its own challenges as well, and perhaps therein lies the biggest threat to the promotion of information as a public good. While the democratization of news, the elimination of exclusive rights to information, the empowerment of the citizen, a re-mapping of the global information order, are enticing fall-outs of the new information trajectory, these are not without new challenges. We can reflect on a few:

The rise and proliferation of FAKE NEWS, MISINFORMATION and DISINFORMATION. The golden rule in information processing and distribution has been accuracy, truthfulness, objectivity and fairness, but now that everyone is a journalist, and the ownership of a smart phone creates an unrestricted and undeterred access to a global information gateway via Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Webo, etc, anyone at all, in any corner of the world can manufacture news, garnish or manipulate such news and then broadcast it. Not even major global institutions and systems are safe.

The democratization of information has not necessarily reduced the resolve of authoritarian governments and state actors to limit access to information. Many countries have introduced social media monitoring applications, and others have introduced repressive legislations to curtail access. In Africa, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia and Cameroon have had to cut off internet services at one point or the other in the last three years. Nigerian legislators have attempted several times in the last few years, and in spite of widespread public rejection, they are yet to given up on the “Social Media Bill,” which was re-christened as the “Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.” Indeed many governments in Africa and elsewhere constantly seek to restrict access to the internet, and ignore the value of media diversity and plurality.

Saving the Information Ecosystem: What to Do

Joseph Stiglitz, quoted above, says as a public good, information “needs public support”. Yes, but how? A few suggestions:

Multilateral organisations and sub-national actors must continually insist on the right to information as a universal human right as indicated, and agreed upon, in international covenants.

National parliaments must exercise appropriate watchdog functions with regard to the right to information and good governance.

Civil society organisations must develop the capacity to protect the civic space, and to defend and promote the citizens’ right to know, by ensuring that constitutional and legal provisions with regard to access to information are not mere window-dressing.

Media institutions need to be rescued, salvaged or supported in the public interest. They deserve a special status as institutions that are not only providing a public good, but also protecting and promoting the other ingredients of the public good. This may imply that their operations should be subsidised in certain instances, even as they jealously guard their editorial independence. Such subsidy could come by way of tax exemptions such as exemption from corporate income tax or tax breaks as may be so determined.

Media houses also have to consider the following:

There is the need to take a second look at the business model of media houses. Do the challenges of the times not call for more media outfits to go public? Notwithstanding the desirability of plurality and diversity, isn’t it time to consider the possibility of mergers that allow for the pooling of resources?

Isn’t it for us to advocate that our government begins to impose taxes on international social media platforms that are now taking adverts away from Nigerian Print and broadcast media houses? I am thinking of the proceeds from such taxes being used to subsidise some of our traditional media operations here in Nigeria.

Has the time not come for an expansion of niche journalism instead of every newspaper doing what others do much better in the now crowded and competitive space?

Isn’t it time for Media Proprietors and professional organisations like NUJ and IPC to pay serious attention to the welfare of journalists (including better remuneration and hazard insurance packages) as well as matters of ethics and professionalism?

The social media remains a major area of concern. Yet, any form of government regulation in that direction in Nigeria is bound to be abused. Can we then reflect on other possibilities, such as putting pressure on owners and managers of social media platforms, to redefine and enforce their community guidelines more strictly?

Conclusion

The media is a cornerstone of a free society. The freedom to source information, to process such information, and to disseminate it, is critical for the nurturing and sustenance of a free, democratic and prosperous society. Democracy is understood as self-government. It implies that the people as a whole shall govern themselves. Such self-government is not possible or doomed to fail without an independent and free press. Governments must change their attitude towards media outfits and journalist that express views that are critical of government policies and programmes. When in a constitutional democracy agents and spokespersons of the president openly refer to critics as “enemies of the country,” then we know that it is time to mobilise all the resources at our disposal to wrestle our freedom of speech out of the hands of tyrannical elements in the corridors of power who seek to return Nigeria to the dark ages of military dictatorship.

Freedom of any type is not cheap. It does not come on a platter of gold, as those who hold power often seek to intimidate, coerce unto submission and silence dissenting voices in the society. Thus, press freedom, as indeed the freedom of expression from which it ensues, will hardly every be simply given in our society or anywhere else. Such freedom must be wrestled and seized from the authorities, and thereafter guarded jealously. For as Roseanne Barr says, “nobody gives you power – you just take it.” Therefore while calling on conscientious Journalists and committed Media houses to remain courageous and be ready to take risks in sourcing for and disseminating information, I call on the generality of Nigerians to support journalists and media practitioners in advocating for wide-ranging reform of outdated laws in our statute books that curtail or undermine in any way the free exercise of the right to freedom of expression and press freedom. Broadcast media practitioners are these days constantly on edge, because of certain sections of the 1992 NBC Broadcast Code, which emerged during the military dictatorship of Ibrahim Babangida. It goes without saying that some sections of the said broadcast code may be at variance with democratic norms and standards regarding freedom of expression in general and press freedom in particular.

  • Rev. Fr. George Ehusani, Executive Director, Lux Terra Leadership Foundation, presented this paper at the World Press Freedom Day Media Stakeholders’ Roundtable in Abuja, on May 5, 2021.

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