No to Buhari’s overbearing press censorship
“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.”