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DSS: Going beyond its brief

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DSS

The Department of State Services (DSS) went beyond its brief to deny, as it did recently, some media organisations from covering the trial in Abuja of Mr. Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). And to boot, the security body did not deem it proper to explain its selection of only 10 media houses to report on the trial, obviously because, there can be no reasonable justification for it. Pray, what has the DSS got to do with media accreditation in respect of proceedings in the court of law? If some acts are classified as the arrogance of power, this must be one of such.

For the avoidance of doubt, that very act breaches various sections of the Constitution which is the fundamental legal basis for the authority and power of the DSS to, within the context of its enabling act, perform its roles and functions.

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The functions of the DSS may be broadly stated as the prevention and detection of such threats to the internal security of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as espionage, subversion, terrorism, non-military classified matters, economic crimes, inter-group conflicts, separatist agitations. Granted that the outfit may also perform such other functions as may be assigned to it from time to time, it is beyond reasonable belief that this expansive clause will allow acts that violate the Constitution. It cannot be.

As it is explicitly stated in Section 1(3), ‘If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this constitution, this constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void. This reminder needs to be emphasised because of the special role assigned to the media in the same constitution.
 
Section 22 states: ‘The press, radio, television, and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter (II) and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people. It stands to reason that the only way that ‘agencies of the mass media’ can live up to this weighty constitutional obligation, is to be present where events happen in order to give first-hand reports to the public.

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Senior Advocate of Nigeria Mr. Mike Ozekhome has robustly spoken of the illegality of the DSS preventing the media to cover the trial of Kanu. He cites, rightly, Section 36 of the Constitution that ‘whenever a person is charged with a criminal offence, he shall, unless the charge is withdrawn, be entitled to a fair hearing in public within a reasonable time by a court or a tribunal’.

The senior lawyer terms the act of denying some media houses access to the trial ‘a a sin’. Of course, every act that breaches established norms and mores of society is morally wrong. But we should think that it is, in this case, also a criminal offence to the extent that such an act breaks the law, as provided in the constitution.

Secret trial is antithetical to democratic ethos. If nonetheless, the DSS has any well-founded objection to the constitutionally guaranteed open trial of Kanu, it should formally request this from the presiding judge who has the power to rule on it depending on justification. The organization cannot, on its whim, pick and choose what media organization observes and reports on a matter that is of so much public interest, here and abroad. Under the current democratic system, it certainly lacks authority and power.

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Mr. Remi Olatubora, SAN, has reportedly cited the DSS action as a signal that we are now under a full dictatorship’ He added: ‘one serious angle to the barring of the media is whether the trial can still in those circumstances be regarded as …a free and fair trial as required by the constitution.

In effect, the DSS has sown in the mind the public, seeds of doubt in an otherwise normal judicial process. It will not be stretching things too far to say that this law enforcement organization has, by its unwarranted zeal and arrogance, put itself and the executive arm it reports to, in a bad light.

Attempts to circumscribe the media in the performance of its constitutionally assigned role are, lately, becoming a feature of the APC government headed by President Muhammadu Buhari. A certain vexatious, anti-constitution bill was recently bandied about in the federal legislation that sought to amend the enabling laws of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and Nigerian Press Council (NPC).

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The obnoxious bill seeks a ‘Press Council’ that will ‘receive, process, and consider applications for the establishment, ownership, and operation of print media and other related media houses’; the sponsors want to assign to the council, subject to the approval of the minister of information, the powers to draw up some ‘national Press Code and Standards to guide the conduct of print media, related media houses, and media practitioners’.

The Guardian had cause to remind the federal lawmakers that these proposals violate Section 39 of the extant constitution.

The right to know and to share what is known is enshrined in the 1999 Constitution. The DSS is supposed to operate with far less visibility than it has carried about for quite some time. Supposedly, it is not at all like the regular visible and even friendly police that the populace is familiar with.

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Nowadays, it is a common sight to see its men in dresses with ‘DSS’ so boldly written; they have often performed arrest and election monitoring, and sundry duties more appropriate to regular policemen. And now the DSS has arrogated to itself the role of ‘media screening’ and ‘media selection’. This is beneath its role; it reduces the stature and trivializes the functions of an otherwise respectable national security organization.

The Department of State Services will do well to take a deep and comprehensive look at its job definition, and limits of its authority and powers as granted by the laws of the land. No agency of government must have the unfettered latitude to go beyond its brief in this constitutional democracy.

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