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Again, the obnoxious bill…Amicus Plato

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Lai Mohammed

The readers may be wondering why I say again. It is to connect the past with the present. It is about Lai Mohammed’s unrelenting efforts to hamstring the media since 2017. It is not unusual in these climes to have spacecraft in readiness to transport leaders into the clouds for them to lose their heads.

Exactly 32 years ago, I wrote in these pages, drawing the attention of President Ibrahim Babangida to the cheer orchestra and the clapping crowd around him. The piece was captioned “Amicus Plato…” It reads as follows:

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“In a period of disquiet, all manner of suggestion and criticisms inundate those interested in public affairs. Usually, attention shifts to criticisms to see what can be learned from upbraiding, to see who is making the criticisms and to ferret the motives of the critics. Is the criticism in the normal course of duty of professional critics? When does a critic become a security risk? In the period of unease, the friends of the king step forward to protect the king’s interest, and they regard every critic as a devil deserving of surveillance or public condemnation. In their zealotry friends are sometimes passed as felons and saboteurs. It happened 15 years ago. History is repeating itself today.

“A decade and a half ago, a reporter from the Daily Telegraph in London happened to be an unannounced guest on our shores. He witnessed our commotion. He saw other things. As reporters are wont to do, he kept quiet. No one suspected him. Typical of detectives in the Fourth Estate of the Realm, on getting back to his desk in London, he flung his report at his editor. The report had hardly reached Nigeria when certain friends of the powers that were filed their own counter-report and they accused that newspaper of ill-will against Nigeria and her people. Businessmen they were. Foreigners they were as well. Many Nigerians thought the newspaper did nothing wrong and its report was accurate as far as they knew.

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“Today, a repeat performance, it seems, is taking place. The cast is different. The actors are Nigerians. They have been seeing the dragon in every critic. But on those who see things through their own eyes, they have lavished praises. I am happy I will number among those who deserve their encomiums. I support the principle that undergirds SAP absolutely as an apostle of a free-market economy. (See this column of June 15) and I cannot stand riotous conduct. The President is likable and he can do with our love and support in the onerous tasks of administering Nigeria. And we should rally around him to save him from his friends, for our tribe is growing. His ‘enemies’ he can take care of—apologies to my boss, Allah-De. To his friends, Third Eye & Co. I commend Aristotle’s words:

“Amicus Plato, amicus Socrates, sed magis amica veritas.” For the benefit of those who threw away their Clarendon at the insistent urgings of Tai Solarin in the days of nationalism: “Plato is dear to me, Socrates is dear, but the truth is dearer still.”

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Today, history, this stubborn, this unrelenting and intrusive foe and friend, yes, foe and friend at the same time, is in character repeating itself—I mean as it is wont to do. The Buhari Administration is pursuing Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho breathlessly so that when they are taught the right lessons, noise-making would end, banditry would stop, kidnapping would evaporate and herdsmen’s palaver would be over. For Kanu and Sunday Igboho, there is and there can be no dialogue, no education: Young men, what is your problem? No, they must be crushed with all the powers the state can muster. I cannot say on oath that Governor Masari of Katsina State, Sheikh Gumi and Governor Bello Matawalle were aware that there should be no face-to-face meeting with bandits, with Gumi serving as a go-between in negotiations involving parents or authorities and kidnappers.

As it happened in 2017, we are back again at efforts to muzzle the media. Although the National Assembly has suspended the obnoxious National Press Council (NPC) and National Broadcast Commission (NBC) (Media) Act Amendment Bills, all who understand the implications of a curb on freedom of expression cannot afford to take things for granted and go to sleep any longer.

