Press Freedom Versus Blasphemy in Nigeria

The geographical area known as Nigeria was created in 1914 following the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Protectorates by the British Colonial Masters. Available statistics show that the population of Nigeria is in excess of 140 Million, with a growth rate estimated at two percent per year. The country has a vibrant press which occupies the forth estate of the realm. The press is relatively free at the moment and consist of Government owned Television and Radio as well as private Media and the Print.

Nigeria is a multi-religious country, although recognizes two main religions, Christianity and Islam. Blasphemy and die is the stand point of the world’s two main religions on the issue of blasphemy. There is no option for the penalty for blasphemy offenses in places where laws exist and no one is above punishment once proven guilty. In Christianity, blasphemy is against the trinity or their own doctrines.In the Bible, offenders of blasphemy were sentenced to death(Leviticus 24:16)while blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, was not forgiven (Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10).

Blasphemy in Islam is speaking against Prophet Mohamed, and any other prophets mentioned in the Quoran, or Biblical prophets. Similarly, speaking against Allah constitute blasphemy. In Nigeria, adherents of the two religions hold tenaciously to their beliefs and would not hesitate to deal with any one undermining their position. There are no existing blasphemy laws in Nigeria but in the Northern part of the country the Shariah law serves as check and balance to deal with offenses against Islam.The Shariah Legal Law where ever they are operated in the North has replaced the Penal laws and is said to affect only Muslims.

Since the Islamic law was introduced formally in 2001, no one has been punished for blasphemy.The closest, being the case of one Isioma Daniel of “This Day” Newspaper who allegedly blasphemed Prophet Mohammed in her column, a fatwa was placed on Isioma urging Muslims to kill her. Isioma Daniel wrote in an article that prophet Mohammed would have approved of Miss World contest and might have wedded a beauty queen. Such statement in a religious volatile place like Nigeria is costly. So, as was expected, Isioma’s article sparked up Muslim-Christian riots in Northern cities particularly Kaduna, as a result, thousands were killed and property destroyed. Isioma later fled the country in a bid to save her life from Muslim fundamentalist.

The shariah being practiced in the North is made to be superior to the nation’s constitution as government at the center has not challenged it, rather dismissed it as Political gimmick that would soon fizzle out. Some of the Northern States have what is known as”hisbah” an apparatus set up to defend the cause of Islam and performing similar functions with the Nigeria Police Force. The 19 Northern State Governors have a forum where they meet from time to time to take far-reaching decision that would be used to govern the member states as well as improve their economies. It was in 1987 that a Muslim apostate, a certain Reverend Bako ignited the embers of religious riots when he allegedly made blasphemous references to the Quoran while preaching to his fellow Christians at the College of Education in Northern town of Kafanchan, Kaduna State.

The Mayhem that followed resulted in multiple death and destruction of property worth millions of Nigerian money. Almost a decade later, the gruesome scenario was re-enacted again in Kafanchan in 1996 by Monday Yakunat, a Christian preacher while conducting an open-air service just by the town’s motor park. Angered by his sermon, some 50 shi’ite fundamentalists kidnapped Yakunat and detained him in a house. The stage was set for a confrontation when Christians stormed the home and forcefully released Yakunat. In the Muslim-Christian riot that immediately ensued, at least three persons were killed and property destroyed.

This is the kind of jungle justice slammed on people that are perceived to be a threat to Islam even before the adoption of Shariah in Northern Nigeria. Even the leader of the greatest fundamentalists groups in Nigeria known as Islamic Brotherhood Movement, Ibrahim El-zat-zaky criticized the setting up of Sharia in a country ruled by a Christian President. In 1991, the Shi’ite sect in Nigeria headed by El-Zat-Zaky violently demostrated over a “Daily Times” publication which they termed as blasphemous.The rioters had set the Times office in Katsina ablaze. Both Islam and Christianity are blasphemed and their followers get criticized on blasphemy issues the same way.

However, Christians react differently to insults on their religion as against the Muslims. It is very common for Islamic preachers to insult Christianity and Jesus openly on street preaching or even in the Mass Media without hell being let loose. Muslims contradict the belief that Jesus is the son of God and that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. They say if that is so, it then means that the Holy Spirit slept with Mary and the result is Jesus.This is a derogatory statement to make, but some of them say it and get away with it.

In his paper, “The canon that did not go off”, Terry Mattingly a Journalist Professor and columnist, asked the million dollar question, “Who will arrest the mob” he came to the conclusion that there is no absolute truth. The Islamic reactionaries declared jihad on the West and their allies, that is talking about Christians living in any part of the globe. Northern Nigeria where the demonstration was fierce, the demonstration took to the street carrying placards with inscriptions such as”Damn the Westerners, kill the infidels or Muslims would be wiped, enemies of Islam must pay with their blood.”The Jyllands-Posten Mohamed cartoons brought a reprisal reaction in several Northern cities of the country resulting the death of scores of innocent people and the burning of 60 churches.

In Kontagora, a town in Niger State, Nigeria, three christian worshipers were killed and 13 churches burnt in the reaction following the publication of the cartoon on the Islamic prophet. Consequent on the strong condemnation by the church in Nigeria, 25 persons arrested and accused of orchestrating the mayhem in Kontagora, were arraigned in court for murder. On 28th June, 2006, the”Compass Direct” reported that an unidentified Christian woman in Izom, Niger State of Nigeria was stoned and clubbed to death for carrying out a street evangelism. The woman who was reported to have witnessed to a group of Muslim youths and for giving them tracts, was later accused by the same group for insulting Mohamed.

Muslim extremists in the area stormed the Izom police station where she was held and demanded for her release to be stoned to death in accordance with Sharia law. While trying to smuggle the woman through the back door, the Muslims grabbed the woman and stoned her to death while three policemen were injured in the fracas. The journalist who has the mandate from the people to mirror the society and educate it, is in difficulty in reporting societal issues.

In some situations, the reporter faces personal self censorship, for some other reporters, it is regional oppression and pressure from the state. This limits the ability of the reporter to deliver result. The media that is caught in the web of regional divide most certainly would be polarized on religious line and partisanship will begin to creep in. The questions however being raised now are, how can the Media operate in an extra-legal or out-law situation, especially when Muslims insist the Quoran is superior to the Nation’s constitution.

Secondly, how do journalists ensure fairness, objectivity and balance while reporting such polarizing issues as religious crises, as well as how they navigate the various ethical legal strictures in seeking to report violent religious crises. Some suggestions were that Christians and indeed journalists should seek to learn about Islam and should understand it, for them to be able to relate with Muslims better.

In addition, Muslim reporters should be send to cover Islamic assignments and vice versa and one on one interviews with Government Muslim officials should be recorded in the event of disclaimer. On the whole, journalists reporting religious issues should be unbiased, objective and above all should put National interest above primordial considerations. The Media must be socially responsible even to report sensitive issues like blasphemy without fear or favor, but must present the facts factually, knowing that truth is a defense in the court of law.

If there is a religious fracas anywhere, journalist must promote peace, through sensible writing and should try not to escalate or give out staggering figures that would trigger violence. A note of caution to religious sects as given by Bishop Michael Ali, “Religion should accept criticism from the outside just as they should be self critical of themselves”.

Source by Godwin Shekari