The making of a dictator
TO understand the implications of the regime of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime’s plot to muzzle the media, it is necessary to trace the journey of the media and of the concept of freedom of expression in the service of democratic governance.
The Age of Enlightenment or Age of Reason of the 17th and 18th Century introduced the idea of Individualism which meant that the individual citizen of Old World Europe could justifiably hold an opinion different from those of others, including his monarch.
It advanced the pursuit of reason and empiricism and prompted the ideals of liberty --or ability to do as one pleases-and tolerance of ideas that one probably disagrees with-fraternity and constitutional government, which limited the powers of the monarch who was no longer regarded as divine.
The Age of Enlightenment was propelled by the growth of the press, the first of which were circulated in England in the 1620s. The penny newspaper, cheap tabloid, debuted in America in the 1830s to contribute robustly to conversations on democracy.
In England, the press took over the vocation of confronting the English monarch from the House of Commons that was established in 1341, when landholders took their petitions and grievances to the King through the Parliament.
The Nigerian press, that started with “Iwe Irohin Awon Yoruba,” first published in 1859 by Reverend Henry Townsend in Abeokuta, contributed significantly to the efforts of the nationalists to deliver Nigeria from the vice grip of colonial Great Britain.
It is regrettable that the press that stood in the vanguard to take out the colonialists, before confronting the jackboot military in Nigerian politics, is now the victim of politicians, who are beneficiaries of its daring.
The press in New World America became an indispensable institution of American politics to the extent that Thomas Jefferson, an American President, remarked that if he were asked to choose between “a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”
The job of surveillance and report of events that the media performs in the public space, for the mass, atomised, associational and complex society spread across the wide geographical spread of modern nations, is what terrifies regimes run by the likes of Major General Buhari.
The press has become a veritable institution of the democratic traditions even before the 21st Century, and there is hardly a country in the world that does not have its media, no matter how rudimentary it may be.
Even the Constitution of Nigeria gives every Nigerian the right to establish a media in order to express their freedom of speech, uphold the fundamental objectives of the constitution and hold the government accountable to the people.
The Federal Government of Nigeria, run by the All Progressives Congress, the political party that rode to power on the back of the media, while waving what has now turned out to be a banner of fake progressivism, is about to destroy the ladder it climbed to get to power.
After disembarking from the back of the proverbial tiger, the APC is determined to castrate it and pull off its fangs. The denizens of the APC must have gone through the grace notes of Nicolo Machiavelli, the Italian nobleman who recommended that anyone who assumes power must neutralise those who helped them acquire the power. It adds up, really.
The Minister for Information and Culture of this regime, Lai Mohammed, that is currently suffering from a bout of recidivism, relapsing into bad habits, is turning out as a cross between Josef Goebbels, Fuhrer Adolf Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda, and “The Thought Police,” of Oceania, the dystopic society of George Orwell’s novel, “NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR.”
And if you dug into the past of Buhari, you would discover a military Head of State, who promised some journalists that he would tamper with the freedom of the press, and did with the obnoxious Decree 4 that he employed to send Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, journalists from The Guardian newspaper, to gaol for reporting the truth.
The President and the Minister of Information are probably using Olusegun Odebunmi, Chairman of House of Representatives Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values, who has vehemently argued to the contrary, as the conduit to promote the annoying bill.
The bill, according to Odebunmi, will protect and guide the Nigeria Press Council and reduce quackery, fake news and hate speech, as if there are no laws that already check libel, slander, defamation of character, fraud, cybercrime, sedition and insurrection.
Some of the more offending provisions of the dreadfully obnoxious bill empower the Minister of Information to “establish and disseminate a National Press Code and standards for media houses and journalists;” approve the establishment of media houses; grant them licences; and monitor them and their journalists as they comply with the code.
Indeed, anyone or body corporate that owns, publishes or prints a newspaper, magazine, journal or any other periodical without documentation by the Council, shall be liable for an offence and shall be prosecuted.
Violators of the proposed law shall be fined N5 million or spend three years in prison; pay additional fine of N20,000 for each day the offence continues to be committed; face the possibility of a suspension for six months or more; in addition to striking out the name of the offending journalist from a register to be compiled an infallible NPC.
Another absurd aspect of the bill is that newspaper vendors who sell or distribute the newspaper, magazine or journal shall be liable for an offence and shall be jailed for one year or pay a fine of N250000.
The mother of all the offences is fake news, a piece of news published and established to be fake thereafter, attracts N5 million fine or two years in jail to the journalist, in addition to N2 million compensation to the “victim,” which may be an individual, body corporate or government.
But if the guilty party was a media house, it shall pay a fine of N10 million or be closed down for one whole year! In addition, the offending media house shall pay N20 million compensation to the victim of the fake news.
To all this nonsense, the press that is gradually becoming a victim of the state, is telling anyone who cares to listen that there is literally a fire on the mountain and it is kindled by the APC regime.
The print media is stating its case in a rather dramatic manner. It sets the image of an inmate, whose mouth is sealed by a tape made of prison bars. And below the image is the following sorry narrative:
“Information Blackout is what the National Assembly (dominated by APC, erstwhile friend of the media), wants to achieve with the NPC and NBC (Media) Act Amendment Bills.” The media also notes, “It’s not just against the media... it’s about the society’s right to know, your right to be heard.”
What the media didn’t add is that the acts of both the legislative arm, that is proposing the Amendment, and the Executive Branch, that is encouraging the compromise of the liberty of the media and the Nigerian citizens, are the stuff of which dictators are made.
The ominous signs are just too obvious.