A fumbling government gets easily irritated when its failings are brought to the open and called to account. Such a government gets desperate; it begins to find ways of curbing freedoms mostly those of freedom of expression and assembly, ostensibly, in its own light and by its own definition of national interest. It resorts to distractions. Announcing the suspension of the Bill, its sponsor, Segun Odebunmi, chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Information, National Orientation Ethics and Values, said the Bill was not targeted at muffling the media but at removing identified hindrances to optimum performance. Of course, optimum performance is always welcome in all spheres of human endeavour, not just in the media. However, the question that arises is: Was a suggestion ever made possibly informally, say over a cup of tea, to stakeholders on how media performance can be enhanced from a consumer point of view? As Moshood Abiola (MKO) would say: You do not shave a man’s head behind him. Odebunmi’s motives can clearly be seen to be questionable, to put it mildly. Already the National Broadcasting Commission not too long ago, ostensibly regulating, fined a broadcasting house N5 million. NBC was the accuser, the prosecutor, and the judge in its case against the broadcasting organisation that is widely regarded as responsible and trusted. My position in 2019 when Information Minister, Lai Mohammed first dropped hints of the bill of this nature has not changed and it bears rerunning in part as follows:

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“The Senators are reviving the controversial Bill on Hate Speech. Lai Mohammed, Information Minister first gave hints of it in 2017. Formal legislative steps were, however, taken in March last year, 2018, to put life into the bill and enact it into law. On finding that it was hot as red charcoal, smart guy, Senate President, Bukola Saraki, quickly threw it out of the window. There was uproar across the land and Saraki knew the Senate could not successfully swim against the tide of public sentiments and opinion. Saraki had sufficient political education to know that Nigerians would not surrender their freedoms nor allow any abridgment of same.

“The current set of senators seems determined to ram the obnoxious law down our throats. Captioned ‘National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches’, the bill reads, ‘A person who uses, publishes, presents produces, plays, distributes and/or directs the performance of any material, written and/or visual which is threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour commits an offence if such a person intends thereby to stir up ethnic hatred, or having regard to all the circumstance, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up against any person or person from such an ethnic group in Nigeria.’

“Here are the consequences of what can be regarded as hate speech: ‘Any person who commits an offence under this section shall be liable to life imprisonment and where the act causes any loss of life, the person shall be punished with death by hanging.’

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“The aspect of the Bill that carries lighter punishment states as follows: ‘A person who subjects another to harassment on the basis ethnicity commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to an imprisonment for a term not less than five years or to a fine of not less than N10million or both.’

“The Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Abdullahi Aliu Sabi representing Niger state who brought the Bill, states that it is aimed at eliminating all forms of hate speeches; promoting the elimination of all forms of hate speeches against persons or ethnic groups, as well as advising the Federal Government on the matter.”

This column went on to state: “For the record, there is need to state other aspects of the prospective draconian law so that Nigerians would know the dragnet being prepared for them and in their name. For example, the Bill goes further to state as follows: ‘A person who subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity for the purposes of this section, where on ethnic grounds, he justifiably engages in conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating that other person’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, degrading, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for the person subjected to the harassment.’

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“Politicians and those in authority have always been irritated by freedoms of speech, of associations, of movement in form of protest marches, and sometimes freedom of thought despite the clear declaration of the land’s law granting same. I do hope lawyers will dust their wig and gown to do battle. I note the media is already rolling up their sleeves as a court of public opinion, as defenders of liberty and freedom, to rise to what I see as a call to duty. I mention lawyers because I see the new Bill being in conflict with the constitution, the land’s grunnnum.

In view of the rush the Senators are giving to the Bill, they are not desirous of exposing the Bill to public debate. Yes, I say politicians have close to zero tolerance for freedom of speech with the inherent freedom of criticism with which it comes. The curb they institute comes in different forms and disguises. The first assault came with the Newspapers Amendment Act of 1964, enacted by Balewa Administration. That act prohibited publications regarded as injurious even if they were true as long as they were embarrassing. On account of the alleged violation of the Act, two notable journalists were sent to jail—Dapo Fatogun and Ayo Ojewumi, the irrepressible editor of the Nigerian Tribune. Under Gowon’s Decree 2, reporters were routinely invited to Obalende, to the E-Branch of the Nigeria Police.

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Is it conceivable that Alhaji Babatunde Jose, chairman/managing director of the Daily Times, the biggest newspaper empire Africa South of the Sahara, and his deputy, Leban Namme, could be locked up, with their editors, Henry Odukomaiya and Segun Osoba—all stripped their singlets and underwears? It happened! The embarrassed police constable on duty, a decent man, who could not bear seeing Jose so humiliated, sought to prevail on him to put on his clothes at the risk f losing his job. When Alhaji Jose said he did not want him to lose his job, he said he was ready to lose it. The Daily Times was shut down for about five days. That was in November 1969. There was an outcry all over the world. The daily Times’ offence: Campaign against corruption. LKJ, Lateef Jakande simply wrote to Inspector-General Kam salem that instead of his men harassing his editors, it was he the police should come for.

