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Dear Olusegun Odebunmi

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Olusegun Odebunmi

I have chosen to write this open letter to you for three reasons.

The first is that the obnoxious, toxic, and anti-democracy Nigerian Press Council Bill that you are pushing in the House of Representatives is dead on arrival because all those gallant men and women who wrestled against the khaki boys and brought democracy to us will not let you and your sponsors truncate it.

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You probably do not know the enormity of the battle you are taking on because you were not at the barricades when we took on the autocrats in military uniform and wrestled them to the ground. It is because the journalists and activists risked their lives and livelihood in that fight that you are now there in the House of Representatives.

Do you know that? The second reason is that you have no idea that the Nigerian Press is perhaps one of the most severely regulated and oppressed media in the world except China and North Korea.

In the books, there are at least a dozen laws that are anti-media, and of course, Nigeria’s security officials in and out of uniform treat journalists and press photographers at event venues as enemies. They seize their notebooks, phones, and cameras at will.

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Do you know that? The third reason is that you probably still believe that we are in a military era. I can’t blame you for it because our government is run as if is a military government. You probably do not know that the Nigerian Press Council idea is a relic of the military era spanning the tenures of General Olusegun Obasanjo, General Ibrahim Babangida and General Abdulsalami Abubakar. What General Sani Abacha even tried to do which was christened Mass Media Commission was exceptional in the history of journalism.

If it had taken off no newspaper would have been able to circulate in any other state of the federation except in the state where it was registered. There was also to be created a special military-style tribunal to try journalists. We did not sit down waiting for Abacha to die. We fought back with overground and underground strategies. My colleagues at Newswatch Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed, and I were tried for “mutiny” because we published an interview that we conducted with Brigadier David Mark. In that interview, Mark said that Abacha was planning to stay beyond the time they all agreed on when they plotted the coup to remove Chief Ernest Shonekan, the leader of the Interim Government put in place by Babangida.

Please take note that all of these energy-wasting exertions on the Press Council were done by military governments. None, absolutely none, was tried by Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, President Shehu Shagari, President Olusegun Obasanjo, President Umaru Yar’Adua, and President Goodluck Jonathan. It seems to be a vicious historical coincidence that the attempt to grind the press like beans cake is happening under President Muhammadu Buhari who is a self-styled democrat. If a democrat looks like this I wonder what an autocrat would look like.

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It was under Major General Buhari that Decree 4 was enacted and two Guardian journalists, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, were sent to jail for publishing the truth. That decree said that if your publication affected adversely the reputation of the government or its official you will be sent to jail even if the publication was true. In other words, the truth was punishable. The truth could not would not, set you free under that monstrous regime. There is no such precedent in any sane country in the world. Mr Odebunmi, is that what you want? This looks like a de ja vu.

You have said that you have suspended the bill because you want to have more consultations with stakeholders. You wanted to mischievously sneak the bill into the parliamentary space and take off like a prized racehorse and before Nigerians woke up from sleep it would have been a fait accompli, a done deal. The details in your bill are so horrid, so horrible, that it is difficult to believe that it is an elected parliamentarian from the South West, the bastion of freedom struggles that sought to cane, cage, coop up, shut up and lock up the press, the eminent pillar of Nigeria’s democracy.

It is difficult to believe. Since as an afterthought you have now decided on a pilgrimage of consultations, let me give you a short list of democracy’s veterans from your backyard that you should talk to Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Mr. Ayo Opadokun, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Lt General Alani Akinrinade, Dr. Akingba, Chief Bola Tinubu, Mr. Femi Falana, and Professor Wole Soyinka. If you talk to them they will tell you that this fight you are embarking upon is not simply against the press, it is more importantly against the people, against democracy, against the people’s right to know. The people know the truth basically through the mass media especially the mainstream media that you want to kill. If you shut the media, you are shutting the avenue for the people to know what they ought to know. Do you know that? You are worried about fake news. Being a journalist plying my trade in the mainstream media where we learned that facts are sacred I am worried too. But the bulk of the fake news in our system comes from social media. Social media has come to stay. You can’t roll back the hand of the clock. It is a product of modern technology. Technology always comes with both benefits and burdens. What this means is that we must enjoy the benefits and also roll with the punches of the burdens. We don’t have to throw away the baby with the bath water.

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We should remove the baby from the basin before we throw away the bath water. We must hold seminars and discussions with journalists, bloggers, and influencers in addition to admonishing them to keep to the laws of communication already in place. There is very little else we can do in the modern era without turning the country into a dictatorship with the coat of democracy. Discussion, consultation, teaching, and learning are the sane things we must do and do them untiringly in our democracy. Some government officials keep talking about fake news yet some of them are the biggest purveyors of fake news. Do you know that? They have told us several times that Boko Haram has been defeated. Has it? No, that’s fake news.

They told us that Shekarau, the Boko Haram leader had been killed several times. They even brought a Koran that they claimed belonged to him. But was he killed? No, not until recently. They told us they have been feeding school children even though schools were shut during the COVID-19 pandemic. Did they feed them? No chance. They told us that only 10 schoolchildren were kidnapped in a Katsina school. That was fake news. The number of the kidnapped kids was in the hundreds. There is an African proverb that says that the King is free to fart and when that happens all the citizens have to say “thank you for giving us that sweet smell.” You must reckon with the fact that the communication business has undergone a sea change.

The citizen journalist is here, clicking on his computer and smartphone, with huge online followership waiting to hear from her or him every minute. There are mammoth tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter that are generating and disseminating a huge volume of media content today globally. What can you do about them? Ban them? Na you go tired. That is like trying to cover the sun with your tiny fingers because cyberspace is global.

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So Mr. Odebunmi I ask you to adjust yourself to the reality of this era. I would like to know if you are a democrat or an autocrat. If you are a democrat you should be thinking of expanding the civic space, not shutting it. A country where people are arrested for carrying placards is not a democracy. A country where people are prevented from carrying placards is not a democracy.

On both counts our country is guilty. What I advise you to do is to look at the extant laws that abridge free expression and push for their abrogation or review. That is what a democrat ought to do. If you are one, push for the abrogation of all the obnoxious laws that exist in our books. Take note, I am not saying that there are no imperfections in the Nigerian media.

There are just as there are in all aspects of Nigerian life including the legislature of which you are a member. But the Nigerian media have been more sinned against than sinning. The Nigerian media deserve more medals than manacles for their fight against colonialism, military autocracy, and civilian dictatorship. The media are already doing a lot of self-regulation, appointing in-house ombudsmen and an external media complaints committee so as to reduce media excesses to the barest minimum. Many things are wrong with our country which have led to the emergence of agitators for ramshackle republics.

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If things were right if wrongs were righted these agitations would have petered out a long time ago but they seem to be gathering steam, gaining traction and global attention. Do you and your co-conspirators have something to hide, skeletons in your cupboard that you think the media might expose? I learned that our parliamentarians are mad with Senator Shehu Sani for revealing the humongous salaries and allowances of the National Assembly legislators. Is that part of why you want to cage and kill the press? What you are trying to do is blatant censorship which you call regulation.

What you want is not only anti-press, it is anti-people and anti-democracy. No sugar coating. It smells, it sounds and it feels like censorship. One thing I can assure you of is that the media community, civil society community and better society, and pro-democracy activists will be in the trenches, as they had been in the past, and this battle for the retrieval of our democracy from anti-democratic forces will be won for democracy.

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