Miserable Are The Reins Of Power Who Don’t Understand The Pen… BY AGBA JALINGO

In Breaking News, Civic Space, Opinion

One of the first lessons students of journalism are ingrained in the classroom is, poet John Milton’s 1644 pamphlet “Areopagitica”, written in response to the British Parliament’s passage of a law requiring the government to approve all books prior to publication. In the Areopagitica, Milton argued that truth and understanding, “are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes, and standards.”

89 years after that pamphlet was written, in 1733, John Peter Zenger, a journalist, and printer of the New York Weekly Journal was sued for libel after publishing very revealing and critical reports about New York’s colonial governor, William Cosby. And according to information from the “Historical Society of New York Courts”, New York’s Chief Judge Lewis Morris, gave a judgment in the case of Cosby v. Van Dam, in favor of the defendant and Governor William Cosby summarily removed Morris from office. Morris and close allies, attorneys James Alexander and William Smith, then set up the Province’s first independent newspaper, the New-York Weekly Journal. 

Alexander was the newspaper’s editor and through articles, satire and lampoons, accused the Cosby administration of tyranny and violation of the people’s rights. Governor Cosby resolved to shut down the New-York Weekly Journal. John Peter Zenger was the newspaper’s printer, one of the few skilled printers in the Province at that time. The Cosby administration determined to take legal action against the printer, perhaps on the assumption that without a printer, the paper could not be published. A celebrated case of seditious libel was filed against Zenger.

John Peter Zenger, in a landmark jury trial, was acquitted of seditious libel on the grounds that the articles he printed, which were harshly critical of Governor William Cosby, were nonetheless based on fact. The case established the right of the press to criticize public officials, and it also indicated that true statements are a valid defense when sued for libel.

Following this development, on December 2, 1766, the Swedish parliament also passed legislation supporting the freedom of the press and freedom of information. Narrowly, the Freedom of the Press Act in Sweden abolished the Swedish government’s role as a censor of printed matter, and it allowed for the official activities of the government to be made public. More broadly, the law codified the principle that individual citizens of a State should be able to express and disseminate information without fear of reprisal. Twenty-five years after, in 1791, the Freedom of the Press Act came into force in the U.S. Constitution in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or the press.”

Even with this landmark amendment, the persistent attempt to suffocate the press didn’t end there. During the early 1900s and World War I, two legislative acts were passed to regulate free speech. These acts, the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act were enacted in order to censor pro-German, socialist, or pacifist publications. However, in 1931, the US Supreme Court held that virtually all forms of restraint on free speech were unconstitutional.

Freedom of speech and expression is the basis for contemporary journalism. And what is freedom of speech? It’s the right to write or speak without censorship. Presiding over a case in the Court of Appeal in December 2020, British Judges, Lord Justice Bean and Mr. Justice Warby said: ‘Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.’ My Lords said explicitly that: “Freedom of speech does include the ‘right to offend and indeed to abuse another.”

In the Nigerian Constitution, the journalist is empowered to hold the government accountable AT ALL TIMES. The journalist is not a busy body interloper. The journalist is the watchdog. The journalist is the tear that flows down the cheek of the thieving public official. The journalist isn’t supposed to operate without restraint, yet he shouldn’t operate under restraint. Like the Judge who sentences the convict to death or jail time, the journalist doesn’t need to be a saint to cast the first stone. The pen pusher doesn’t need to be white to call out the angels. But the job has to be done nevertheless.

From time immemorial, the desire to suppress the journalist has been the lollipop of those who hold the reins of power. History is replete with that altercation. Yet, no dictator, no matter how brutal, has conquered the pen but the folly of the thrones is immutable. Nonetheless, those who were born to tell the stories have never shied away from that path, regardless of the risks and inconveniences we face.

Long live the pen profession!!!!!!

Citizen Agba Jalingo is the Publisher of CrossRiverWatch and a rights activist, a Cross Riverian, and writes in from Lagos.

NB: Opinions expressed in this article are strictly attributable to the author, Agba Jalingo, and do not represent the opinion of CrossRiverWatch or any other organization the author works for/with.

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