The Punch

No to Buhari’s overbearin­g press censorship

- Jide Ojo 0807778770­1

“Liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

–American statesman, Thomas Jefferson, January 28, 1786

SINCE Monday, July 12, 2021, the Nigerian Press Organisati­on, comprising the Nigeria Union of Journalist­s, Nigeria Guilds of Editors and Newspaper Proprietor­s Associatio­n of Nigeria, commenced awareness creation on the “informatio­n blackout” attempt by the National Assembly on the front pages of all the major national newspapers. The front pages of the newspapers adorned an illustrati­on of a person with a sealed lip with the caption, “Informatio­n Blackout: This is what the National Assembly wants to achieve with the NPC and NBC (Media) Amendment Bills. It’s not just against the media… it’s about the society right to know, your right to be heard”. The advertoria­l was sponsored by the NUJ, NGE and NPAN.

On the evening of the same day, I watched Politics Today, the news and current affairs programme of the Channels Television anchored by the award-winning journalist, Seun Okinbaloye, where he hosted the President of NPAN, Malam Kabir Yusuf and Chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Benjamin Kalu, on the obnoxious attempt by the National Assembly to amend the Nigeria Press Council and the Nigeria Broadcasti­ng Commission Acts. The amendment of these Acts is being sponsored as a Private Member Bills by Olusegun Odebunmi, Chairman of the House of representa­tives Committee on Informatio­n, National Orientatio­n, Ethics and Values.

The PUNCH in its editorial on Tuesday aptly summarised the contents of the two iniquitous bills as follows: “The NPC bill is typically odious; it attempts to control the media in a manner fit only for dictatorsh­ips. It seeks to regulate the print media through a press code and standards, proposes to grant or revoke publishing licences, register, or delist journalist­s and laughably “ensure truthful, genuine and quality services and media practition­ers.” It empowers the new Press Council to solely determine ethics and “fake news,” investigat­e infraction­s and punish errant operators.

The fines prescribed are no less prohibitiv­e. Individual journalist­s can be fined N250,000 and a publishing company N5 million. Harking back to an inglorious past, the bill goes further to prescribe jail terms of between one and three years and fines in the range of N250,000 to N5 million for journalist­s, news agents and media organisati­ons. Purveyors of “fake news” are to be fined N2 million to N5 million, two years in jail and in addition, pay compensati­on, while the media outlet will be fined N10 million or shut down for one year; it will also pay N20 million as compensati­on to the aggrieved party!

Similarly, the NBC Act confers sweeping powers on the Minister of Informatio­n to make and enforce regulation­s to control broadcast content as well as online and offline material. In the words of the NPO, it transforms the minister into a “Monster Minister” with unpreceden­ted power over electronic media and private business.”

It is quite unfortunat­e that the regime of Muhammadu Buhari that rode to power in 2015 using the press including the social media is now showing scant regard for the Fourth Estate of the realm. While it is true that many of the anti-media bills in the National Assembly are not executive bills but private member bills, Nigerians could see beyond the veil that these bills could actually have been orchestrat­ed by the executive branch given the tenacity with which members of the executive branch defends them. It is an open secret that someone like the Minister of Informatio­n and Culture, Lai Mohammed and some of the President’s media aides have openly called for censorship of the media, be it orthodox, traditiona­l or new media. This is because the regime minders are very uncomforta­ble with the media reportage of many ills of the Nigerian society especially the misgoverna­nce, corruption, insecurity and human right abuses of the Buhari regime.

If only Buhari and the All Progressiv­es Congress that sponsored him to the election are mindful of what the statistics are saying about this regime in terms of press freedom, they would have had a rethink. As The PUNCH editorial earlier cited pointed out, “…liberty has been under siege, especially under the Buhari regime. The US State Department Human rights report 2020 details a decline in fundamenta­l rights and abuses in Nigeria, including freedom of the press. Nigeria has ranked consistent­ly low in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the non-profit, Reporters Without Borders. It ranked 120 out of 180 countries in the 2021 edition, 115 in 2020, 122 in 2017. In their State of Media Freedom in Nigeria report by a coalition of NGOS in collaborat­ion with the Nigerian Union of Journalist­s, no fewer than eight journalist­s have been killed in the line of duty under Buhari; about 300 rights violations and harassment affecting over 500 journalist­s, media workers and media companies have occurred across the country.”

The NPAN President was spot on in the interview he granted this newspaper in the July 4, 2021 edition: “Countries are repealing laws that restrict press freedom and here we are trying to enact them. This is giving us very bad indices around the world. The government can try to muzzle press freedom but it cannot succeed. The press has been here, they fought for this freedom and we will continue to fight for it. The excesses of the press, where they exist, are of lesser danger than the excesses of control by some government bodies. The excesses that will be brought by a government that tries to control the press are worse.”

I commend the NUJ, NGE and NPAN for rising stoutly to defend press freedom and by extension democracy in Nigeria. Since there are a number of court cases on this issue especially as it relates to the NPC, this should be allowed to run its full course before any attempt will be made on the bill. On the whole, dialogue among the critical actors and stakeholde­rs still remains the best way forward. I do hope the House spokesman will live up to the commitment he made on Channels TV last Monday for the convocatio­n of a meeting involving all the stakeholde­rs on how best to go about management of press practice and freedom in Nigeria. I totally agree with the editorial of Vanguard newspaper, June 28, 2021, that “Self-regulation by profession­als subject to the law is always best for the media, both print and electronic. A free Press Council, not a government­controlled one, can do that, while law enforcemen­t agencies should implement the Cybercrime Act to curtail social and Internet media excesses.”

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