Of national security, law and mass media

Posted by News Express | 6 February 2019 | 2,239 times

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As we made our way in a spirited move to catch the Port Harcourt-bound Air Peace Flight from Abuja, different thoughts flashed through my subconscious regarding the essence of our trip to the crude-oil-rich Rivers State capital.

Yours truly led a three-member delegation to the Garden City, precisely for a capacity building talk-shop, or what the coordinating team from Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) called interactive session with the media and civil society community in Port Harcourt. It is on building a seamless synergy between the media, civil society groups and the military, with a view to evolving a responsible security reporting.

As soon as we settled down on the flight that was unusually boarded as at when due, one of the team members kick-started a conversation around the issue of best global practices in reporting security issues, particularly in an area such as North-eastern Nigeria currently engulfed in terrorists attacks from the dreaded Boko Haram insurgents affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). So the one hour flight to Port Harcourt was used as an avenue to fundamentally trash the nitty-gritty of how best to report the defence sector in such a way as not to compromise national security nor undermine the watchdog roles of the media. 

I then urged them to await the explosive one-hour lecture to be delivered by Prof Godwin Okon of the Mass Communications Department, Rivers State University, while  a Port Harcourt-based legal practitioner, Mrs Queeneth Kelsey, was speak on the theme: Between National Security and Media Laws: Friends or Foes.  

Not surprisingly, Prof Okon delivered a beautiful lecture on “Functionality of social responsibility role of the Nigerian media.” 

He opined that cultural norms typology enjoins the mass media to give an account of the day’s events in a context that gives them meaning. In other words, the mass media ought to serve as the repertoire of information needed to advance knowledge through rational discourse. Information, as contextualised above, is key and central to all forms of activities in humanistic settings. Every individual needs information to adapt knowledgeably to the society, while reacting intelligently to the environment.

Okon then asked the question: What is the fundamental essence of media practice in a country?  According to him, the surveillance function of the mass media draws expression from the notions of social responsibility. Surveillance in this context relates to the constant flow of public information or news about events occurring within the country and the global community. The news and information role of the mass media make practitioners the watch-dog or sentinel of the society.

When news is properly reported in the order of the 5Ws & H, the reader does not only stand to benefit from the on-the-spot assessment of the situation, but also stands to gain a full understanding of the ultimate meaning and significance of events. Bryant and Thompson (2002) have streamlined cognate functions the mass media are expected to play in humanistic settings. As espoused by Galadima and Goshet (2013:15), these functions include:

i. Surveillance of contemporary events that are likely to affect citizens positively or negatively

ii. Identification of major socio-political issues in the polity

iii. Provision of advocacy platforms for the articulation of various causes and interests.

iv. Transmission of diverse contents, factions and dimensions of political discourse

v. Scrutiny of government officials, institutions and agencies

vi. Giving incentives and information to empower citizens to become actively informed participants rather than mere spectators

vii. Provision of robust resistance to extraneous forces attempting to subvert media autonomy, and

viii. Respectful consideration of the audience as potentially interested, concerned and sense-making citizens.

Furthermore, Oso (2012), citing Dahlgreen (2001), noted that the mass media has been instrumental in globalising the normative features of democracy. Cursory observations show that media reports are replete with accounts of politically-motivated acts of violence. Somehow, it has been entrenched in the consciousness of many that there can be no elections in Nigeria without violence: That fear may be imaginary or, worse still, is blown out of proportion. A culture of political violence can never be allowed to give colouration to our political outlook.

Viewed from a spectrum of professions, journalism remains a foremost career that can enthrone a viable political culture and open a vista of professional values quite capable of repositioning Nigeria’s democracy, in line with international best practices. The Nigeria legal framework aptly acknowledges this as captured in section 22 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended): “… the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times… uphold the fundamental objectives contained in the chapter and responsibility of government to the people.”

What is, however, required to safeguard our vintage democracy is for media houses and journalists to develop a checklist for enthroning a culture of empathy and social responsibility.

