Nigeria’s Military Governments and Anti-Press Laws

Nigeria’s Military Governments and Anti-Press Laws

Saturday, December 14, 2019 11:15 am

By Richard Akinnola

Nigeria’s press laws in the past 59 years have undergone series of metamorphosis. Apart from the ones promulgated by the colonial governments and under the short-lived civilian government between 1960 and 1966, quite a number of such laws were ingrained in our statute books under successive military governments.

The colonialists started off with The Newspaper Act of 1917. Ever since, there have been a floodgate of legislations against the press, the worst being under the military governments.

Since the military ruled by Decrees, quite a number of these Decrees, apart from ousting the jurisdiction of courts from entertaining suits on them, went the extra mile of prescribing harsh penalties for infractions.

This situation led to a number of journalists being arraigned in court or Military Tribunals on trumped-up charges or outright proscription or closure of Media Houses.

Proscription and closures had always been ready tools in the hands of military governments who were intolerant of criticisms by the independent press. Sometimes, the governments didn’t even go to the extent of promulgating Decrees to back up the closures. They simply embarked on whimsical and capricious closures. But in most cases, Decrees and Edicts were passed to back up the proscriptions and closures.

On September 9,1968, Brigadier Adeyinka Adebayo, then Military Governor of the defunct Western State passed an Edict proscribing Sunday Star and Imole Owuro*1.

The Edict prohibited the sales, distribution and possession of the newspapers in the then Western State. Any person who contravened the Edict was to go to jail for two years. The proprietors of the newspaper did not fold their arms as they were being guillotined by the Western State government. They went to court to challenge the proscription Edict and the case came before Justice Olu Ayoola.

Justice Ayoola, on May 28, 1970, in his judgment held that the proscription Edict was illegal as it contravened Section 25 of the 1963 Constitution which dealt with freedom of Expression.

Section 25(1) of the 1963 Constitution stated: “Every person shall entitled to the freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”

Section 25(2): “Nothing in this Section shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society”.

Said Justice Ayoola:

“In this case, it has not been shown before me that the newspapers in question contravened any law of the state or that the imposition of a ban on them was warranted by any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society. The Edict No. 17 therefore I my view conflicts with Section 25 of the Constitution of the Federation and a Fortiori with Section 4 of Decree 1 of 1966 be declared and is hereby declared void.”

It was however, during the tenure of General Olusegun Obasanjo as Head of State that proscription again reared its ugly head. It was the proscription of Newbreed magazine*2.

The magazine had been quite critical of the government of General Obasanjo. But the last straw was the magazine’s publication of an interview with former secessionist leader, Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who was then in exile in Abidjan.

Obasanjo was livid and on June 4,1978 passed a Decree proscribing Newbreed.

The decree also ordered that all copies of the magazine be impounded. Perhaps, taking a cue from the nullification of the proscription Edict passed by Brigadier Adebayo in 1968, Newbreed proscription Decree ousted the jurisdiction of courts on the matter.

Section 3 of the Decree Stated: “The question whether any provision in Chapter III of the Constitution of the Federation has been is being or would be contravened by anything done or proposed to be done in pursuance of the Decree shall not be inquired into, in any court of law and accordingly, Section 31, 32 and 117(2) (b) of the Constitution shall not apply in relation to any question.”

The proscription was later lifted by the Shehu Shagari government.

In the similar fashion that Newbreed was proscribed, the General Ibrahim Babangida government on April 6, 1987 proscribed Newswatch magazine*3.

The proscription which was to last for six months, was as a result of the publication of Cookey recommendations on the political Bureau. However, before the government lifted the proscription on August 27, 1987, a Lagos-based lawyer, Dr. Olu Onagoruwa took the government to court to challenge the proscription*4. 

According to him, the proscription violated Section 36 of the 1979 Constitution that dealt with freedom of expression.

But Justice David Oguntade (now a retired Supreme court Justice) on May 18, 1987 ruled that his court had no jurisdiction to declare as unconstitutional, Newswatch proscription Decree.

His reasoning was based on Decree No. 1 of 1984 which stated that no Decree could be questioned on the ground that the Federal Government had no competence to make the Decree or that it violated the Fundamental Right to Freedom of Expression.

When the Guardian Group of Newspapers was closed by the Lagos State Government on May 29, 1991, the newspaper management filed a suit at Ikeja High Court on June 3 to challenge the closure. But the suit was withdrawn, even though no proscription order was made.

But despite the re-opening of the newspapers, four Human Rights Groups- Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADL), and Human Rights Committee of Lagos State Council of NUJ went to court.

Based on this suit, the court restrained the Lagos State Government, the police or any government agent from closing any media house in Lagos State until the final determination of the case.

