Civic space protection is a collective responsibility – Stakeholders

L-R: Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, founder/Director of Research and Policy, Space for Change; Inibehe Effiong, Principal Counsel, Inibehe Effiong Chambers; Debo Adedayo (Mr Macaroni), Entertainer; Benjamin Hundeyin, Police Public Relations Officer, Lagos State Command, all panelists; Motunrayo Alaka, Executive Director/CEO, Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ); Olukunle Akinrinade, Head, Weekend Crime Desk, The Nation/panelist; Bukola Wemimo-Samuel, News Anchor/Reporter, Channel Tv/moderator; and Assistant Superintendent of Corps Olumide Abolurin, PRO, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, Lagos State Command, during the WSCIJ Civic Space Guard Conference in Lagos on Thursday.

Stakeholders at the Civic Space Guard Conference themed ‘Hushed voices and the media’s defence of the civic space’, organised by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ), have advised Nigerians to see the duty of civic space protection as their inalienable rights and a collective responsibility.

While declaring the MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Initiative for West Africa, Luminate Group and Ford Foundation supported programme held on Thursday, 28 of April opened, Motunrayo Alaka, executive director/CEO, WSCIJ, described the civic space as a common wealth that belongs to all Nigerians.

“This is a free space and that is what the civic space is about. We have the right to demand good governance. We have the right to speak up.”, she said, in her statement for the event, she emphasised that, “A vibrant civic space is compulsory for democracy.

To kick-start conversations, Bukola Wemimo-Samuel, a news anchor and reporter with Channels Television, asked the panellists what their opinion was about the comparison between the status of the civic space during the military era and under democracy.

Benjamin Hundeyin, public relations officer, of the Lagos Command of the Nigerian Police commended WSCIJ for bringing stakeholders to a round table to discuss such an important matter. According to him, “The civic space is opening up and can be better. Nigeria is a work in progress and engagement like this will make it better.” He emphasised that the first responsibility of the police was to ensure safety first and that this may sometimes mean to disperse a protesting crowd that may get violent. He encouraged groups planning a protest to inform the police so it may deploy officers to maintain order.

On his part, Debo Adedayo, another panellist, said successive governments have continuously disrespected Nigerians and their human rights. The victim of police brutality during the Lekki toll gate protest argued that, “Nigerian democracy is cosmetic. It is a cover. There is something under the face. Nothing has changed because still cannot enjoy those basic human rights.” He however advised security personnel not to see themselves as targets but as victims of a flawed system.

Olakunle Akinrinade, weekend crime desk editor, The Nation newspaper, whose unlawful arrest and detention formed the foundation of his fight against societal injustice using journalism said the animosity of Nigerians against security agencies stemmed from past experiences.

In his words, “You cannot ask a man whose rights have been violated not to cry out. There is a need to build trust between the people and members of the security forces which makes policing better and effective.” He commended the Nigerian media for their efforts to protect the civil space despite operating in a harsh space. He called for a paradigm shift in the industry with journalists mining their data rather than depending on data from institutions.

Human Rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong reminded the gathering of the laws that clearly state that no person or group need police permission to protest. He lamented that despite existing laws protecting the rights of individuals, many are ignorant or too timid to test these laws in court.

“You should not be afraid to challenge the government in court. Most media houses are reluctant to go to court and challenge the violation of their rights”.

Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri stated that governments all over the world have become more authoritarian so they tag those with superior arguments and dissenting views as enemies. For the Executive Director of Spaces for Change, the mantra called national security and interest is the most popular refrain used to justify attacks on the media and other active stakeholders in the civic space.

Abolurin Oluwaseun Olumide, public relations officer of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Lagos Command said, “Nigeria belongs to us all and we need to protect it at all cost. In carrying out our civic activities, we should also realise that human lives are precious.”

To close the event, Juliana Francis, Programme Manager, WSCIJ thanked all participants. She appealed to all to continue the civic space conversation beyond the walls of the conference venue.

The WSCIJ launched the Civic Space Guard project in December 2021 with its award for investigative reporters. The intervention highlights the need to save Nigeria’s civic space from shrinking, better position the media to lead the defence of the space, enable platforms for conversations among stakeholders, support investigative stories and conduct researches. The conference was well attended by members of the Nigerian press, representatives of non-governmental organisations, officers of the Nigerian Police Force, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps and other stakeholders.

Motunrayo Alaka
Executive Director/CEO, WSCIJ

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