Tuesday, July 13, 2021 1:29 pm
The Nigerian Press Council and the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (Media) Act Amendment Bills throw a wedge between journalists in Nigeria and the Muhammadu Buhari government
By Richard Elesho
Only once since the country’s return to democracy, in what is nicknamed Fourth Republic, has a proposed constitutional amendment generated so much hoopla. That was during the unsuccessful and infamous third term attempt of 2005-2006.
For a season, the Nigerian media and relevant stakeholders have been neck deep in discussions on two amendment bills of the Nigerian Press Council, NPC, Act and the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission, NBC, Act. The matter became so heated that on Monday, 12 July 2021, the Nigerian Union of Journalists, NUJ; Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE, and Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, NPAN, sponsored a front page advert on front pages of Nigerian newspapers (see The Nation and The Punch above), entitled “Information Blackout.”
They wrote: “This is what the National Assembly wants to achieve with the NPC and NBC (Media) Act Amendment Bills. It is not just against the media…it is about society’s right to know, your right to be heard.”
Although touted as private initiatives, the twin amendment bills betray apparent government’s intention to suffocate media freedom. The harsh provisions will make Draco, that 7th century ruthless Athenian lawmaker green with envy.
A Bill for an Act to amend the Nigerian Press Council Act CAP N128, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria1992, was sponsored by Rep Olusegun Odebunmi, a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC from Oyo State. Odebunmi doubles as the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values. The bill purports “to remove bottlenecks affecting its performance and make the Council in tune with current realities in regulating the press and for related matters.”
On a closer scrutiny however, the proposed amendments contain many provisions that create a hostile environment for the media industry. The controversial contents domicile in five major areas: Powers of the Minister of Information; outrageous fines and jail term for offenders; requisite for registration of print media outfits; criminalization of vendors and penalty for purveyors of fake news.
The bills seek to arrogate to the Minister powers that make him like a Headmaster wielding the big stick on media practitioners and beating everyone to line. A sampler is in section 3 of the contentious proposed amendment vesting the NPC with varying powers.
Section 3 (c): “With the approval of the minister in charge of information, establish and disseminate a national Press Code and standards to guide conduct of print media, related media and media practitioners.
“(d) Approve penalties and fines against violation of the Press Code by print media houses and media practitioners, including revocation of license.
“(e) Receive, process and consider applications for the establishment, ownership and operation of print media and other related media houses;
“(f) With the approval of the minister, grant print media and other related licenses to any application considered worthy of such;
“(g) Monitor activities of the press, media and other related media houses to ensure compliance with the National Press Code for professional and ethical conduct, including the Nigerian Union of Journalists.
Together with the NBC bill, also sponsored by Odebunmi, analysts described the proposed amendments as smokescreen to stifle the media. Not without reasons. The Federal Government has routinely applied harsh punitive measures against media houses in the country. For instance, in the last nine months Arise TV, Channels TV, AIT and Jay FM have either been suspended or required to pay heavy fines in questionable circumstances.
The President Muhammodu Buhari administration has since inception, proven to be increasingly not permissive of criticism and free press. Early signs of the intolerance manifested in the use of new terminologies like hate speech and fake news to sometimes describe the other view. The recent face off between the administration and social media platforms which degenerated to the ban on Twitter in the country further raised the level of suspicion between government and stakeholders.
The dust raised by the Twitter ban was yet to settle when in early June, the NBC in a newspaper advertisement required all broadcast outfits including social media platforms to obtain licences from NBC. On June 11, federal government removed the Acting Director General of NBC, Armstrong Idachaba and appointed Balarabe Shehu Ilelah as substantive DG.
The level of distrust is so high that newspapers in the country have concluded plans on a national protest on the bills. The Nigerian Press Organisation, NPO an umbrella body consisting of Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, NPAN and the Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE, according to reports, have resolved to resist government’s attempt to stifle the media’s constitutional freedom of speech, even as it set as from July 12, 2021 to stage a Front Page protest by publishing a uniform artwork condemning the bills in major newspapers.
A statement signed by Mr. Feyi Smith, on behalf NPAN, described the bills as sinister, draconian and a poor mix or resurrection of the obnoxious Public Officers Protection Against False accusation Decree No. 4 of 1984 and the Newspapers Registration Decree 43 of 1993, both vestiges of the dark days of military rule.
“It confers on the Press Council the power to determine ethics and fake news, investigate infractions and impose fines on journalists, publishers and distributors. It proposes fines of up to N.25 million on the journalist, and N5 million on a corporate body. It specifies jail terms of one to three years and fines ranging from N.25 million to N5 million on journalists, news agents and media outlets.