The cardinal role of the press is to inform, educate and entertain, and not to rock the ship of state. This, however, balances out in the spread-sheet of what is right and acceptable versus what is wrong and unacceptable, bringing to force the framework of ethical considerations that border on truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, fairness and public accountability.

Since ethics help govern the dynamics of a profession, their inherent benefits can indeed not be over-emphasised. These benefits have been streamlined according to the context of this paper as under-listed:

I. They provide a profession with a framework for understanding the concept of right and wrong

II. They help stimulate a ready understanding of how to react to certain situations long before they occur

III. They serve as legacies through which members of a professional body are able to show others the correct way to act and behave under given conditions

IV. They engender a knowing-doing disposition among members of a professional body.

While it is important to recognise that government business needs to be conducted in the open, so as to make government records open to inspection, there is also an overriding need to protect security and diplomatic concerns.

News organisations serve as important watchdogs, and their mission is to scrutinise what the government does; particularly if government conduct raises constitutional questions. The overriding job of the journalist, according to Black (1984), is to cover (exercise oversight) the government and its use of power and authority. Conversely, the journalist needs to take a close and careful look at institutions that serve the public interest, with a view to exercising oversight.

The journalist, in this regard, is the conscience of society and should be accorded a place of honour in the general scheme of things. This honour on its own attracts privileges and immunities. If this understanding holds sway, there will be no place for the harassment, intimidation and assault on journalists, as often characterised by forceful snatching and smashing of their cameras and handsets. The journalist deserves to be accorded protection and, indeed, an enabling environment to serve the citizenry. These, no doubt, are elements that embellish the concept of social responsibility, bearing in mind the underlying notions of freedom with responsibility in contradistinction to freedom without responsibility.

The way forward

Descriptively, the social responsibility dynamics of the media in an evolving nation like Nigeria fall within the following purview:

I. Providing a platform for the reinforcement of personal and social values through insight and knowledge. This means that truth can only be found in media content.

II. Strengthening parameters for integration and social interaction by eliciting empathy, while precipitating a sense of belonging.

III. Expressing values and normative judgments inextricably mixed with news and entertainment.

The mass media, however, must exist not only by the principles of press freedom but by the promise of social contract. The mass media can fan the flames of social conscience and ignite the spirit of social contract.

According to Mahatma Ghandi, “The sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves to destroy…”

To synergise idealism and realism in the context of the subject matter, the media need to:

(a) Balance content - news, information and views - with public interest, by shunning things that may lead to Afghanistanism.

(b) Reinforce the framework for institutionalised self-regulation through press councils and professional affiliations, with a view to averting exogenous control.

(c) Guide, adjudicate and advise government and policy-makers on the dynamics and mechanics of policy formulation on security mechanics and implementation.

(d) Consistently strive to acknowledge errors of judgment through rejoinders and retractions.

(e)  Avoid activities and actions that lead to conspiracies and spirals of silence.

(f) Create a force for constructive discourse analysis, popularly known and referred to as the “People’s Parliament”; thus, allowing for a free market place of ideas.


In espousing the dynamics of the political culture of backwardness in potentially rich nations, the former World Bank president, JD Wolfensohn, had said: “What differentiates poor people from rich people is lack of voice, the inability to be represented, the inability to convey to the people in authority what it is they think and the inability to have a searchlight put on the conditions of inequality.”

In a democracy powered by the wish of the people, the mass media do not only keep the citizenry informed but enable them to echo their voices in the chambers of power, while providing them with the basic facts necessary to monitor trends and moderate the sources of power that shape their lives. This is the bedrock of a fundamental culture of good democratic principles embellished in the ideals of ensuring an egalitarian Nigerian state through social responsibility reverberations. Participants were so thrilled by the expert presentation by the erudite professor of mass communication.  But wait for it! Little did they know that the Port Harcourt-based litigation lawyer and a human rights practitioner, Mrs Kelsey, had wrapped up another explosive lecture for immediate presentation after that of Okon. And her topic was essentially on the similarity or otherwise of media laws and national security law. It would be instructive to remind us that the connecting borderline in all of the lectures and the other presentations from both HURIWA and the Army, represented by Col Aminu Iliyasu, the Deputy Director of Public Relations of the Nigerian Army who stood in for Brig-Gen Sani Kukesheka Usman, Director of Public Relations of the Nigerian Army, was an integral interrogation on “The Love of Country or Love of Army?”

