It is an honor and a pleasure to be here this morning to give brief opening remarks at this year’s World Press Freedom Day Program focusing on the performance of the Nigerian news media covering the 2015 elections. Let me start by congratulating you and your peers and the Nigerian people for playing a constructive role in ensuring successful and largely peaceful 2015 elections.
Let me echo President Obama’s congratulatory message to all Nigerians following the conclusion of the Presidential election. He said, “The last few days have shown the world the strength of Nigeria’s commitment to the tenets of democratic principles.” Our Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs followed up with an op-ed titled, “When Nigeria Decides, Nigeria Wins.” This is so true because we saw the same collective Nigerian effort that produced remarkable results to halt the spread of the dreadful Ebola Virus Disease. The world has indeed watched Nigerian successes; and for me experiencing the historic elections first hand has been a highlight of my career as a diplomat.
I would like to commend the efforts of the news media in offering a platform for the expression and amplification of ideas by political candidates during the campaign season. The news media, like their peers in other parts of the world, shoulder a heavy responsibility to inform and educate the electorate in some cases placing themselves in harm’s way. We are aware that some courageous journalists were injured during the elections.
By providing to the Nigerian electorate timely, factual, analytical, and objective information to help them understand the issues and where the candidates stand, the news media lived-up to a universal professional standard and contributed immensely to a healthy and functioning democracy in Nigeria. You and your peers deserve kudos for a job well done. And I look forward to hearing your self-assessment of your performance.
We all know that a free press is essential to a healthy democracy. Not only during elections but every day, every week, every month, and every year the news media must remain focused and engaged. The news media can be a powerful force for change. It can effectively fulfill the roles of watchdog, gatekeeper and agenda-setter. It can improve governance by raising citizen awareness of social issues, enabling citizens to hold their governments to account, curbing corruption, and creating a civic forum for debate. I challenge you to continue to play an effective role in amplifying important issues that affect citizens.
To support the news media to play its central role in enhancing democracy, the U.S. Government supports capacity building and defends the freedom of the press all over the world. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Nigeria in 1960, the U.S. Government has sponsored hundreds of media training and capacity building programs for journalists. In support of the 2015 elections — in the last 18 months — the U.S. Mission supported more than 28 election outreach events initiated by the Embassy in Abuja and the Consulate General here in Lagos.
Our Public Affairs Section organized media training workshops in cities across the country including Port Harcourt, Lagos, Ekiti, Abeokuta, Osogbo, Kaduna, and Abuja. We also conducted training for the INEC press officers months before the elections to prepare them to be responsive to the news media in order to inform the general public about voter education, registration and polling information.
We invited prominent Americans, members of your profession, to Lagos to share their expertise, including professors Lucinda Fleeson of the University of Maryland; Gary Kebbel of the University of Nebraska; former CNN Middle East Bureau Chief Derwin Johnson, and Edwin Cue. A handful of online and video conferences were also facilitated between senior American media practitioners and their Nigerian counterparts.
One of such interactions was a LiveAtState Virtual Press Conference on election reporting, which our Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, Doug Frantz – a Pulitzer Prize-winning former investigative journalist– held with reporters gathered in Lagos and Abuja in February.
We are delighted that our efforts in support of your profession have helped you and your peers to demonstrate impressive professional acumen during the elections. As I mentioned earlier, journalists were attacked and intimidated to prevent them from performing their work. The courage they demonstrated was remarkable. When Charles Eruka was injured during the violence in Okrika, Port Harcourt, I spoke with John Momoh, CEO of Channels TV to express our solidarity and to condemn attacks against journalists. There is no place for violence in a democracy. All of us need to stand together to condemn such attacks and intimidation against journalists.
Let me conclude by thanking you for the important work that you do to strengthen democracy in Nigeria. It has been a pleasure working with all of you. As my three-year tenure as Consul-General in Nigeria gradually winds to an end; I would like to thank you for your support in amplifying the public diplomacy activities that we do at the U.S. Mission. Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in her Op-Ed on the elections last month, “Washington is deeply committed to working with you, the Nigerian people, for many years to come.”