SENTINELS AT WAR

Against the backdrop of the ongoing #EndSars campaign in the public protests against police brutality, the revolutionary impact of Social Media is in sharp contrast to my reality as a young journalist 37 years ago. All I can say is thank God for the Internet and Social Media. The new reality for good, bad and ugly is that everyone is now a ‘journalist,’ with the ability to publish their respective ‘viewspaper.’ Alas the negative public perception about the Nigeria Police remains unchanged. Enjoy

It seems as if the odium generated thirteen months ago is being re-generated and revisited. I am talking in part about that obnoxious ‘press censorship order’ of slightly over a year ago, and the cold war (which is getting hotter and hotter by the minute) between the press and the police, as personified by the Inspector General.
Thirteen months ago, newspapers were jarred by a document that emanated from the office of the Inspector General of Police. The document demanded two advance copies of every newspaper published in this country, for police scrutiny before they hit the streets the next day. Their reason is: “To put an end to the recriminations between the police and the press over offensive publications.”
That press censorship order was signed by the Chief Superintendent of Police, Lekan Alabi, on behalf of the Inspector General of Police, Sunday Adewusi. The furore and controversy unleashed by that brazen attempt at castrating the press were almost predictable.
The press, quite naturally, kicked against it with all it had; and a poker-faced Adewusi, profusely apologetic, soon appeared on television vehemently denying that he was privy to a document that undoubtedly originated from the innermost recesses of his high office.
“I am prepared to resign” (Punch; Feb. 10, 1982), he boldly told sceptical pressmen, if he was indicted by the probe panel set up to investigate the matter. As it turned out, there was no need for him to resign… he was exonerated by the inquiry. 
And since then, the acrimony between the two traditional sentinels of society has deepened with the central issue being the question of press freedom.
A lot has been said, and a lot of energy expended, on this question of press freedom. There seems to be some unanimity in the opinion that a virile and outspoken press is vital to the survival of our constitution–democracy continuum, and is, therefore, an integral component of the body politic.
But the tacky question is, who regulates the veracity and degree of outspokenness, or controls its amplitude? Is it from within the press itself, bounded by its professional ethics; or enforced crudely as it is now, by the police, or more subtly, by proprietors or governments? Much of the trepidation surrounding the freedom of the press issue is borne out of the erroneous assumption that absolute freedom of the press (if such an ideal is possible) would require extra-special protection (maybe outside the constitution) for the press as an institution, and by contiguity, its working members.
But let it be said that the working journalist has no more rights than the next man, whom the constitution section 36(1) protects, expressly stating: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
It is the permanence of the printed word, as opposed to the fleeting temporariness of the spoken word (both expressions) that seems to attract interference or at least attention.
The stature and functions of the press as an institution, fourth only to the troika of the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary, should not be romanticised. Its functions are quite real and vital, quite apart from its primary role as a vehicle for the dissemination of information (or mis-information, as the case maybe); it serves or should serve, as a dependable bridge of cross- current traffic between the elected and the electorate.
In the execution of the first designated role of dispersing information (or mis-information), the Nigerian press, I would say, has performed passably well. But sadly, it is in its no less important role of forging a dependable and creditable link between the voted and the voters, that the Nigerian press has mortgaged the veracity of its conscience, and flushed professional ethics down the toilet.
The institution of the Nigerian press is in a sorry state. Despite its somewhat serene façade, it is internally racked by what can be narrowed down to an identity crisis of credibility on one hand and a free-for-all battle between its members for status, and ultimately, money. Its ranks have been penetrated thoroughly by an astute breed of ‘mercenary journalists’ who hold no allegiance to the bedrock of all journalism – truth.
As with everything else in this country, with money, you can buy anything including ‘truth’, through the printed word. The press in Nigeria today is inundated with newspapers, and newspaper men who are purveyors of solely political, ethnic and business interests.
In the face of this myriad, and often times conflicting, interests, it becomes clear why the Nigerian press does not present a bold compacted front, which should serve as a repository of the truth to the society at large.
It also, amongst other things, explains why the mass media in general is of tactical importance to the governments (federal and state), which collectively own a whopping eighty percent of the media machinery.
But more relevant, it becomes clear that unless the Nigerian press pulls itself together, and refurbishes its creaky machinery, and strengthens its credibility, it leaves its posterior wide open for a kick in the rear … from possibly the jack boots of the police!
The police and the press can symbolically be represented as a guard and a guard dog respectively. Ideally, they should work together, complementing each other’s efforts in ensuring the safety of the lives, conscience and property of the people they seek to protect. The relationship between the guard and the guard dog should be one of loyalty, trust and mutual respect for each other.
What is happening now, is that they are going for each other’s jugular … that is dangerous!
The guard, not content with muzzling (or trying to muzzle) the guard dog, is now trying to strangle the dog with its own leash. The dog is not going to sit on it hunches and be asphyxiated, it is going to fight … and it will be a helluva fight.
The first blows have been exchanged already. I am talking specifically about the Ray Ekpu (Sodom and Gomorrah) saga. Ray, the stormy petrel of Daily Times (now Concord), was clapped into detention on what will almost certainly earn a place in the Guinness Book of Records as being the most outlandish charge in history — because of his prognosis about the N.E.T. building, the police threw him in jail.
Dele Giwa, also of the Concord, rubbed the Inspector General up the wrong way, and calculatedly, got docked for watching “classified information”. His own case, as the story unfolds, seems more and more like a contrived way to embarrass the Concord proprietor, Chief M.K.O. Abiola.
But whatever the reasons, it seems as if the Inspector God—sorry, Inspector General of Police has declared a cold war on the press. And in such a war, it should be noted, nobody really wins, the press or the police. Nobody is born a police officer, and it is the power deposited in the force as a FORCE that is the legitimacy of the police, not the office of Inspector General, or his starched khaki uniform. His intransigence should stop… the press should be left alone.
As the last word, the police would be better off rummaging through some of our legislators’ houses for obscene materials, than coming to harass us here at the PUNCH. They stockpile the most lurid, deep blue, triple X pornographic video cassettes for their private orgies … we don’t.
The Punch,
Saturday, March 19, 1983

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