“It proposes a fine of between N2 million to N5 million to erring purveyors, two years in jail and compensation for fake news while the medium of publication is liable to N10 million fine or closure for one year in addition to payment of N20 million as compensation to the aggrieved party.
“The new NBC is no less galling, making the Minister of Information the Monster Minister with sweeping powers to make and enforce regulations online and offline.”
Media stakeholders in a reaction said the proposed bill is unconstitutional as it runs against the principle and tenets of the rule of law. “It is subjudice of a pending case on the subject matter before the highest court of the land – the Supreme Court. That it violates the rule of the National Assembly not to deliberate on matters that have been surrendered to the Court for adjudication.
The group noted that the bills lack any redeeming feature of a good law as they are discriminatory and offensive to public good and morality. They urged Nigerians to resist any attempt to criminalise journalism.
A veteran journalist and former Governor of Ogun State, Olusegun Osoba said the proposal is worse than Decree 4, which incidentally was promulgated when Buhari was Head of State in 1984. Using provisions of the decree, two Nigerian journalists, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson were jailed for writing a story on ambassadorial postings in the Guardian.
The former Governor noted that Decree 4 was restricted to the disclosure of sources of information while the one they are proposing now includes obtaining a license before you can build a press hub. “You have to obtain a license. It says before you can even begin printing a newspaper, you must obtain a license. It is far-reaching and sweeping.” He urged Nigerians to resist any attempt to abridge their fundamental human rights.
A coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) comprising Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), Media Rights Agenda (MRA), International Press Centre (IPC) and the Centre for Media Law and Advocacy in a joint memorandum, also said some clauses in the Press Council Bill posed dangers to the freedom of the press.
The Executive Director of IPC Lanre Arogundade, on behalf of the group, said Section Three of the proposed bill would make the media a department of the Federal Ministry of Information.
“A professional code of professional conduct for the media should never be subject of the approval of the ministry or any other political authority,” the CSOs said.
Idris Miliki, Executive Director, Conscience for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, CHRCR in an interaction with The News condemned what he described as attempt to shortchange Nigerians through an oppressive amendment and called on right thinking people to resist the moves. “A free press is crucial to true democracy. In fact, there can be no democracy where the mass media is mennacled. The law makers should have a rethink on the so called amendment.”
In separated interviews with The Punch, Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch Plus Magazine, Ray Ekpu; Managing director, TheNews Magazine, Bayo Onanuga; two-term President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Gbenga Adefaye; as well as NGE incumbent President, Mustapha Isah; condemned the government on this matter.
According to Ekpu: “Both military and civilian governments that we had in the past tried to muzzle the freedom of the press and the press has always fought valiantly. The people who are doing this have no idea of the historical significance of the struggle for press freedom and free speech in this country. What is happening is not strange because President Buhari is not a democrat even though he claims that he is a born-again democrat. Decree 4 is Buhari’s decree; he is bringing it back in a democratic form using people like Lai Mohammed. He has been talking about China – ‘In China, you can’t use your phone, in China, you can’t do this and that’ but are we in China? We were in China before for many years during different military governments but that is no longer the case.”
Onanuga also argued: “The Nigerian spirit is stronger than any attempt by the government to gag the media. The government has never succeeded and I don’t see it succeeding now and I hope that people in the National Assembly would resist all these attempts to gag the media, either electronic or print and respect press freedom and every Nigerian has a right to freedom of expression because all attempts to gag the media will fail.
“Lai (Mohammed) may not understand what he has done but it is a great assault on press freedom; the freedom to freely say anything you want to say under a democracy because that freedom is guaranteed under the constitution.”
Adefaye submitted: “Shutting down Twitter and some clearly obnoxious laws are very frightening. Under no circumstance should any government do such. They want to return us to the dark age with the intended amendments.
“These are anachronistic moves that are reprehensible, condemnable and should be resisted and fought against. Those in government forget that they are in tenured appointment forgetting that their time will be up in 2023.”
NGE President, Mustapha Isah, said, “Presently, we are planning series of actions against the design to completely muzzle press freedom in this country and we will not allow it. We will not sit idly and allow them to do that.
“Freedom of expression is in our constitution. This is even beyond Decree 4 right now; what is happening is beyond Decree 4. In a democracy? This won’t be allowed. The NGE is already working with other organisations like the NUJ and other civil society organisations on actions.