 In other words, the entire spectrum of the presentation posed the question of who, among the military and the media, loves the fatherland more given that the media is recognised in section 22 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, even as the Nigerian military is captured under section 217(1). A general response emerged at the end of the intellectual harvest, which goes to show that both the media and the military are working to promote public interest and, therefore, none should endanger the health of national security in the discharge of their constitutional obligations. Mrs Queeneth Kelsey was at her best when she started by telling the enthusiastic participants that: “The issue of national security is a fundamental issue in national and international discourses.” She noted that it is in recognition of that fact that her paper explores the Nigerian perspective of how the operations of the mass media and the law may encroach on each other’s domain, as well as the implication of such encroachment on national security.

The paper examined the set-out issues against the backdrop of the feeling that one views the mass media and law as complementary sectors that could impinge on each other in the facilitation of the operations of other sectors of the polity. The operation of law affects and influences the way the mass media functions. In the same vein, the operations of the mass media equally affect and influence the operation of law in certain fundamental ways. Having examined the issue in focus, it argues that there is no notable conflict between the operation of the mass media and the law.

The mass media, by their pre-eminent position in national life, affect other sectors of national development. They are also affected and influenced in their functions by the operations of other sectors. It is against this backdrop that one views the mass media and law as complementary sectors that impinge on each other in the facilitation of the operations of other sectors of the polity.

The operation of law affects and influences the way the mass media function. In the same vein, the operations of the mass media equally affect and influence the operation of law in certain fundamental ways.

Conceptual Framework


Several scholars have variously described the mass media as gadgets used to effect mass communication. For example, Defleur and Dennis (1981) define the mass media as “devices for moving messages across distance or time to accomplish mass communication.” The issue of application of the term “mass media” to technical devices is crucial to the understanding of the concept. In fact, the general acknowledgment of this conceptual fact of the mass media has resulted in the terse submission of Uyo (1987) that the mass media, being gadgets used to effect mass communication, cannot be practised.

According to him, it amounts to sheer “verbicide” to refer to anyone as a “media practitioner”, because one cannot practice gadgets. He likens the pejorative use of this term to such unthinkable expressions as a “teacher practising blackboard” or “a doctor practising stethoscope.” Thus, those involved in the operations of the mass media are gate-keepers who are responsible for the purveyance of information in the mass communication process. They are, therefore, part of the mass media.


The law has been conceived in several ways, depending on each scholar’s perspective. Aigbovo (2000) listed some of these definitions as follows:

Carl Liewellyn: What officials do about disputes; John Austin: A command from a political superior to a political inferior backed up with sanctions for its violations;

Oliver Wendel Holmes: The prophecies of what the courts will do; Sir Edward Coke: Perfection of reasoning; Hans Kelsen: The primary norm which stipulates the sanctions.

These definitions somewhat show the practical aspects of law in the sense that they focus on the operation of law. This has culminated in the emergence of various schools of thought, representing the different groups of scholars who view law from the same perspective. Thus, we have positive law school, natural law school and utilitarian law school.


There is the erroneous equation of national security with territorial security. Nigeria today can boast of territorial security in the sense that it is fully protected against its neighbours who cannot dream of attacking Nigeria on their own. Such a move would be suicidal. But the country cannot place its national security on the same pedestal as its territorial security. Ekoko (2004) has classified the definitions of national security into two broad groups, namely:

“First is the military/strategic concept of security, and the second, (is) non-strategic socio-economic.” Quoting The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, he eventually defines security as: “The ability of a nation to protect its internal values from external threat.” It is in the light of this definition that AI-Mashat (1985) in Ekoko (2000) submitted that national security transcends territorial defence and should focus on the physical, social and psychological quality of life of a society and its members, both in the domestic setting and within the larger regional and global setting.


