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Who is afraid of free press?

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Newspapers. PHOTO : Getty Images<br />

The Nigerian public, not just the media, have good reasons to be wary and collectively reject the media regulation bills now in the National Assembly, Abuja.

Under the cover of tackling fake news and hate speech, the proposed amendments to the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) and National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) Acts readily shackle press freedom, hound critics of government policies and the public’s right to be heard. It is evident that Nigeria is heading back to the obnoxious military era of the 1980s.

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The civilian toga of the sponsors or their self-acclaimed conversion to democratic norms should deceive no one. The bills are capable of forcing our democracy into darkness. And lest history begins to repeat itself, the National Assembly should, for once, stand for the people, defend civil rule by quashing the obnoxious amendments and shame enemies of democracy.
 
Barely two decades into the Fourth Republic, a number of its beneficiaries and occupants of public offices are already cheesed off by its liberal ideals that allow scrutiny of public conducts and demand for accountability. Unmindful of its abysmal leadership, the current administration is looking in the opposite direction to punish complainants and victims of its poor leadership. A subtle entry point has been the issue of fake news and hates speech, through which the lawmakers are now trying to push through parliament a bill for the amendment of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and Nigerian Press Council (NPC) Acts.  
 
Indeed, the vexatious proposals predated the Buhari administration. But as currently lined-up, it is a blast from the obnoxious past of the military junta. In 1984, the same Buhari as a military head of state, passed the Protection Against False Accusation Decree, otherwise called Decree No.4, to repress the media. Under it, some journalists were jailed for reports perceived to have put the government in a bad light. But while Decree No.4 was only restricted to the disclosure of sources of information, the Press Council Bill is more draconian – walking on a brink where even the military feared to tread. The bill includes provisions that would require Nigerians to obtain a licence before operating press organisations, allow the government to jail journalists, fine newspapers up to N10 million or close them for up to a year over a publication that the government interprets as “fake” news.

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Section 3 (e) of the Press Council Bill states that the Council will “receive, process and consider applications for the establishment, ownership and operation of print media and other related media houses.” However, this provision violates Section 39 of the constitution, which makes it clear that everyone shall be entitled to freedom of expression (and) that under its subsection 2, “everyone shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium.” Similarly, “Function of the Council” in Section 3 (c) states as follows: “With the approval of the Minister in charge of Information establish and disseminate a national Press Code and Standards to guide the conduct of print media, related media houses and media practitioners.” 
 
It is strange and unacceptable for the bill to provide that the code of ethics of journalism shall be approved by the Minister of Information as if the media were a unit of the Ministry! Section 9 (Code of Conduct) also provides in 9 (1) that: “The Council shall establish a National Press and Ethical Code of Conduct for media houses and media practitioners, which shall come into effect and be disseminated after the approval by the Minister.  Section 3 (d) of the proposed NBC Act amendment is clearly another threat to press freedom. It provides that the Council shall: “Approve penalties and fines against violation of the Press Code by print media houses and media practitioners, including revocation of licence”. In a similar vein, the proposed amendment to section 2 of the NBC would continue to make the NBC the accuser, the prosecutor and the judge in its own case. It is curious too that the section in question seeks to confer on the NBC – an unelected body – with the power to determine the public interest. Section 2 of the Amendment, “Functions of the Commission” sub-section (n) states as follows: “Determine and apply sanctions (including were justified in the public interest) revocation of licences of defaulting stations following findings of repeated material non-compliance with this Act, the licence condition, or applicable provisions of the NBC CODE, which do not operate in accordance with the broadcast code and in the public interest.” 
 
Obviously, these amendments in question seek to arrogate all media powers and control to the president, through the Minister of Information and quasi-public agencies such as the NBC. In that instance, the media ceases to be independent but only functions at the mood and discretion of the presidency. Otherwise, how come, unlike other regulatory agencies such as the National Communications Commission, (NCC), it is only the media sector regulators – the NBC & the NPC – that the appointment of the boards are not subject to the confirmation of the Senate but merely an affair between the office of the Minister of Information and the President? That provision effectively undermines the capability of the National Assembly to perform its oversight functions in accordance with Section 88 of the Constitution.

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Though both the executive and legislative arms of government have tried to deny the obvious attempts to gag the media, “the Fourth Power” of democracy, there are sufficient reasons to think otherwise and a reason the Buhari administration should be worried about its image. 
 
The Cybercrimes Act is an example of how lethal a supposed good control measure could become in the hands of despots. Sections 24 and 38 of the Act have been used in no fewer than 10 instances to clamp down on bloggers or journalists for expressing an opposing opinion to politically or economically powerful elite. Amnesty International has actually documented 50 cases where the law had targeted, not cybercrime suspects but bloggers and journalists for writing on what they “know to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another.” Again, the heavy-handed restrictions on broadcast media and Twitter are indications of how intolerant the government has become. These anti-democratic credentials have not failed to jolt global attention. Last year, Nigeria actually fell five places to 120th out of 180 in a ranking of press freedom compiled by a global watchdog organisation, Re­porters Without Borders.
 
It is also important to state that the media, both old and its new counterparts, are neither the enemy of the state nor of the government to warrant a clampdown. To the media belongs a constitutional role as the “Fourth Estate of the Realm” in a democracy. Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution as amended guarantees that role. And no malicious amendment of any subsidiary legislation can take that role away. 

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Let’s clarify this construct to those who may be in doubt: the media is not averse to regulations and sanctions against fake news and hate speech, as long as they do not erode media independence and do not seek to criminalise journalism or undermine constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. The media can’t, in the main, be opposed to regulation of its conduct as long as such a framework doesn’t undermine the right of the public to know. The international trend, which Nigeria should emulate, is in the direction of peer regulation and constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press. The trend also includes removing from the statute all laws that criminalise freedom of expression. These examples are abundant in African countries including Ghana, South Africa and Sierra Leone. The media sector regulator must be independent of the political control and manipulation of the government of the day so that it can fairly adjudicate in cases before it.
 
More important, as the representatives of the people and one of the guardian angels of democracy, the National Assembly should wake up to its constitutional duties and save press freedom from the imminent siege that the media bills represent. Nigerians have fundamental rights to freedom of speech and the right to be heard. Complaints about bad leadership and demand for efficient government cannot be deemed, in the circumstances, as an attempt to ridicule an elected administration. Democracy thrives amid robust debates, exchange of ideas and rule of the superior thoughts. It is therefore the duty of the National Assembly to preserve this liberalism and not succumb to another era of despotism currently orchestrated by those who are curiously afraid of freedom of expression through a free press. We as journalists are trying to do a job. We can’t try to tear down our nation. We are trying to strengthen it. We firmly believe in the fundamental premise that our nation and indeed democracy will be stronger if its people are well informed. So, we do not want this democracy to die in darkness.
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