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‘Chained’ Journalists Call For Decriminalisation of Defamation Laws 

By Yerima Kini Nsom In Washington DC

A group of foreign journalists, including this reporter, poured out on the streets Sunday night on May 1 in search of a scoop. They were jolted out of their hotel rooms down town Washington D.C by a rampaging crowd of Americans that headed for the White House. They were in the heat of celebrating the demise of Osama bin Laden, the man who snubbed life out of 3000 Americans, igniting two major wars.

Luckily, the Crowne Plaza Hamilton Hotel at 1001, 14th Street, NW, Washington DC, 2OOO5, in whose bowels we lodged, is not far from the Pennsylvania Avenue where the White House is located. It was shortly after midnight and the White House tenant had just pronounced the speech of victory against the gods of terror, Bin Laden. As we arrived in front of the White House, the crowd went amok, chanting patriotic songs and doxologies to President Barack Obama.

Sad memories of the September 9, 2001 incidents resurfaced. Radio and television stations in the US joined the euphoria. They played back excerpts of President Obama’s campaign speech in 2008 wherein he said; "We will kill Bin Laden." They equally played excerpts of the Presidential candidate for the Republicans at the time, McCain, who had pooh-poohed Obama’s declaration as unrealistic.

As a majority of Americans celebrated the death of Osama, many went on a free-for-all cursing of President Obama in front of the White House. They carried placards that read as follows, "America has no right to take away anybody’s life, two wrongs don’t make a right, Bin Laden was right, we are half wrong. True to the freedom of expression that reigns in America, the demonstrators, though very few, marched with enthusiasm and displayed their placards. Unlike in dictatorial countries, the police in front of the White House looked on and even protected the demonstrators. That is America.

Journalists In Chains

Journalists are born free but in many countries they are in chains. This summarises the concerns journalists from different parts of the world brought to focus during the World Press Global Conference climaxed on May 3, at the Foreign Press Centre in Washington DC. The US Government and UNESCO co-hosted the event that brought together journalists from countries where press freedom is limited.

Capturing the mood of events in a statement, the US Secretary of State, Hilary Rodham Clinton, said, "In dozens of countries around the world, journalists, bloggers, and others engaged in information-sharing are censored, intimidated, jailed and sometimes killed by those who fear the free flow of information."  Apparently appealing to enemies of an unfettered press, Hilary Clinton emphasised, "We must keep striving to allow journalists and citizens to share their opinions freely and openly everywhere."

The conference that began at the Newseum situated on 6th Street at the Pennsylvania Avenue was the forum for the launching of the Press Freedom Index by the Freedom House. While commenting on the findings, a senior official of Freedom House, Karin Kariekar, said freedom of the press is a measurement of all other freedoms that citizens of every country should enjoy.

Various speakers at the occasion called on governments to decriminalize defamation laws in their various countries in order to promote a free press. The journalists also held panel discussions on the role of the social media as tools for social change and auxiliary to the traditional news media. It was agreed that a free press is fundamental for the growth of a free press in every country.

DC ‘Nanga Bokos’

Visitors to Washington DC for the first time were somewhat taken aback that there are beggars in the streets. They live in the streets begging in order to survive. When night falls, they fold themselves up and take shelter in front of some main buildings. As this reporter moved around downtown Washington, some of them raised their placards that read as follows "We are war veterans, we are hungry."

The Post learnt that many of these people are drug addicts suffering from depression. Many of them refuse to be taken to rehabilitation centres. A Nigerian who lives in Washington said he almost went into depression when he was doing small jobs and paying so many taxes. "But now I have a good job and happy to pay the taxes because the US Government is using the money to provide real social amenities to the people unlike in many African countries."

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