National Security vs Public Right to Know
By Abdullahi Aliyu Maiwada
The Nigerian Constitution grants express permission to the media in section, 22 and 39 of the 1999 democratic amendment, the implication of which allows the media to operate in full capacity of searching, holding and disseminating information, ideas and opinions through the electronic channels and prints (1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria).
Tejuoso, Lanre-Iyanda, and Togunwa (2011) interpreted the above to mean that the interest of the public is best served if free information dissemination is allowed and if citizens would be encouraged to give vital information on issues of public interest.
Principally, the above idea is hinged on the concept of freedom of speech which according to John Milton (1644) “is not an evil to be tolerated but actually a blessing to the life and happiness of any nation”. This freedom of speech subsequently gave birth to freedom of the press.
The essence of press freedom is to guarantee the right to publish freely without censorship or government interference.
Base on the above, the importance of the media to the existence and prosperity of a society cannot be overemphasized. It was this awareness that motivated the assertion of Thomas Jefferson that he would prefer to have a press without a government than to have a government without a press. So, no matter how we choose to twist the media impacts on human environment and endeavours, one thing is sure: there is an ‘umbilical cord’ relationship between the media and other social systems. The media also hold the government accountable to the people being the fourth estate of the realm.
In this understanding, the above references aptly justify why the press requires unhindered freedom to perform its checks and balancing, keeping those in public offices accountable to the people whom they are meant to serve. This justification is found in section 22 of the 1999 Constitution that “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people”. This was further accentuated by the Freedom of Information Act 2011.
However, though the constitution has given an enormous power to journalists through the press freedom firmly enshrined, but then, to come with certain powers are certain obligations and most importantly the administration of such power with uttermost sense of responsibility towards the public good.
Predicated on this, section 45 conditioned the freedom on when it does not undermine national defense, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health and also for the purpose of protecting the rights, reputations and freedom of other persons.
Within this prism, the press freedom is subject to public safety, health and morality. Professionally, the press should be socially responsible to the public. Impliedly, the media have both ethical and professional responsibilities. That is why Babcock (2012) says journalists have both ethical and professional responsibilities.
If we must ask: which is paramount? The public right to know? or the protection of security intelligence from media disclosures as well as preservation of public morality, health and safety?
Critically, the positive and negative effects of the many messages the mass media send out about crime, terrorism and banditry on daily basis sometimes change from holding government accountable to giving criminals free publicity at the detriment of the sacrifices rendered by the gallant security personnel. Media and professionals were perhaps carried away under the philosophy that the people have the right to know.
In view of the spate of insecurity in Nigeria currently, this matter is not purely of academic debate but that of practical concern.
To this, Goldsmith (2008) raised the ancient question of “who is guarding the Guardian” (press)?
No doubt that the media is a democratic desiderata, but how do we make media publications to properly balance public right to know and national security? And when the press err, how do we sanction errant procedures to make the press liable so that the watchdog does not continuously put the whole house on fire.
NATIONAL SECURITY IN DIMENSIONS
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 1994) defines national security as human security including such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. National security may also “mean protection from hidden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life in homes, offices or communities”. National security may also be defined as the state of being or making safe secure from danger, etc.
MEDIA AND NATIONAL SECURITY: EXPLORING THE SUSPICIOUS RELATIONS BETWEEN THE STATE AND THE PRESS
Under the Authoritarian system, the government in power controls the media. Within this framework, the purpose of media is to support and advance the government policies and serve the state. The criticism on government machinery is prohibited. In the Libertarian system, media is owned by whoever has economic means to do so.
However, in a democratic setting such as in Nigeria, there seem to have grown- certain aura of suspicion between the state (government/security agencies) and the press during the period of terrorism and other forms of unrest. The media wants to tell the story and the security agencies wants to win the war against crime and criminality. The media wants freedom, no censorship, total access and the capability to get to their audience quickly. The security agencies on the other hand, wants control. Also, the media fears that security agencies might stifle news coverage to enhance their public image or cover up their mistakes. These are fundamental differences that may never change.
