US Ambassador calls for protection of press freedom at Nigerian Guild of Editors conference

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By Goodluck Ikiebe.

The US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Berth Leonard, has called for the protection of press freedom in Nigeria in particular and Africa at large.

Ambassador Leonard, made the call on Thursday in Abuja, at the 4th series of Nigeria Guild of Editors Town Hall Meeting in Abuja.
She said the role and responsibility of promoting transparency and accountability, inclusivity and equity, rule of law, and fundamental freedoms is a collective one.

She noted that the media in particular plays a daily, vital role in reflecting, steering and
mobilizing public opinion.

The US Ambassador therefore called on members of the NGE, among other stakeholders to protect press freedom.

She said ,”I’m delighted to be with you this afternoon to speak about a topic that I
know is central to this workshop and foremost in your minds, and that is the
defense and protection of hard-won press freedoms and the perseverance of Nigeria’s precious democracy. Whether you are members of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, or members of civil society and youth organizations, all of you gathered here today share a role and responsibility in promoting transparency and
accountability, inclusivity and equity, rule of law, and fundamental freedoms.

“The media in particular plays a daily, vital role in reflecting, steering and mobilizing public opinion. When you write, publish and broadcast thoughtfully, impartially, and with accuracy, your contribution to democracy is profound.

“When you uncover evidence that unscrupulous individuals have tried to hide or deny, you
empower law enforcement and the judicial system. When you hold politicians to
account with well-researched, non-partisan facts, you directly serve the interests of
the voting public, and play a vital role in shaping public perceptions about not only
those who currently govern, but also about those who wish to govern in the future.”

Amb. Leonard disclosed that the workshop is the fourth in a series of six workshops in six cities that our U.S. Mission is proud to support in partnership this year with the Nigerian Guild of Editors. I had the honor of addressing the first
such workshop held in Lagos.

“In expanding the discussion to Abuja this week and to two more cities in the near future, our goal is to reach as many editors spread across the country as we can, representing Nigeria in all its great diversity. And then you also have the added element of American practitioners, who can provide a second perspective.

“The Yola workshop earlier this week featured some great discussions with U.S. editor David Mark from Washington, D.C. about media coverage of elections, and I’m delighted that he will be fully participating in this current Abuja workshop as well,” she noted.

Amb. Leonard lamented that by any measure, global freedom has been in decline for the past fifteen years. Whether that decline is linear and true in all parts of the world is debatable, but certainly when “we look at Africa as a whole, we see some disturbing trends: a parallel rise in political authoritarianism and media self-censorship; growing public mistrust of media; and diminishing confidence that democracies can self-correct and reverse such disturbing trends in the long run.

“Some of you will undoubtedly recall President Biden initiating this past December a global Summit for Democracy as a way to focus the world’s attention on authoritarianism and other similar threats to democracy in which the will of the people is trampled on or ignored.

“This initiative which you are all taking part in, is intended to further that important conversation. Your attendance here underscores the power and promise of free speech and all-inclusive citizen participation and communication in a healthy, resilient democracy.

“One does not have to look as far to see threats against democratically elected
governments. In Sudan, Mali and elsewhere, African militaries have overthrown or sought to overthrow civilian governments — four times, in fact, over the past 12 months; that’s the highest number in four decades.

“Thankfully Nigeria’s commitment to democracy and opposition to authoritarianism remains sound. Your leaders have been consistent in calling for the respect of presidential term limits, for example, and they have been quick to condemn military coups in West Africa and the rest of the continent.

“Beyond public pledges supporting freedom and democracy, however, I hope your group will use this opportunity to delve deeper into underlying factors that
erode faith in democracy. Patronage politics, corruption, inequality, and the failure of many democratic governments to deliver for their citizens fuel public and media doubts about the democratic model, causing them to lose hope and cynically accept the status quo as inevitable and normal.”

Ambassador Leonard stressed that one way to restore public confidence in democracy is through free and fair elections, adding that the eyes of the world will therefore be on Nigeria this year and early next year as it prepares to choose a new president and transition to a new
government.

