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The press, the cage, the hang rope

By Dan Agbese
03 August 2018   |   3:50 am
Every bony hand owned by men in power loves to reach for the scrawny neck of the press. This unholy ambition has a long history in our country. It began only three years after Lord Lugard did what not every Nigerian today thinks was all that wise. The Newspapers Ordinance of 1917, itself a dust…

Press Freedom

Every bony hand owned by men in power loves to reach for the scrawny neck of the press.

This unholy ambition has a long history in our country.

It began only three years after Lord Lugard did what not every Nigerian today thinks was all that wise.

The Newspapers Ordinance of 1917, itself a dust up on the same law enacted in 1903, became the first shot in the battle to cage the men and women who make it their business to inform, educate and keep the people entertained lest personal frustration morphs into depression – and the grave offers a warm hand of welcome.

The Nigerian press, under any and all forms of government, has been the most regulated social institution in our fatherland.

A few years down the road, Prince Tony Momoh, editor, media manager, columnist, lawyer and former minister of information, compiled a disturbing evidence of official hostility towards the Nigerian press.

According to him, there had been 51 anti-press laws in the land since 1917 as at the time he compiled them.

I am sure the number must have since inched up, seeing as I am not aware of the emergence of a new generation of press lovers in the corridors of power in our country.

If you look at each of those laws as a rope in search of an editor’s neck, you would have a fairly good idea of what the press has been up against.

You may wonder why these people find the editor’s neck so attractive.

I can think of no neck less attractive than that of an editor.

It always appears to me like a cross between the neck of a turkey and that of the starved vulture. No insult intended.

Any way, the effluvium of time being what it is, few of us would remember that the first open legislative battle against the press was the Newspapers (Amendment) Act, 1964.

It was the first time the big men tried to impress on the Nigerian press that they had no qualms in making editors and their reporters walk the tiny rope across the River Niger.

That is, if they dared to publish stories that made the breakfast of the important men taste like a ten-day old saw dust.

The law caused an uproar in and outside parliament. Section 4(1) of the law showed that its intendment was not to encourage good, professional journalism in our country but to narrow the frontiers of journalistic enterprise.

That section provided that “Any person who authorises for publication, publishes, reproduces or circulates for sale in a newspaper any statement, rumour or report knowing or having reason to believe that such statement, rumour or report is false shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine of two hundred pounds sterling or to imprisonment for a term of one year.”

The ostensible objective of that section of the law was to ensure that people were not made victims of rumours circulated in the press.

In other words, it was intended to stop Amebo and her children from being the new face of our journalism.

Sounded reasonable; except that its rationale was badly tainted.

In truth, it had a more sinister objective. It was to ensure that the press was kept on a short leash.

That obnoxious provision gave birth many years later to two other equally obnoxious laws under the generals.

One was decree 11 of 1976 of the Obasanjo military administration and the other was decree 4 of 1984 of the Buhari military administration.

You see, obnoxious laws do have this nasty habit of giving birth to more obnoxious laws.

What is remarkable is that thanks to the gut and the gumption of the Nigerian press the 51 anti-press laws had the life of a mosquito.

Their nuisance value, like the buzzing of the mosquito in your ears, soon ran their course and were heard no more.

But the anti-press men and women have not given up.

The battle has now shifted to the senate of the Federal Republic where a bill with an innocuous title of Nigerian Press Council Act 1992 (Repeal and Re-enactment Bill 2018) is the new weapon in the unending anti-press war.

There is no sign of a let up in sight.

Every professional group has an internal mechanism for regulating the actions and the public behaviour of its members to ensure that it has a clean and favourable public image.

The lawyers have the NBA; the doctors have theirs; so do architects, quantity surveyors and dentists.

The Nigerian press, under the aegis of the Nigerian Press Organisation, enacted a code of conduct many years ago that enjoins its members to act professionally, responsibly and patriotically in the discharge of their duty.

The press is in a peculiar situation.

Its policing system is not, I would imagine, as simple as that of the NBA.

For one, its relationship with the public is not always chummy-chummy.

When you sit in the newsroom, you could always hear the flapping wings of lawyers – birds of prey in search of the isolated kobo in the shallow pocket of the much harassed editor.

They are the visible faces of libel threats.

The press council was conceived in Britain and other countries with a much longer history of press-public relations than ours, essentially to arbitrate in disputes between the press and the public.

If a man’s mood gets sour over a publication, he takes his case to the press council.

The idea was to discourage, as much as possible, frivolous litigations that would only keep lawyers throwing adjectives at editors.

But the birth of the Nigerian Press Council, once headed by that venerable journalist, the late Alade Odunewu, has not given the Nigerian press much restful sleep because of government intrusion.

Instead of the government accepting the council as an important professional forum that serves both the press and the public, the government insists on owning it. It is wrong.

Government has no business owning the press council or interfering with its staffing or defining its functions.

These are the responsibilities of the professional journalists, consistent with what obtains else where in the rest of the world.

In 1992, the Nigerian Press Organisation, made up of the NPAN, the Guild of Editors, the NUJ and the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria, fought the unacceptable provisions of the law.

Its courageous leaders from the print and the electronic media stood up to the anti-press elements in the corridors of power.

This is the law the current bill in the senate purports to amend.

In the so-called amendments, the leash gets shorter still for the press.

The entire council is placed under the minister of information who would have the power to appoint all the members of the council; and he would appoint such persons from within and outside the press.

The council would have powers to register publications as well as journalists in the country.

It would be the business of the council to approve of tertiary institutions for the training of journalists.

Let us not pretend or engage in sweet talk about this.

The distinguished members of the senate are blissfully ignorant of the primary purpose of a press council.

They seem to have conflated a regulatory agency with a professional agency intended to create better press-public relations.

The rest of the world must be shaking its head over this latest crass attempt by our law-makers to turn the press council into a regulatory agency controlled by the government.

We must stop them. We either have a press council as it is known in other lands or we should have none.

We must not be complicit in the systemic erosion of our freedom as professionals. We did it before. Let us to do it again.

There are more important national issues crying for legislation than the obnoxious attempt to put the hang rope around the neck of the press.

Let the distinguished men and women engage in the productive labour of defecting and trying to balance in the political storm of their own making.