It is also a well known fact that terrorists/criminals often leverage on the media’s appetite for sensational report to popularize their nefarious activities and gain relevance in public discussions. Since terrorists/criminals are very much aware of the tremendous strength of the media, they are conscious of the formidable amplification that media reportage adds to any event or issue. This unscrupulous elements need the media to propagate what they do in order to gain public attention. Without such attention in the public space, their activities will lack meaning and the purpose intended. It is rather unfortunate that they often find such free coverage in the media who jump on every images and videos of terror acts to feed the general public, in the name of “public right to know’.
All these brew a level of inconsistence and suspicion between the state agencies determine to end insurgency and other forms of criminality, and the media in the news room so thirsty to break the news.
MEDIA DISCLOSURES OF SENSITIVE SECURITY MATTERS: REDEFINING PUBLIC INTEREST REPORTAGE.
Indeed, some secrecy is essential to both national security and democracy, though excessive secrecy undermines democratic accountability and decision making, and sometimes national security itself. Disclosure decisions in a democracy thus must balance the importance of public knowledge and the risk of exposing and undermining desirable policies or damaging national security master plan.
Before a journalist should go to press, a pertinent question he must ask is that who benefits from this reportage, the government? the people? or the terrorists?
Another critical question is can we regulate the press on what it publishes about sensitive security issues and state secrets on national security?
Prior to this democratic dawn, there was Official Secret Act, 1962 which provided for protection of official information, safeguarding of classified matter, protection of defence establishments, restrictions on photography during period of emergency and control of mail forwarding agencies, etc. (Official Secret Act, 1962). The implication of this Act was to criminalize the release and use of classified materials or state secrets; making it difficult for the press to obtain such information. However, the enforcement of this has been impossible on the press, especially as the Act is majorly focused on civil servants who swore oath of secrecy; and even this has become impossible under the new FOIA.
Away from all the legal doctrines on press freedom and press restrictions over the use of information, scholars have established that media disclosures of national security matters could only be discussed in principles as there is no other solution to the problem of media leaking security information except that the media self-regulate itself. This is because the many statutes that provide for criminal punishment of journalists who print classified information have turned out to be unenforceable. Hence, it could only be suggested that the media is actively involved in maintaining security, peace and stability by laying a practical and implementable outline and policy guides.
The media is expected to preach about media positive discretional regard against endangering innocent lives, encouraging human decencies, and ultimately practicalizing nonpartisan considerations of the national interest. This implies that only the press can self-regulate itself, using professional discretion on what constitutes sensitive security issue and may pose threat to public safety.
Considering that the prevailing paradigm is one of self-regulation, hence, the media must be guided by the orientation of social responsibility, by sharpening its discretion on what is worth publishing and what really constitute a secret, even in the interest of the public.
In modern society, the media can be a lethal weapon against the enemy, and an asset to the populace as well. The role of media in times of insecurity should not just be to project the breaking news in a particular area but to offer a comprehensive picture, encompassing all aspects of the policies of the country.
In Nigeria, insecurity should not be fought by the armed forces alone but the whole nation should be engaged in the economic, scientific, political and social dimensions; made possible through strategic information dissemination of the media (Hali, 2003). The media should be a key component of statecraft, by helping through the attainment of national goals, since they have so much impact on opinion-building of the public (Hussain, 2008).
By this the media will not only shape the perceptions of the public, but also that of the authorities and leaders, which in turn help them to set up policies in line with the demands of the people.
In conclusion, the media must be guided by social responsibility and must possess such nationalistic orientation where the lives and progress of the country becomes the yardstick to measure news quality. Journalism is not about reporting whatever you think is newsworthy, but rather a critical service that requires, in-depth knowledge, due diligence and wisdom. The media can exist without undue coverage or leaks of state intelligence secrets which may threaten national security. Also, it is usually devastating activities to behold the gory images of terrorism on the national TV and dailies. The media coverage of such things empowers the terrorists by giving them undue coverage, public attention international exposure. The media should rather serve the purpose of the state rather than the agenda of terrorists.
Abdullahi Aliyu Maiwada
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Report By: PRNigeria.com