Nigerian Press Council Bill a crossbreed of obnoxious military decrees, say stakeholders
In every country, society, institution or organization, there are laws and ethics that guide various aspects of life. The media is not an exception. It has been argued that governments across the world tend to suppress and harass the media and cow it from doing its lawful duties of being watchdog of society and holding governments accountable to the people.
Different administrations in Nigeria have had encounters or face-offs with men of the press. Under the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, there have been controversial cases of journalists’ arrests and detentions without trial. Notable among them is the case of the publisher of Weekly Source newspaper, Mr. Jones Abiri, who on July 21, 2016, was arrested by men of the Department of State Services (SSS) in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State.
His arrest and detention drew the outrage of international news organization. Ahead of the International Press Institute (IPI) conference last June, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and 18 other organisations wrote a letter to Buhari demanding the immediate release of Mr. Abiri. CPJ expressed anger that despite efforts to secure his release and assurances by representatives of the state that he would be charged to court, Abiri was still in captivity.
The group had noted, “We were disappointed that after repeated requests during CPJ’s visit to Nigeria in April 2018, we were not permitted to visit Abiri in detention. In a meeting with CPJ on April 24, 2018, Garba Shehu, your presidential spokesperson, confirmed that Abiri remained in DSS custody and said he would be charged to court on allegations of being a militant. Yet after almost two years behind bars, Abiri has not seen a courtroom, nor has his family been given any information about his health and well-being.”
However, at IPI World Congress, the Federal Government through the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, debunked the report by CPJ, saying that the person the CPJ was referring to was never a journalist.
“Let me state here, without equivocating,” Lai said, “that contrary to the report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), no journalist is in detention in Nigeria. “Clement Abiri, who is being referred to as a journalist, is not one. He does not belong to any chapel of the Nigerian Union of Journalists.”
Nevertheless, it has been two years and Abiri, a husband, father of five children, and breadwinner for his family, including an 80-year-old mother and several siblings, was last Thursday presented before a magistrate court in Abuja. The court appearance was obviously invoked after a N200 million suit filed by Femi Falana Chambers against Department of State Services (DSS) and the outcry of media stakeholders and human rights groups.
The case, however, could not proceed because the DSS failed to produce its witnesses and the matter had to be adjourned till August 16 with Abiri being remanded in Keffi Prison.
However, Mr. Falana had written an open letter to Buhari in December 2017 asking him to end the illegal arrest and detention without legal justification of Nigerians by security agencies, noting, “Subject to obtaining a court order, section 27 of the Terrorism Act permits a detention for 90 days which, subject to review, can be renewed once for another period of 90 days. Afterwards you have to release the suspect, either conditionally or unconditionally, you grant the suspect bail.”
Other cases of arrest and detention include those of a Lokoja-based journalist and publisher, Mr. Friday Ogungbemi, who was arrested on November 30 over alleged offensive publication. On January 1, 2018, blogger, Mr. Daniel Elombah and his brother Mr. Izuchukwu Elombah were arrested in Nnewi, Anambra State and detained without trial for 25 days by Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
Also, Directorate of State Security DSS detained Mr. Tony Ezimakor, a journalist with Independent newspapers on February 28, 2018 for writing a story alleging a ransom to Boko Haram for the release of 82 of the Chibok schoolgirls. On March 13, 2018, Musa Abdullahi Kirishi, a reporter with Daily Trust newspapers was abducted by heavily armed policemen in the premises of the National Assembly, Abuja. On June 1, 2015, police in Abuja attacked Muhammad Atta-Kafin-Dangi, a journalist with Radio Nigeria for attempting to cover a protest staged by commercial motorcyclists.
On June 25, 2015, publisher of Prime Magazine, Mr. Yomi Olomofe, was severely beaten at the Nigerian Customs Service office in Badagry on account of investigating reports that customs officials on the Nigeria-Benin border were assisting smugglers.
As if these assaults on media practitioners by state security officials are not enough, the Senate is in the process of passing Nigerian Press Council Bill that seeks to regulate journalism practice by establishing a statutory body to arbitrate between the media and members of the public. In fact, the Bill seeks to criminalise media practitioners. This is opposed to the insistence of media practitioners that self- regulation subject to the existing laws of the land is the best guarantee for media freedom in a democratic society.
The Bill, which will repeal the Nigerian Press Council Act of 1992, according to the Senate leadership, expunges draconian laws and has made amendments to fit into the contemporary developments in the media landscape.
However, the media community, comprising the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), the Newspaper Proprietor Association of Nigeria, NPAN, the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), and Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria (BON) has opposed the Bill.
They have also outlined their objection to the Bill. According to them, “The Bill appears to be a subtle crossbreed of the obnoxious military decrees: the Public Officers [protection Against False Information] Decree No.4 of 1984 enacted under then Head of State, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, and the Newspapers Registration Decree No.43 of 1993. Incidentally, the former military ruler is now the elected President.
“It seeks to criminalise journalism practice despite the fact that the laws of the country already have enough provisions and avenues for seeking legal redress. It also seeks to incapacitate the media in the exercise of the duties and obligations imposed on it by section 22 of the constitution to monitor governance and hold government accountable to the people. It seeks for the Nigeria Press Council to usurp the powers of the courts by assuming extra-judicial powers.”
Media stakeholders have also voiced the dismay on the constant attacks on journalists by security operatives. According to Prof. Lai Oso of Lagos State University, there has been some form of intolerance going on in the country, adding, “I think everybody should talk about it. Media practitioners and civil society organisations must be more vigilant, especially as we go into 2019. All the contending groups would be doing one thing or the other to control the press in their favour. We have to be realistic; no ruling group wants a powerful media. It is the nature of the civil society that guaranties freedom of the press and not government.”
Oso, however, said the media was a strong institution that refused to give in to the military demands back in the day, saying, “The structure of Nigeria itself will not allow any group or government to control or destroy the freedom that the press has been enjoying.”
Director, International Press Centre, Mr. Lanre Arogundade, said, “The proposed Press Council Bill in sections dealing with penalties clearly seeks to criminalise journalism by recommending reprimand, fine and or six months imprisonment for violation of ethical or professional code. The drafters apparently chose to turn a blind eye to existing laws dealing with libel or defamation.
“Sections of the Bill also give the council the power to request that the media hand over documents, meaning that journalists will no longer be able to protect their sources. All this constitutes threats to press freedom and safety of journalists. The future of the media will be in jeopardy if laws like this come into being.”
Country director of United Nations Information Centre (UNIC), Lagos, Mr. Ronald Kayanja, stressed that government must ensure the safety of journalists, and the justice system must ensure that there is no impunity by bringing to book all those who attack journalists.
“Journalists sometimes fear to report on certain issues because there is no good justice system that supports them,” he said. “It is in everybody’s interest that there is freedom of expression in Nigeria, not just for the journalists. This will strengthen the democracy that Nigeria is nurturing.”
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