Irrespective of the beat that any journalist may be covering, the need to be wary of law suits that could prevent them from discharging their duties creditably has been stressed. This position was the bone of contention at the 2-day training programme, organised for senior journalists from the print, electronic, and online media outlets.
The event, which was held at the Amber Residence, GRA, Ikeja, Lagos State, was put together by the National Committee of the International Press Institute (IPI) Nigeria, and had as its theme, “How to Avoid SLAPP Suits and Remain Ethical”, meant to build editors’ capacity in media laws, ethics, and fact-checking. The training was designed to improve the credibility and ethical foundations of media establishments, and to save the press from the danger of lawsuits that can distract, hamper operations, and destroy organisations.
SLAPP simply means Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, also known as strategic litigation against public participation, are lawsuits intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by saddling them with high cost of legal defence until they are forced to abandon their opposition and criticism. The training programme was sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation.
Speaking at the occasion, the President of IPI Nigeria, Mr. Musikilu Mojeed, on ‘Why the Training’, said since its establishment in 1950, the IPI had consistently clamoured for journalists’ rights and media freedom in every corner of the world. Mojeed, said given recent developments in Nigeria that had threatened media independence and survival, the IPI Nigeria had decided to organise the meeting for robust interactions on media laws, ethics and fact checking. “We believe that this will equip us with skills we need to get around obnoxious laws that are targeted at the media. We believe that this will reduce media organisations’ exposures to damaging law suits.
“Ultimately, we believe that our engagements will contribute to the strengthening of our (country’s) democracy by helping the media to promote accountability and transparency in governance”, he said. The IPI President regretted that for performing the responsibilities entrusted on it by Section 22 of the Nigerian constitution, to hold government accountable to the people, “the Nigerian journalist are routinely harassed, assaulted, arrested, detained, incarcerated, and sometimes killed”. Mojeed enjoined journalists and media organisations to be wary of opening doors that could give governments the ground to crush its freedom. He said, “If you are doing accountable journalism, ensure that you do the right things, obey the laws and create no loopholes. The important thing is to consistently obey laws. Accountability journalism is risky. You are the hunter. Do not become the hunted”.
Welcoming resource persons and participants to the occasion, the IPI Nigeria Board Chairman, Malam Kabiru Yusuf, who spoke virtually, advised journalists not to make themselves available for desperate politicians to spread false news. Yusuf, who is the Chairman of Media Trust Group (MTG), owners of Daily Trust, said: “One definition of news is the story that people don’t want to be told. Officials call press conferences or take reporters on tours and give them facilities, so that they will tell that story they want to have. The story they are hiding is the story that actually makes an impact and the community should hear it. And it is very difficult to change. It has to be investigated. Journalists have to rise above certain pressures. And that is why critical reporting comes in, but it has to be done.
“Those who are doing it are the ones at the forefront of journalism. They should be commended. But it comes with challenges or taking time to do it in an ethical manner; not blackmailing people, give them the chance to tell their stories. So that at the end, readers will say ‘yes, this is a story well told’”. In his opening remarks, sponsors of the event, the MacArthur Foundation, through its African Director in the Nigerian office, Dr. Kole Shettima, who also participated virtually, urged journalists to remain committed to their chosen paths by serving as shining lights and conscience of the people. “If media organisations only depend on adverts (many of the advertisers are politicians), it may affect them from doing some stories. Independent media requires multiple and independent sources of income. There will always be challenges without multiple sources of income for the media”, Dr. Shettima said.
The Executive Director, IPI Global, Mr. Frane Maroevic, who attended the event virtually, emphasised that the training would equip participants to navigate the challenges faced by the media industry. He expressed gratitude to the MacArthur Foundation for sponsoring this capacity-building training, highlighting its role in preserving journalistic independence. Maroevic reaffirmed IPI’s commitment to strengthening Nigeria’s media landscape, advocating for press freedom, safeguarding journalists, and empowering the media. He stressed the significance of an informed and powerful media as the guardian of democracy and a bridge connecting society while amplifying voices that might otherwise remain unheard.
“IPI is part of Nigerian media landscape. We engage with Nigerian journalists and media organisations and government bodies to promote environment for press freedom, providing expertise, resources and solidarity to journalists for their dedication”, Maroevic stated. He affirmed that the programme marked a significant milestone in IPI’s efforts to boost capacity in the media and promote ethical journalism practice. A well-informed power media, not only serve as watchdog of democracy, but as a bridge that connects society and amplifies the voices that will otherwise be remained unheard. In light of these responsibilities, the need for independent and ethical journalism has become paramount”, the IPI Executive Director said. Maroevic alleged that Nigeria’s Cybercrime Act was being used to undermine media freedom and free expression in the country.
Maroevic, also claimed that the rich and powerful individuals in society were deploying law suits, as strategic tools, to silence journalists, media organisations and those that seek to uncover the truth, express dissenting opinion, and hold those in power accountable. He said: “For decades, the IPI has stood as the bastion for free press, for the protection of journalists and the empowerment of media in Nigeria. The IPI is an important part of Nigeria’s media landscape. It engages with Nigerian journalists, media organisations and government bodies to promote an environment for press freedom” by providing expertise, resources and solidarity to journalists for their dedication to truth”.
The first training session x-rayed an ‘Overview of Nigeria Media Law: From the Beginning to the Present’, which was delivered by Mr. Tobi Soniyi of Arise TV; ‘Legal Loopholes Editors Must Avoid: Most Dangerous Laws to Pay Attention To’, was delivered by Mr. Gbemiga Ogunleye, former Provost of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism; while ‘Understanding Media Codes and Ethics’ was presented by Prof. Abigail Ogwezzy-Ndisika, a Board of Trustee of IPI Nigeria and a Professor of Mass Communication, while the Director of Media Law Centre, Dr. Richard Akinnola, presented his paper on ‘Case Studies on Legal Challenges Newsrooms Face’.
‘Operational Loopholes that can Trigger Media Repression and Lawsuits’ was handled by Musikilu Mojeed; ‘Overview of Day One: Takeaways and Lessons Learnt’, was anchored by the IPI Treasurer and master of ceremonies for the event, Rafatu Salami; Mr. Gbemiga Ogunleye examined ‘Best Practices for Reducing, Avoiding and Resolving Lawsuits’; Mr. Edetaen Ojo of Media Rights Agenda, looked at ‘Dealing with Lawsuits: Available Helps’; David Ajikobi of Africa Check took time to speak about ‘Battling Fake News and Media Manipulation: Factchecking and Verification’ while Mr. Yusuf Alli, Managing Editor, Northern Operations, The Nation, delved into ‘My Battle with Lawsuits’.
Top journalists that had served in governments at one time or another also shared their experiences. The veterans included Mr. Femi Adesina, former Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity; Mrs. Funke Egbemode, Commissioner of Information and Civic Orientation, Osun State and President, Nigerian Guild of Editors; Mr. Raheem Adedoyin, Commissioner of Information and Strategy, Kwara State; and Mr. Steve Ayorinde, Commissioner of Information and later Culture, Lagos State; who spoke about ‘How the Media Can Avoid Government Censorship’ while the Secretary IPI Nigeria, Ahmed Shekarau appreciated all for participating in the training programme.