The Newspapers Amendment Act after being shot down several times by our alert courts, reincarnated 20 years later in the guise of Decree 4 of 1984. As it was with the Newspaper Amendment Act, the decree criminalized the publication of truth that embarrassed the government and its functionaries.

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The Buhari Military Administration wasted no time in using it to encircle The Guardian. Two of the newspapers line editors, Tunde Thompson, Diplomatic Editor, and Nduka Irabor, the News Editor were each jailed for one year; the deputy editor was locked up at Awolowo Road for three days while the editor was asked to be reporting daily at Awolowo office of the then NSO. The newspaper was fined N50,000. The offence of the newspaper was that it published truth that embarrassed. The paper had reported exclusively that General Hannaniya was being posted to the United Kingdom as Nigeria’s High Commissioner and Col. Sanni Bello to Zimbabwe as our high Commissioner. Both were sent to their respective stations.

Brig.-General Tunde Idiagbon was later to say to The Guardian Editors that the newspaper did not wait for the ambassadors to first present their letters of credence before rushing to Press. Of course he was told that one of the rules of journalism practice is: Government conceals, the Press reveals. Every diligent reporter must go out to dig up materials from the government files and publish them. The travail of the newspaper continued for years. The newspaper was closed down twice, and the publisher was shot in the most wicked act!

“I will be surprised if all these are lost on Lai Mohammed whose first degree was in mass communications before reading law. I have gone down memory lane so that Nigerians would know what they are unsuspectingly getting into. The indefatigable and erudite Bishop of Sokoto, the Most Rev. Matthew Kukah said the other day that the only dividend of democracy is freedom.

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“Let’s consider the scenario if Ahmad Lawan/ Abdu Sabi law was in place when outstanding and celebrated columnist Peter Pan (Peter Enahoro) wrote in 1979; “Once upon a time, in the early 60s, Jaj Wachukwu, Nigerian Foreign Minister led his country’s delegation to the United Nations- sponsored world armament talks in Geneva. The cold war was fiercest, the international atmosphere was bleak with the looming possibility of the bitter ideological conflict, exploding into a shooting war….

“Jaja Wachukwu as the Foreign Minister of the most populous and potentially the most powerful state in Africa was met at Geneva Airport by corps of newsmen…What original ideas did he have to put to the disarmament commission? He was asked Jaja thrust out his chin and delivered a memorable onslaught; ‘Gentlemen’ he said expansively: “I can assure you, I have come to Geneva with an empty mind.” Under the new Bill, Peter Pan would have been marked for hanging or made to end his life as a lifer or be fined N10 million.”

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What would have happened were Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today to be Nigerian newspapers with Lawan/Sabi law? Hear just two of them: Washington Post in its editorial: ‘It is beyond debate that Donald Trump is not fit to be President’ USA Today: ‘Resist the siren song of a dangerous demagogue. By all means vote, just not for Donald Trump.’ New York Times said voting for trump a fateful trek into darkness.

“The Nigerian constitution gives the media a clearly stated role. It is to hold the government accountable to the people. This is the role against which the senators are rising. It may bear repeating that free speech is not a civic right but an inalienable right that cannot be tampered with in a cultured and civilised society. Jonathan said it to the whole world that he was the most abused, criticised and insulted President in the whole world. It is the age-long media culture of a free society. Buhari, Lai Mohammed and the legislators took advantage of the freedom to get climb to power. They should not be allowed to shrink it.”

The Kabiru Yusuf-led Nigerian Press Organisation did very well last week Monday with all newspapers bearing their fangs. We have gone through the worst before, the Nigerian media will overcome as it has always done. The newspapers did very well. The Lawan/ Odebunmi bill should be spiked and thrown into the waste bin. For Buhari, the born-again democrat, I say Amicus Plato, amicus Socrates, sed magis amica veritas.

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