The world, today, celebrates the 26th edition of World Press Freedom Day (WPFD), which was proclaimed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1993, following a recommendation adopted at the 26th session of UNESCO’s General Conference held in 1991.
The day celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, evaluates press freedom around the world, interrogates the media and how it has survived attacks on independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession- a response to a call by African journalists who in 1991 produced the landmark — Windhoek Declaration.
Industry watchers have said if it is agreed that democracy as a system of government anchors its raison d’etre on freedom, then it is proper to presuppose that one of the strongest pillars needed for it to survive and serve its purposes “is a free, virile and vibrant press.”
The press provides the channel for the people not just to express their views but also serves as a watchdog on the government and ensures that discrete opinions are aggregated into a perspective.
Recall that at the core of UNESCO’s mandate is freedom of the press and freedom of expression. The agency believes that these freedoms allow for mutual understanding to build a sustainable peace.
It serves to inform citizens of violations of press freedom — a reminder that in dozens of countries around the world, publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.
The day encourages and develops initiatives in favour of press freedom, and to assess the state of press freedom worldwide. It acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. Just as importantly, World Press Freedom Day is a day of support for media, which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), about 53 journalists were killed across the globe in 2018, while a report by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) claims that about 94 journalists and media workers died in targeted killings, bomb attacks and crossfire incidents last year. This also shows that there was about 89 per cent increase in the number of journalists killed in 2017. The number of journalists in jail is also at record high of 251 as at last December. Together, these statistics tell a damning story about the current era, the worst in recent history in which to be a reporter.
Journalists who take on powerful interests have always faced dangers. But even war reporters were once protected by the symbiotic relationship they had with those they covered
In commemoration of this year’s WPFD, UNESCO has as theme, ‘Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation’, which looks at the current challenges faced by the media in elections, along with the media’s potential in supporting peace and reconciliation processes.
But it is becoming increasingly difficult to balance the values of a free press with the antics of those who take advantage of this right as enshrined in the United Nations Charter on Human and People’s Rights, to propound and propagate information that is fake, false, misleading and sometimes, potentially, mixing things up.
National Professional Officer for Information and Communication, UNESCO, Abuja, Mr. Macaulay Olushola, while speaking to The Guardian on the theme said it would highlight the challenges journalists face during and after elections and how it aids the media in sustaining peace and reconciliation process.
He said, “We believe the work of the media during election is critical in educating the citizen. UNESCO is concerned about addressing the effect of fake news and creating the platform for people to make critical and informed decisions. We are concerned about how journalists will rise above emotional content of fake news from the people and the politicians. We are looking at what should be done to have an unbiased reporting,”
However, UNESCO in collaboration with Free Press Unlimited a non-governmental organization based in Netherland to have a symposium on the theme.
Last July, Information Minister, Lai Mohammed described fake news as ‘time bomb’ waiting to explode in Nigeria and announced the launch of a campaign to combat its spread.
Also, Wole Soyinka was quoted early this year, saying, “I’ve said this before that fake news may cause World War 3 and the fake news will be started by a Nigerian.”
During the last General Elections in Nigeria, fake news was at its most ignoble and deceitful high as political candidates and their followers fought to outwit one another in their electoral pitches at the voting public. The foundation for this was actually laid pre- and during the 2015 elections. People fabricated all sorts of news and information and distributed them across the globe, creating hate, causing disaffection, stirring strife and forcing the nationalities in the country into ethno-tribal cocoons.
Facilitating this has been the social media has made every owner of a handheld Smartphone a publisher. In one corner abetting it are the numerous one-man publishing companies created by the mushrooming online media community in the country.
Also commenting on the theme, Multimedia Consultant to Centre of Excellence Radio, Television and Professor of Mass Communication, Ralph Akinfeleye said that the issue of fake news was not a new phenomenon in the whole media landscape. “It started in 1890 but faded away until the assumption in office of president Donald Trump, which brought a new dimension to it, and it has been popular since then.
“Fake news is also tied to hate speech and those involved are not true journalists. However, fake news and the social media will continue to exist simultaneously.”
In the buildup to Nigeria’s 2019 general elections, there was a claim on social media that North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un planned to colonise. There was also a video report that President Muhammadu Buhari had died and been replaced by a Sudanese double. The video was viewed more than 500,000 times, forcing Buhari, who was running for another term to issue a public denial.
Supporters of the two leading parties, All Progressives Congress and Peoples Democratic Party circulated fake news and disinformation that somehow left the public in a state of disarray. Even the campaign teams of the two main candidates were not left out in the fake news spread.
For instance, Buhari’s Special Adviser on Social Media posted a video on Twitter, which showed the president’s supporters at a rally when in fact it was a huge religious gathering that took place last April. She also posted a photo of a road being built in Rwanda and said it was an example of the President Buhari’s public works.
The supporters of the leading opposition candidate, billionaire and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, also resorted to disinformation as a campaign tool. For example, they published a photo of United States President, Donald Trump that had been digitally altered to show him holding a photo of Abubakar.
This realization by the authorities of the dangers of disinformation has unfortunately not been accompanied by better protection for journalists.
Akinfeleye said those involved in spreading fake news and hate speech are information traffickers. “We saw how this affected the election processes weeks ago. Fake news is a modified system of propaganda, which has metamorphosed into falsehood. Its credibility cannot last,” he noted.
