Padlocks on the press
Yesterday the Nigerian Senate held a public hearing on a bill to amend the Press Council Act.
The Press Council idea has been rearing its horrid head since 1977 when General Olusegun Obasanjo’s military government decided that it needed to padlock the lips of the press.
It was a very draconian legislation and the press, angered by its obnoxious content, decided to give it a cold shoulder.
In a strong show of unity and unanimity, the three arms of the Nigerian Press Organisation (Nigerian Union of Journalists, Nigerian Guild of Editors and the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria) refused to nominate their members to serve on the Council.
With that deft move the Decree was dead on arrival.
President Ibrahim Babangida also came up with his own version which the Press also ignored until Prince Tony Momoh who was the Minister of Information using his influence with the media coaxed the media into giving the issue another look-in.
The media nominated Alade Odunewu a man whom they trusted for his professionalism and sense of fairness as chairman.
He had also been an Ombudsman for the Daily Times Group. But on the day of the inauguration there was no copy of the Decree setting it up.
I asked the respected senior journalist, who used to write a riveting column with the pen name of Allah De, whether he had a copy of the decree. His reply was “No, but they have assured me that this new version is okay.”
When we saw it, it was far from being okay. The Press continued with its agitation for its abrogation until Babangida left office.
When General Sani Abacha overthrew the leader of the Interim Government, Chief Ernest Shonekan, he pushed something really barbaric against the press.
He rolled out something called mass media commission which was to perform newspaper licencing with a press court in the arsenal.
We waged a relentless war against it and opened a Hall of Infamy for journalists like M. C. K Ajuluchukwu who had accepted to serve as betrayers of their profession.
Luckily for the press, Abacha who had been nominated by some cowardly politicians as the sole presidential candidate of five parties died suddenly.
In an article I wrote at the time, I described the marriage as political polyandry while Chief Bola Ige, the Cicero of Ibadan, called it the “five fingers of a leprous hand.” His mass media commission and press court were as dead as a dodo.
But the marathon of verbal exchanges between the government and the press did not end with the Abacha regime. General Abdulsalami Abubakar who succeeded Abacha revived it.
The NPO held series of meetings, tinkered with the Decree and came up with a version that seemed tolerable to most practitioners.
But that was not the end of the matter. Some military personnel and civil servants decided to doctor it.
The press rejected that truncated version and it died a natural death.
Since then all kinds of dogooders including some fifth columnists in the press have been working clandestinely and bringing one obnoxious version of it after another. None of them had cut any ice with the press.
So this version of the Press Council Act is the fifth time that the press is confronting the monster. This monster will die too.
The surprise of it is that this version is brought under a democratic government. All the other four versions were initiated by military governments.
One could understand but not necessarily appreciate the eagerness of military dictators to clamp down on the press.
The press was always sniping at their feet and urging them to respect human rights and to return quickly to their barracks and trenches.
To see that it is very politicians for whom the press suffered to usher in this democracy that are the ones seeking to suppress the press is the unkindest cut.
When the military dictators were proscribing newspapers and magazines, throwing journalists into detention and some were made to disappear these politicians were nowhere to be found. They were not near the theatre of conflict.
They had run into their hiding holes while the media and civil society groups bore the bruises from blows unleashed on them below and above the belt by the dictators.
Today, most of the politicians are simply reaping from where they didn’t sow while the media are still licking the wounds of war.
The politicians have conveniently forgotten that the media are the true midwives of this democracy. Well, people do not always know the true worth of water until the well is dry.
The revised version of the Press Council Act is being debated at the Senate while we have a case now at the Supreme Court initiated several years ago by the NPAN on the press council affair.
If the Senate wants to be seen as law abiding it will refrain from attempting to legislate on a matter that is at the highest court of the land.
Since the matter is in court I do not intend to comment on its draconian attributes, its anti-press freedom motive, its attempt to criminalise the practice of journalism, its usurpation of the courts’ powers and its confrontation with democratic values.
We had been seeing the silhouette of this legislation many kilometres away when people were making obnoxious comments on civil society, social media, fake news and hate speech.
These were the shadows of this anachronistic legislation. The shadows got here earlier.
My advice to the media is: brace up for a long struggle with anti-press and anti-democratic forces bearing in mind that there is no royal road to freedom.
But the legislators ought to first look at sections 22 and 39 of the 1999 Constitution.
I urge them to also peep into Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement Act) No. 2 of 1983 to which Nigeria is a signatory.
These various references give the press a duty and the freedom with which to perform that duty.
Any attempt to miniaturise these duties and the freedom to accomplish them will be a derogation from the letters and spirit of the Nigerian Constitution and the African Charter.
Most people believe there are enough laws in the books to take care of any infractions by the press.
This new legislation is a land mine. If the legislators lay these land mines do they know whose toes will detonate the bomb?
It may be theirs. Our democracy is still a work in progress. It still has a lot of hiccups.
People get detained without trial. People are offered bail by the courts but are not released.
Legislators may feel that they are in their comfort zone now.
But when the unhappy moments come they will have to turn to the courts or the media, two institutions that they wish to diminish with this legislation.
Instead, I would advise our legislators to look into the books and delete media laws that are outdated.
I can name three: (a) Sedition Law: The law had been declared unconstitutional by the Court of Appeal in 1983 in the case between the activist, Chief Arthur Nwankwo and Chief Jim Nwobodo, then Governor of Anambra State.
But the various governments have brought it up from time to time as an intimidation weapon.
(b) Official Secrets Act of 1962: This law enacted in the immediate post-colonial period with all the vestiges of colonialism is an anachronism in a democracy.
This law breeds the culture of secrecy in public affairs and this is antithetical to democracy’s culture of transparency and accountability.
It should be repealed. (c) Public Order Act: This law requires individuals and groups who wish to hold demonstrations or rallies in public places to apply for and receive police permits before such rallies.
This is a law that has been declared invalid in a democracy.
In December 2007, Justice Rabiu Danladi Mohammed of the Court of Appeal had declared that the law was alien to our democracy and of no effect.
He also said that public protests are part of the freedom of expression and association guaranteed in our Constitution.
The Police have always countered that they have a constitutional duty to maintain law and order and that that duty is not nullified or abridged by the judgement.
A few weeks ago, Mrs Oby Ezekwesili, a former Minister of Education, mounted a one-person protest and was heading for Aso Villa with her placard when she was roughened up and blocked from going further.
I suggest the National Assembly makes an insertion in the Constitution that will reinforce the decision of Justice Mohammed.
That may checkmate the Police since the Police authorities feel that the decision of the Court of Appeal is inferior to their responsibility as enshrined in the Constitution.
I also urge the National Assembly to adopt the Ghanaian model of protecting and defending press freedom by enacting an anti-censorship legislation.
Article 162 (2) of the Ghanaian Constitution states that “there shall be no censorship in Ghana.”
Section 4 of that article states that “Editors of newspapers and other institutions of the mass media shall not be subject to control or interference by government nor shall they be penalized or harassed for their editorial opinions and views or the content of their publications.”
I urge our legislators to borrow a leaf from Ghana and clothe the Nigerian press with the wherewithal for the robust defence of our democracy and the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution.
Nigerians have had their rights undeservedly marched under the big boots of military dictators over the years.
It is the responsibility of our legislators under our democracy to help us to retrieve some of our rights that have been mangled for long.
Let the National Assembly rise like an awakening giant and defend the values of freedom which form the bulwark of any democracy.
Our own deserves no less. It would be gravely sad if they, as elected legislators, cannot shine some bright lights at some of the dark corners of our national life for which the dictators in khaki and agbada stand condemned.
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