“We were pleased that last week President Buhari signed Nigeria’s
long-awaited Electoral Act Amendment Bill into law, ensuring adoption of a
number of long sought-after reforms to the electoral process, including the
electronic transmission of election results from polling places.

“But certainly when we look at Africa as a whole, we see some disturbing trends,
Editors like yourselves are in fact critical gatekeepers. Your actions and
decisions level the playing field. You determine whose voices are heard, and what news topics receive in-depth coverage.

“In a digital age when the 24/7 news cycle is unrelenting and often bewildering, you help weed out the trivial to focus on the essential. You oblige candidates to respond to uncomfortable or pointed questions.

“You interview citizens and potential voters whose voices are not always amplified or heard. You may not always realize it, but your giving voice to the governed and the under-represented helps reduce voter apathy.

“In the United States, especially in the last 10-15 years, we too have
witnessed the phenomenon of skeptical U.S. voters, who say that they cannot fully trust what they watch on cable news or read on the Internet. Competing TV news channels present opinion as fact to win over partisan viewers or capture a larger share of advertisers and the mass media market. As a whole, U.S. journalists and
media groups enjoy immense press freedoms, and we tend to think of them as the best in the business. But they too face their own credibility gaps vis-a-vis their local and national audiences, it simply comes with the territory,” she stated.

Amb. Leonard noted that access to accurate, unbiased information is critical to any democracy in the world.

She applauded efforts like the International Centre for Investigative Reporting’s Open Contract Reporting project which mentors
journalists and strengthens their capacity to conduct investigative and data reporting, especially to effectively monitor and comment on budget and procurement processes at the federal, state and local government levels.

“There is a significant positive multiplier effect whenever journalists do the right thing or take a well-documented, pioneering approach.

“When free and independent media publish previously unknown facts, write principled editorials or take a stand to defend and protect other courageous journalists, the public takes
note and trust is built and re-built.

“On the other hand, we know that not everyone is principled and well meaning in your field or any other field. Trust cannot be nurtured when media houses play favorites and charge varying rates, for example, to politicians and
candidates for the same level of broadcast time or publicity.

“Trust is diminished when media accept money from self-interested players or malign actors to publish favorable or unfavorable stories. Brown envelope journalism undermines the
public’s trust in the media, erodes journalistic integrity, and defeats the media’s
ability to play a transparent oversight role over government actions.

“If economics are at the root of such unfortunate practices, then you need to insist and ensure that
journalists get paid a living wage so that no one in your ranks will be forced to rely on brown envelope payments to cover news stories.

“The first woman editor of the Irish Times, Geraldine Kennedy, summed it up perfectly, “editors are not proprietors, advertising managers, or marketing gurus. They are editors. If they do not look after the integrity and independence of journalism, who will?”

“Our hope for this forum today and in the others to follow, is that you will lead
and serve as catalysts to build a democracy that is accountable to its people.

“We can and must work together to address challenges to freedom. This has always
been democracy’s greatest strength: the ability to improve upon and reinvent
itself. When the citizenry’s belief in democracy, good governance, and elections
are restored, invariably they will want to be a part of that system and will defend it.
Right now, the world is at an inflection point between those who tolerate
autocracy and those who know democracy can deliver for the people.

“Democracy,” as President Biden said, “doesn’t happen by accident. We have to
defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.”

This has been a tense and difficult 10 days for the entire world as we have
watched Russia launch a premeditated war against Ukraine. As President Biden
said in condemning Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified attack on Ukraine:
“Liberty, democracy, human dignity; these are the forces far more powerful than fear and oppression. They cannot be extinguished by tyrants like Putin and his armies. They cannot be erased by people, from people’s hearts and hopes by any amount of violence and intimidation; They endure.

“And in the contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty
and subjugation, make no mistake: freedom will prevail.”

According to her, “Let’s start today with renewed vigor and optimism to defend democratic
ideals and practices at every turn. As civil society representatives, academicians,
youth leaders, editors, and journalists, you stand at the frontlines, and you will
undoubtedly be remembered and judged by the Nigerian people based on how well
you perform for them”.