The Punch

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.

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