Gbajabiamila’s doublespeak on atrocious media bills
BETWEEN utterances from the Speaker, House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Surajudeen Ajibola Basiru, on Monday, Nigerians should decipher the direction that the review of the two bills under consideration until they were rightly suspended at the National Assembly is meant. That is regardless of every spirited denial of an ulterior motive.
Gbajabiamila seemed to have been speaking from both sides of the mouth. In the same breath where he vowed that attempts to gag the press would not pass under his watch, he portrayed the media as one of those irresponsible institutions, which would rather remain unaccountable. He started a lecture on the difference between gagging and being regulated and insinuated that the problem was nothing but fear of the media for regulation
Hear him: “From my understanding, the issue was not about gagging, but that they don’t want to be regulated…everybody just wants to have a free reign…”
But the Speaker is being honest by half here. The first point is that the press is not against regulation. This is a continuous discussion within the media itself. That is more so concerning the increasing visibility cum nuisance of bloggers and the socalled citizen journalists, a global problem.
Assuming without conceding that the media is unregulated, however, the question is, “who regulates the media?” From the proposition of the “Bill for an Act to amend the Nigerian Press Council Act 1992,’ and the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission Amendment Bill,” deposed before the House of Representatives, the GOVERNMENT through the Minister of Information, who may be a complete novice, would be the ultimate regulator!
Now, that is awkward. There is a reason the media is referred to as the Fourth Estate of the Realm in a democracy. And if we forget that reason, there is a reason the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 puts a duty on the media. Section 22 of the constitution states: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter (i.e. Chapter 2 of the Constitution) and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.” Recall that this chapter is non-justiciable, meaning that the government cannot be sued for the non-performance of the expectations of this part of the constitution. The judiciary, which should be the only other possible arbiter in this circumstance, has therefore been ousted from acting on the part of the people here. As a result, the media remains the eye of the people especially in places like Nigeria where the legislature is unashamedly in bed with the executive. But the logic of the ill-fated bills is that the same government which the media is expected to hold accountable would determine who can practise and on what conditions. How do you then guarantee freedom of the media in this country where the government is becoming increasingly paranoid?
Then, what exactly qualifies Olusegun Odebumni, the promoter of the bill, first, to sit in the office that he sits and then, prescribe regulations for the reform and operation of the media? Odebunmi chairs the House Committee, without any idea of how the media operates, yet, he insists on his capacity to correct the so-called ills currently plaguing the industry and bring about a code of ethics for practitioners! From his and the Speaker’s comments, you sense deep-seated angst against the nature and practice of the media and an attempt to suppress the capacity of the media to set an agenda and influence opinion.
Ajibola dared the media to provide evidence of relevant obnoxious provisions and point out why they are so regarded. Although it is curious that the senator, who is a senior legal practitioner, cannot smell this coffee himself, media practitioners have provided the information several times lately.
In an editorial on Monday, The PUNCH informed that: “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,” what other explanations would a lover of democratic practices require? But if those who should know claim that they do not, you are forced to assume that there is more than meets the eye in this proposition and the vigour with which it is being pursued.
This brings up the point about what motivates the Nigerian legislature. Quite often, members of this arm of government give the impression that they do not understand their remit or become forgetful too soon and too often.
The 1999 Constitution makes the legislature the most important arm of government in Nigeria, even though it looks like many members do not get this gist. It is like the anchor which holds the vessel from drifting. With the powers to make “laws for the peace, order and good governance of the federation or any part thereof…” granted by the constitution and the powers to conduct investigations, otherwise known as oversight, granted by Section 88, the National Assembly stands in the best position to work with the media, to ensure the fulfilment of Chapter Two (Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy) of the constitution.
The import of this is that the legislature represents and serves the interest of their constituents rather than those of their political parties or the government in power. While there is nothing wrong with party loyalty, a lawmaker should, principally, work in the interest of the people. This would account for why members of the Republican Party chose the country in the aftermath of the last presidential election in the United States and Donald Trump’s shenanigans. It is impossible to forget the conclusion of the US Senate Majority Leader, Mitch Mcconnell’s speech on January 6, 2021, to the effect that: “I will vote to respect the people’s decision and defend our system of government as we know it.” But Nigerian politicians usually subordinate national interest to personal and party needs.
This is not to say that media practitioners are infallible or not susceptible to misconduct, that of course, is a tendency for everyone. However, media practice already has well-laid-out ethical standards which guide practitioners. It is also true that nature encourages a review of such standards to conform with societal dynamics, such reviews should be spearheaded by practitioners who know where the shoe pinches. They must also not compromise the role of the media as an essential ingredient for holding government accountable, fostering democratic growth, and championing the people’s emancipation.
And when a journalist is involved in a crime, Nigeria has enough laws to deal with every conceivable crime that they commit. From sedition to libel and perhaps even fake news, it is deceitful to suggest that there is any new thing that our current body of laws cannot deal with. The current attempt to stifle press freedom however smells of nothing but a product of the incestuous relationship between the legislature and executive, which portrays our leaders as merchants without principles and a love for the people.
The tragedy of it all is that these men of today failed to learn from history. The Nigerian media has always been at the forefront of the fight for the right of the people. For this, it has faced repeated persecution but always emerged stronger. It is even sadder that these legislators forget the role played by the media in the struggle that produced this political dispensation from which they carry on like tin gods. Not only were many journalists killed in the years of the military regime that preceded this republic, livelihoods were also destroyed, businesses ruined, and many sent to jail just for their commitment to their roles. While the media still stands tall today, many of the tormentors of those years are nowhere to be found. It is the same way this story would be told one day and history will judge those who stay on the side of the people and those who do not. A word is enough for the wise.