A similar pattern was enacted during the April 1992 closure of Concord Group of Newspapers. The four groups that went to court to challenge the closure of Guardian, filed another suit to challenge the closure of Concord and on April 15, 1992, Mr. Justice Eniola Longe of Ikeja High Court ordered the policemen to vacate the Concord premises and that the newspapers be opened immediately. The Federal Government flouted the court order.

Following the disobedience, the Human Rights Groups initiated contempt proceedings against the Inspector-General of Police by issuing “Form 48” (notice of consequences of disobedience to court order).

The doors of Concord Newspapers were later flung open by the Federal Government on April 23, 1992, a day after the contempt proceedings were initiated.

The June 12 struggle in 1993 again led the press on collision course with the Government of General Ibrahim Babangida.

In one fell swoop, Concord Group of Newspapers, Punch Group of Newspapers, Sketch Group of Newspapers owned by the governments of Oyo, Ogun, Ondo and Osun States and Observer Newspapers owned by the Edo State Government, were in July 1993 proscribed by virtue of Decree 48 of 19935

Also proscribed was The News*6. This led to the birth of Tempo.

Earlier in March 1993, the Federal Government had proscribed Kaduna-based Reporter*7 while the Government also promulgated an all-encompassing Decree*8 that gave it power to proscribe any publication by whatever title. The Concord Group went to court and Justice James Oduneye of Ikeja High Court ordered the police to vacate the premises.

A Human Rights Body, Constitutional Rights Project (CRP) also went to court in respect of the closure and occupation of The News*9 by security agents.

Abuja-based Abuja Newsday was also closed down but not proscribed. 

With the advent of the Abacha regime in November 1993, proscribed media houses were re-opened. But this lease of life was momentary as they were back under lock and key few months after.

In June 1994, The Concord*10 and Punch*11 Group were proscribed, while on August 14, 1994, Guardian*12 Group joined the fray when it was also proscribed.

All the three newspapers went to court to challenge their proscriptions.

On July 29, 1994, Justice Tajudeen Odunowo of Federal High Court, Lagos ordered the immediate re-opening*13 of Punch as it awarded the newspaper N25 million as damages while its Editor, Bola Bolawole was awarded N100,000.00 as damages for unlawful detention.

Said Justice Odunowo:

“Even if an offence was committed by them, the government has a panoply of sanctions that could be inflicted on the company under the civil and criminal laws of libel, obscenity, sedition etc. That such a course was not adopted against the applicants is a clear indication that there was no legal authority for the respondents’ actions. In these days of massive unemployment and grave recession, it is unconscionable for any Government to adopt any action that is likely to disturb the economic wellbeing of over 400 of her citizens s happened in the case…. One wonders why the government did not take advantage of the remedies available under the Nigeria Press Council (NPC) which was recently set up by the military regime.. These violations cannot be justified on any of the grounds that the invasion of their rights was done in the interest of security, public safety, public order or public morality.”

This decision was recently affirmed by the Supreme court.

Similarly, Justice Babatunde Belgore, the Chief Judge of Federal High Court on August 18, 1994, ordered immediate re-opening of Concord14 and awarded N1.5 million as damages.

Justice Mamman Kolo, of Federal High Court also ordered the immediate re-opening of The Guardian.15 All these court orders were disdainfully flouted by the Federal Government.

Decrees were the major legislative tools of military governments and in Nigeria, they were churned with much devious rapidity. Decrees were enacted to circumscribe the practice of journalism.

Between 1966 and 1998, the following Decrees and Edicts were promulgated by the military against the Press:

1.Circulation of Newspapers Decree No. 2 of 1966

2.The Defamatory and Offensive Publications Decree No. 44 of 1966

3.Newspaper Prohibition of Circulation Decree No. 17 of 1967.

4.The Sunday Star and Imole Owuro (Prohibition) Edict No. 17, 1968

The Printers and Publishers of the Sunday Star and the Imole Owuro (Declaration as unlawful society) Edict No. 19, 1968.

5.Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree No. 11 of 1976

6.Daily Times of Nigeria (Transfer of Certain Shares) Decree No. 1 of 1979.

7.Newspaper  (Prohibition of Circulation) (Validation) Decree No. 12 of 1978

8.Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree No. 4 of 1984

9.Newswatch (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) Decree No. 6 of 1987.

10.The Reporter (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) Decree No. 23 of 1993

11.Offensive Publication (Proscription) Decree No. 35 of 1993

12.Treason and Treasonable Offences Decree No. 29 of 1993

13.Newspapers Registration Decree No. 43 of 1993

14.The News (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) Decree of 1993

15.Newspapers etc. (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) Decree 48 of 1993 proscribing Concord, Punch, Sketch and Observer Groups of Newspapers)

16.The Concord Newspapers and African Concord weekly magazine (Prohibition from Circulation) Decree No. 6 of 1994.

