By Bennett Oghifo
The United States Consul General Mr. F. John Bray has described the Nigerian press as the voice of the ordinary people. Bray told journalists and other guests at the 2017 World Press Freedom Day, held at the Lagos Television, recently, that “In my time here, I have seen that you are still the voice of the forgotten. You have not lost your thirst for the truth or your willingness to go wherever a story leads you, thereby contributing to transparency, accountability, and good governance in your country.
“Before my arrival in Nigeria four years ago I had read about the courage and sheer doggedness of the Nigerian press in the dark days of military dictatorship.
Bray, who said he studied journalism at Northwestern University many years ago, told the journalists that the “annual celebration always strikes a chord with me.”
He said, “In a democracy, the press has a duty to hold government leaders accountable to the people, holding up for scrutiny any abuses of power by elected officials. Their role as the government’s watchdog is key to the system of checks and balances that is fundamental to the smooth running of every democracy.
“Unfortunately, not all governments accept such public attention. According to Reporters without Borders, more than a third of the world’s people live in countries where there is no press freedom. Most of them are quasi democracies, with systemic deficiencies in the electoral process, or countries where there is no system of democracy at all. Working under such conditions, journalists risk everything to hold regimes accountable.”
The United States, the Consul General said, strongly supports freedom of the press. “We believe that an unfettered press is essential for democracy to thrive. The United States passed the Freedom of Information Act in July 1966, which went into effect the following year. Since then, there have been numerous amendments to strengthen the law.
“More recently, on May 17, 2010 to be specific, former U.S. President Barack Obama, signed the Freedom of the Press Act, named after Wall Street reporter Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan, four months after the September 11 attacks in the United States.”
He said the United States however understands that with more freedom comes more responsibility. “Advances in technology and increased reliance on social media platforms as sources of information make the accuracy and objectivity of your reporting crucial.
“Check and double check your facts before you put out a story- this increases your personal credibility and the reliability of your platform. Be thorough in your research and strive to look for every side of a story before you hit “send”.
Bray quoted James D. Wolfensohn, the ninth president of the World Bank Group, who while speaking to the World Press Freedom Committee in 1999, said, “A free press is not a luxury. A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change.”
He said in 1787, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote that a free press was an important component of a functioning democracy. He recalled that he was famous for declaring that he would rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers. As he said a couple of years later in 1823, “The only security of all is in a free press. …It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
The theme of this year’s press freedom day was, “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies”.