Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has threatened to drag the federal government to court if it fails to reverse the ban placed on 25 journalists and media houses from covering the presidential villa within 48 hours.
SERAP, which made the threat in an open letter to President Bola Tinubu, insisted that his administration cannot, with one broad stroke, ban journalists from covering public functions.
The civil society organisation therefore asked him to immediately restore the accreditations of those affected to allow them to freely do their jobs and discharge their constitutional duty of holding those in power to account.
The federal government had last week withdrawn the accreditations of some journalists from covering activities at the Presidential Villa, Abuja. The banned media organisations include Vanguard, Galaxy TV, Ben TV, MITV, ITV Abuja, PromptNews, ONTV, and Liberty, among others.
But in the letter dated August 26, 2023 and signed by its deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare, SERAP argued that barring the journalists and media houses from covering the presidential villa is to prevent them from carrying out their legitimate constitutional responsibility.
The organisation maintained that citizens’ access to information and participation would mean little if journalists and media houses are denied access to the seat of government.
According to SERAP, media freedom is a cornerstone of Nigeria’s democracy, and journalists must be able to hold the government to account, adding that this is a matter of public interest. and the government cannot cherry-pick journalists to cover its activities.
SERAP also stated that Nigerians may consider the expulsion of the journalists from the presidential villa as President Tinubu’s ambivalence towards media freedom and citizens’ rights of access to information and participation in their government.
It further stressed that the legal obligations imposed on the federal government to ensure and uphold media freedom and human rights and facilitate public access to the presidential villa as a public trust outweigh any purported security concerns and overcrowding of the press gallery area.
The organisation pointed out that freedom, access to information and citizens’ participation in the affairs of their government are the sine qua non of a democratic and rule of law-based society.
The letter reads in part: “The withdrawal of the accreditation tags of these journalists directly violates media freedom and human rights, including access to information and the right to participation. It would significantly affect newsgathering and reporting functions and may lead to self-censorship.
“The withdrawal of the journalists’ accreditations would construct barriers between Nigerians and certain information about the operations of their government, something which they have a constitutional right to receive.
“Media freedom, access to information and the right to participation are necessary to maintain an open and accountable government. These freedoms are so fundamental in a democracy that they trump any vague grounds of ‘security concerns and overcrowding of the press gallery area.
“The effective exercise of media freedom, access to information and citizens’ right to participation in their government would preserve and contribute to a free and democratic society, consistent with your constitutional oath of office to defend the Nigerian Constitution 1999 (as amended).
“Allowing the media to cover the presidential villa would improve the reliability of information available to the public and serve the public interest,” it stated.
SERAP claimed that the federal government reportedly justified its action on the pretext of ‘an internal attempt to reduce bloated number of print photographers and overcrowding in the State House.
The civil society organisation also noted that the government also cited alleged ‘security concerns’ raised by State House officials and visiting dignitaries concerning the overcrowding of the press gallery area that blocks the walking path to the President’s Office.
“According to our information, your administration on 18 August 2023 withdrew the accreditation tags of some 25 journalists and media houses from covering activities at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
“The banned journalists reportedly include those from Vanguard newspaper, Galaxy TV, Ben TV; MITV; ITV Abuja, PromptNews, ONTV, and Liberty. Other media personnel affected by the withdrawal are reporters and cameramen from broadcast, print, and online media outlets.
“The affected journalists were simply told at the main gate of the presidential villa to submit their accreditation tags.
“SERAP is concerned that the withdrawal of the accreditations of 25 journalists covering the presidential villa is a grave violation of the Nigerian Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations.
“Our requests are brought in the public interest and in keeping with the requirements of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 [as amended] and the country’s international obligations, including under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to which Nigeria is a state party.
“Under section 22 of the Nigerian Constitution, the mass media, including ‘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.
“Section 14(2)(c) of the Constitution provides that ‘the provisions of this Constitution shall ensure the participation by the people in their government.
“Similarly, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides that ‘Every individual shall have the right to receive information. Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate their opinions.
“Article 13 of the Charter also provides that, ‘Every citizen shall have the right to participate freely in the government of his country. Every citizen shall have the right to equal access to the public service of their country. Every individual shall have the right of access to public property and services.
“Articles 19 and 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights contain similar provisions.
“SERAP also urges you to take meaningful and effective steps to ensure respect for the rights to media freedom, access to information and citizens’ right to participate in their government,” SERAP stated.