The mass media functions in various ways. However, the mass media’s basic function has to do with what Harold Lasswell defines as communication. That is, “to tell people, who says what in the society, to whom, when and how.” In carrying out this basic function, the mass media perform various tasks that have been classified into four functions by Wright (1960) and cited in Akindele and Lamidi (2001). These are:

 Functions of the Mass Media

  • Surveillance,
  • Correlation of facts of the environment,
  • Transmission of heritage, and
  • Entertainment.

The surveillance function involves mass media operators having to nose into the nooks and crannies of the society to fish out information that is of interest to the people. In correlation, the media act to mediate even the taste of the people because they interpret the information so gathered by sifting and discarding what may not be in the interest of the people before purveying such information to them. By such interpretation, they help to create values (for culture), which are then transmitted from generation to generation.

Nexus between mass media and law

The law contributes to the perpetration of national security by ensuring that values are respected and protected. This it does by the creation of norms, which guide human conduct. It must seek to punish any breach of values that may threaten national security. It must be noted that national security is about people whose minds need to be geared towards the defence of values that enhance their collective dignity, that would make them secure from external aggression. The result of such a situation is development.

The sacrosanct areas of law, in this regard, are those that concern the dignity of man which, if fully protected, would enhance peace and progress in a nation. By this is meant Chapter Four of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended), which is on fundamental rights. The chapter encapsulates sections 33-46. The most relevant of these sections to this paper, is Section 39: The Right to Freedom of Expression and the Press. Sub Section I of this section states:

Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information, without interference.”

  • The operation of the mass media is provided for by this section. And it is in the performance of their functions that the media collide with the law. It should be noted that sub-section 3 of the section (39) provides for enactments that seek to punish aberrant use of the freedom so given in sub-section 1.
  • Mass media operators are expected to operate within the confines of the laws guiding their operations without prejudice to section 39 of the 1999 Constitution. Some of these laws include libel (encompassing seditious and blasphemous libel), breach of confidence, copyright, contempt of court, leaking of official secrets, invasion of privacy, and so on.
  • National security appears to be the protection of government officials. And in pursuance of the realisation of this security, media men are forbidden from purveying information that is at variance with the interests of those in power. This colonial view informed the colonial enactment entitled: The Seditious Offences Bill of 1909, which aimed at punishing “publications that were designed to inflame an excitable and ignorant populace” (Mytton 1983 in Ibagere 1996).

Implications for national security

From the foregoing, it is clear that it is not the encroachment of law into the domain of mass media that has grave implications for national security. Neither is the encroachment of the mass media into the precincts of law as epitomised in violation that is the problem. The actual problem in the relation of both sectors lies with the despotic use of power and in the unbridled manipulation of the law to protect selfish primordial interests. This is why laws have been made with individuals in mind. The Buhari, Babangida, and Abacha regimes made laws specifically to punish media organisations which published information that was not favourable to them. This development known as ad hominem law is repugnant to natural justice and good conscience.

Conclusion and Recommendation

The paper set out to explore the relationship between the mass media and the law. It focused on how the operation of the mass media impinges on the law and how the law is manipulated to encroach on media operations. These issues were examined including their implications for national security. Having examined the issues in focus, it is concluded that there is no notable conflict between the operation of the mass media and the law.

  • Purvey information with respect for human dignity; such respect connotes the defence of national values.
  • Information dissemination should be done without malice against a perceived enemy, such that the intention is to embarrass the person.
  • The major aim of information dissemination should be to inform the people better and improve their lot.
  • Gate-keepers must have a sense of national security and seek to improve on it at all times. Thus, whatever does not enhance the perpetration or perpetuation of established values should be discarded.
  • Gate-keepers must abide by the rule of law as well as the established ethics guiding their profession.
  • All laws that hinder the performance of the duty of gate-keepers should be repudiated. It is, however, fitting to end this piece by quoting the maxim of Pope Gregory XVI which says: “But if the truth causes a scandal, then let a scandal arise than the truth is abandoned. So go ahead, publish and broadcast it if it is the truth.”

•RIGHTSVIEW appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays, in addition to special appearances. The Columnist, a popular activist (www.huriwanigeria.com, www.emmanuelonwubiko.com), is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA).

Source: News Express

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