It is often said that for Africa to fully embrace democracy then must be freedom of expression, respect for the rights and reputations of others, and protection of national security. But at what point can someone be guilty of crossing the boundary and becoming a threat to national security?
In the UK, the term national security is not defined in order to retain the flexibility necessary to ensure that it can adapt to changing circumstances. National security is referred to as the security and well-being of the United Kingdom as a whole, and it extends to its citizens where they may be across the world. The issue of national security is an unavoidable discourse that will always come to fore in developing democracies in Africa as governments attempt to place limits on the excesses of the free press or control constructive criticisms.
A disturbing trend is already rearing its head among African journalists, especially in Nigeria where it manifested heavily during the recently concluded General Election. At times it became difficult for followers of news reports emanating from Nigeria to identify reliable sources of breaking news or which newspaper to believe.
Now that the elections are over and the task of nation building has commenced, it is important to highlight the critical role of journalism as one of the factors that determines how Africa is portrayed to the outside world.
Apart from the role of governments, Africa is portrayed to outsiders mainly by news reporting, especially from a local press that forms a substantial new s- feed into the international media.
In countries like Nigeria with a vibrant and free press, the internet and social media easily disseminate news. Stories circulate very quickly and get syndicated wide across the world. A news story that is subsequently found to be untrue is capable of causing unimaginable damage that may prove difficult to remedy.
If such a story pertains to a nation’s very stability, it is easy to see how the media can be viewed as detrimental to national security. Even though there is no clear definition of what constitutes national security, international courts define national security as a threat to the “existence of the nation or its territorial integrity or political independence.” This is different from reporting localised violence or ordinary criminal activity. But where such reporting becomes over sensationalised or skirts the borders of fiction, it is clear that national security could be breached.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that should be forfeited which national security is infringed upon, such as when military codes are divulged or troop movements are revealed in wartime.
The role of journalists as watchdogs of government and the conscience of the people makes the profession an enviable one and attractive to many as it provides the conscientious a platform to be of genuine service to the society.
A journalist must therefore maintain maximum transparency and impartiality in news reporting to avoid misleading the people. Their important role in national development makes journalists – members of the Fourth Estate of the Realm – more respectable than a person who is professionally involved in politics.
The media has a far-reaching impact on the lives of the citizenry. News reports form part of the criteria for investment flow to certain destinations. Investors and analysts monitor news as a matter of course and travel advice is compiled mostly from news reports.
Two fallacious stories from Nigeria made headline news in the United Kingdom recently. Even though the two stones were retracted, some damage was inevitably already done and it is for these reasons media practitioners and all stakeholders must take their responsibilities more seriously.
The stakeholders in this instance arc government departments, functionaries, spokespersons etc. These stakeholders must be on top of their game and ensure quick responses to news concerning them.
The first was the conflicting report that ‘Nigeria Recalled Ambassadors’. Three days later, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson denied the recall of any ambassadors.
There followed counter-claims that confirmed the recall of non-career ambassadors. This story coincided with the address by Dr. Dalhatu Tafida. Nigeria ‘s High Commissioner to the UK to a gathering of policymakers at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham Mouse in London . This address by the Nigerian representative of to the Court of St James was seen by many analyses as a high point in his diplomatic career. The news story had the effect of sidelining the important response that would have c been accorded the address by the host country.
The second article was ‘Embassy in Saudi Arabia, said to have snubbed President Buhari’s family. The story involves President Buhari’s family during a lesser Haji in Saudi Arabia.
The news reverberated among readers in the UK not just because it involves the nation’s number one family, but also because of the reputation of Ambassador Ahmed Umar, Nigeria’s Consul General in charge of the mission in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, who is well known to Nigerians in the UK.
Ambassador Ahmed Umar is a seasoned career diplomat, who is highly regarded amongst Nigerians in the UK for his outstanding services to the nation. He won the country valuable friends during his service period as the Head of Chancery at the mission in the UK. Ambassador Umar is a gentlemen officer who should be a pride of the nation for his exemplary service. Many can recall his period of service in the UK. Where he operated an open door policy and engineered the Nigeria @50 celebrations, a collaboration between the embassy and the Nigerian community in the UK. His tenure witnessed an unprecedented period of cooperation between the Embassy and Nigerian professionals in the UK. Many could see the good attributes of a refined diplomat in him.
The news report was an obviously damaging false story about an overseas mission and a disservice to the whole country, not just to an individual civil servant. The story gave the impression that Nigeria has a bunch of politicised Foreign Service Officers at its mission in Saudi Arabia.
This could pose a significant threat to national security.
The unbalanced news report presented the entire Nigeria embassy staff in Saudi Arabia in a bad light. The newspaper that earned this news report later carried a rejoinder in a not too prominent page to correct the story. At a time when Nigeria should be making headlines for good reasons, it was distressing to read this manipulative story, which was capable of causing irreparable damage. This is a clarion call to journalists and media executives to avoid bringing the respectable profession into disrepute.
Abiola is the publisher of the African Voice Newspaper based in the UK