17.The Punch Newspaper (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) Decree No. 7 of 1994.

18.The Guardian Newspapers and Guardian Weekly Magazine (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) Decree No. 9 of 1994.

19.Concord Newspapers and African Concord Magazine (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) (Extension of Time) Order 1994 and the Punch 20.Newspaper (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) (Extension of Time) Order 1994.

21.The Guardian Newspapers and African Guardian Weekly Magazine (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) (Extension of Time) Order 1995.

Some of these Decrees never went unchallenged by the Press.

In 1984, when the Buhari junta jailed two Guardian reporters, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson one year each under Decree 4, The Guardian management went to court*16 for a proper interpretation of Decree 4, particularly as regards whether if a story which embarrassed the government and was true could be an offence under the Decree.

Then Chief Judge of Lagos State, Late Justice Adetunji Adefarasin in his ruling on July 26, 1984 held that by virtue of the provisions of Decree 4 of 1984 “it is unlawful for the plaintiffs to publish any report or statement which is true, which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or a State Government or a public officer to ridicule or disrepute.”

Similarly, the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) went to court asking for the nullification of the Decree*17.

In his ruling on June 8, 1983, Justice Yaya Jinadu held that he had jurisdiction to entertain the suit but that the NUJ lacked the locus standi to institute the action.

On appeal at the Court of Appeal, the court further affirmed that the NUJ had no locus standi. Although, this pronouncement on locus standi may sounded illogical because if the NUJ had no locus standi to sue on behalf of journalists, who then had the locus standi?

In this case, counsel to the NUJ made a fatal error by not annexing NUJ constitution to the pleadings to show that it had a sufficient interest in the case.

However, in 1993 in the case of Richard Akinnola v. General Ibrahim Babangida*18, Justice Solomon Hunponu -Wusu of Lagos High Court ruled that the plaintiff had the locus standi to sue on behalf of himself and other journalists.

The plaintiff(as it was then known), challenged the promulgation of the Decree 43 of 199319, a Decree that laid down stringent conditions for the registration of both existing and up-coming publications. The court restrained the Federal Government from implementing the Decree until the suit was disposed off.

The Federal Government objected to the suit on the grounds that the plaintiff had no locus standi and that the court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the suit.

But in his ruling, Justice Hunponu-Wusu held that the plaintiff/applicant had locus standi. (See Cases and materials on Human Rights in Nigeria, page 267).

On the issue of jurisdiction, the Court held that since Nigeria is a signatory to the African Charter on Human and People Rights Cap. 10 Laws of the Federation, a Charter that preserves the jurisdiction of courts, it superseded any ouster clause in any Decree.

Also in the case of Guardian Newspapers v.The Attorney General of the Federation20 on the same Decree 43 of 1993, Justice Samuel Ilori of Ikeja High Court declared the Decree null and void.


1. Sunday Star and Imole Owuro (Prohibition) Edict No. 17 of 1968.

2.Newspaper (Proscription from Circulation (Violation) Decree No. 12 of 1978

3.Newswatch (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation Decree No. 6 of 1987

4.Dr. Olu Onagoruwa v. General Ibrahim Babangida (1980) 1 NLR 254

5.Newspapers etc (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) Decree No. 48 of 1993

6.The News (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) Decree of 1993

7.The Reporter (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) Decree No. 23 of 1993

8.Offensive Publication (Proscription) Decree No. 25 of 1993

9.The Registered Trustees of the Constitutional Rights Project v. A-G of the Federation & 4 Ors. Suit No. M/353/93.

10.The Concord Newspapers & African Concord Weekly Magazine (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) Decree No. 6 of 1994.

11.The Punch Newspapers (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) Decree No. 7 of 1994

12.The Guardian Newspapers & African Guardian Weekly Magazine (Proscription and Prohibition from Circulation) Decree No. 9 of 1994.

13.The Punch Nigeria Ltd. v Inspector General of Police. Suit No. FHC/L/CS/608/94

14.Concord Press Limited v Inspector-General of Police. Suit No. FHC/L/CS/608/94

15.Guardian Newspaper Ltd. v Inspector-General of Police

16.Guardian Newspaper Ltd. v Attorney-General of the Federation. Suit No. M/139/84.

17.Nigeria Union of Journalists v Attorney-General of the Federation 1986 LRC (CONS)

18.Richard Akinnola v General Ibrahim Babangida & 3 Ors. Suit No. M/482/93

19.Newspapers Registration Decree No. 43 of 1993

20.The Guardian Newspaper Ltd. v Attorney-General of the Federation (Suit No. ID/525M/93.

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