Journalists function much more like midwives in a democracy, ensuring that there is a synergy between what happens in government and what the people want to happen in government. Without this, the fundamental ingredient of democracy, which is the guarantee of the freedom of expression, is compromised.
The emergence of social media has shortened the news processing cycle to just copy and paste. The gatekeeping processes that used to guarantee quality research, processing and balancing of news has disappeared and because the new media of information travels with incredible speed, those who had trusted the media for information and who have transferred the same trust to the digital media, are often misled.
The biggest trouble however has been the growing tendency for the established media houses to copy and republish news sources from these often unverified and sometimes, unverifiable sources. A few newspapers had to face the embarrassment of publishing corrigenda and sundry apologies after it was discovered that certain front-page news stories were fake and copied from Facebook or Twitter.
During the last elections, purveyors of fake news were all over the country, publishing results of elections, even when voting was still in progress. In one particular case, representatives of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC) published results that were inversely related. PDP published a certain figure for itself and another for APC, claiming it scored majority votes. APC people, on the other hand, inverted same numbers, allocating victory to their party. In most of the cases, the eventual official figures announced by the electoral commission never tallied with what the fake news purveyors had sold to the public.
The situation presented a major challenge to the media. The slow response of the established media houses to developing stories made it very difficult for the public to get accurate information in real time. Most of the media houses in the country have not invested in the kind of manpower and technology that will provide the capability that would enable them to challenge the dubious antics of the fake news industry. The allegation that prominent politicians, who also protect their minions who actually propagate the falsehood largely, fund fake news does not help this.
Fake news is a trend that just might live with us for a long time, especially because the technology that enables it will predictably keep spreading to the point where it has already become difficult to define who a media practitioner in Nigeria and perhaps the world is. Like it or not, Donald Trump is both a news source and a media practitioner. His regular tweets have more readers than the Washington Post. What this means is that controlling fake news will increasingly get more difficult.
Akinfeleye however stressed the need to protect real journalists by giving them strong insurance as many are sent to sensitive beats, adding, “Law enforcement agencies must be made to appreciate journalists because journalists are trustees of public trust, and when they harass one, they harass the whole public.”
He also advised journalists to refrain from being gullible; “For instance, I read in one of the papers that Boko Haram are paid $33,000 daily for food. What is the interpretation of that? To say it is more profitable to be a Boko Haram member than to be a Boko Haram fighter?
But managing the menace will require the Nigerian media investing more in technology and manpower so that they can be ahead of fake news with the real news.
It is also important for the managers of government communication to be a lot faster in pushing out facts. Reactive public relations often put them on the back foot and forces the populace to question the credibility of their information, because they often appear like after-thoughts.
Security agents and government should also be sincere in apprehending and punishing those that propagate fake news. Once a few of them are made scapegoats, the rest will think twice before buying the data they’d use to propagate mischief.
For Akinfeleye, many countries have failed to curb fake news, as “it is very difficult for them to enforce as on one hand, there are fundamental human rights and on the other is freedom of expression. Fake news is negative but we cannot pass law against it because on one hand there is democracy and on the other hand there is freedom of the press.”
He further noted that there could not be a sustainable democracy without a free press. He called on NUJ and NGE to educate people on fake news. “As we celebrate today, we want to appeal to the mainstream media to be up and doing in terms of frequency and speed in the dispatch of their news as this is the only leverage the social media has over them,” he said.
According to him, the socio-political ideology of a country would determine the kind of press that will operate. “ I also appeal to media practitioners to exploit the provisions of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act. Many politicians take advantage of the media’s failure to exploit the act. The media can use the act to curb fake news.
Akinfeleye said ownership factor was another challenge of the media as most media owners are politicians. He said, “When journalists look for truth, in some cases, the owners would stop the story saying truth does not buy print materials. This is why I appeal to journalists to establish media houses.”
Also, Professor Lai Oso of School of Media, Lagos State University said political actors have found the media a very important instrument they need and because of that, “they get involved in trying to influence media content as far as public affairs are concerned to serve their own interest. The situation is a struggle and press freedom becomes a contested issue; how far can we allow the media to be free when there are many actors seeking power?”
He pointed that the society is becoming more complex with the issue of security.
He further lamented that fake news had become a major global issue. “We saw how it affected the credibility of public communication in the last election. Not many people are able to make a distinction between the real media and social media, and this has posed a serious challenge to the media and country at large.”
Oso advised those in charge of public communication to be more transparent and forth coming with credible news to curb fake news. “The traditional media must go ahead of the social media in giving more authentic information. We may begin a campaign on social literacy to help people question every piece of information they receive,” he added.
At the recent Association Of Communication Scholars And Professionals Of Nigeria (ACSPN) Empowerment Series held in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Executive Head, ‘The Guardian’ Editorial Board Martins Oloja advised the media ahead of 2023 election to embrace and teach significant aspects of financial journalism: the money trail approach in holding our governments to account for the money they collect as Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) and then from Abuja every month.
He said, “We need to cover and draw attention to all the state laws that give too much money to the governors even out of office. The severance packages for the governors have been too much and our state correspondents have been too quiet about all these during elections.”