A dangerous press law

By Tunji Adegboyega

Criticisms have expectedly trailed the bills for the amendment of the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) Act, and the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) Act now before the House of Representatives. Ordinarily, one would have been silent on this obvious journey to nowhere. But it is good to join the critics as a lover of free speech, at least for the record.

It is good that the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed, has said that the Federal Government is not the sponsor of the bills, contrary to insinuations in some quarters. The sponsor is Representative Olusegun Odebunmi, chair of the House Committee on Information and Orientation. But it is immaterial who the sponsor is. The fact is that the minister has appeared before the house committee on information and indeed defended the sponsor as doing what he was elected to do. (Says who?) He even added that the social media which was not part of the bills should be included, for effect. Mohammed has always looked forward to a day like this, to render impotent, if not kill outright, the same media that they put to effective use in smoking President Goodluck Jonathan out of power. As the Yoruba proverb says, the executioner is never at ease when a sword is dangled on his child’s head. There is no other way to endorse a bill. Without doubt, these bills are going to make more enemies for the government. Perhaps it would have been case closed if the minister had only appeared before the committee like any other stakeholder, and distanced himself from the bills. Since he even added the inclusion of the social media which obviously was not part of the draft showed the Federal Government is comfy with the media annihilation bills.

We do not expect anything less, especially for a government that has been having challenges with its goodwill in the last few years. But, no government in Nigeria ever succeeded in muzzling the press. Not even in the most brutal of the military era. It is not going to be different this time around. So, the government would do well to advise the sponsor to drop the idea. There are more important ways to work for his constituency rather than by further helping to overheat the polity.

Down memory lane. Let’s take our minds back to Decree Four of April 17, 1984, otherwise known as the Protection Against False Accusations Decree promulgated by the then Gen Muhammadu Buhari as head of state, which made it possible for the Nigerian government to imprison any journalist who ‘embarrassed’ the then military leaders. Two journalists were the major victims of that decree – Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson, both of The Guardian stable – but the decree hadn’t much lasting impact on the media. As a matter of fact, their imprisonment made them national heroes.

We still remember the June 12, 1993 experience and its aftermath. The proscription of newspapers as a fallout of the annulment of the election was a monumental failure. Whether by the Babangida or Abacha regimes, proscription did not work. Rather, it led to the founding of underground press which, in spite of the military’s attempts to kill them, remained largely popular among Nigerians. I remember, rather nostalgically, The Tempo magazine, Toplife and even Razor, which were all very instrumental to the success of the struggle to make the military leave the political stage.

Let the sponsor, be it the hands of Jacob or Esau, be reminded that in those days of the underground press in Nigeria, there was no social media. Today, any attempt to force the media underground will make the government contend with many media outlets of no fixed address. The understaffed police and military would now be chasing after invisible media while terrorists and bandits would be having a field day wreaking havoc.

What to do is not to be sniffing for media houses to stifle. Experience is our best teacher. Even when Decree 4 was promulgated, we knew the reason was not what the government gave as reason. When newspapers were proscribed back then, it was not for any national interest. The same applies to these bills.

If this attempt to review media laws for greater responsibility had come when the ovation was loudest for the present government, not many would have raised eyebrows. Not today when people are reacting negatively, even if expectedly, to the pangs of its governance. The truth is that, the problem is not with the journalist, per se. So, the government should look beyond criminalising journalists for doing their job. The 1999 constitution, in section 39 (1) clearly spells out the role of the media as watchdogs of the society. It is not for fun that the press is regarded as the Fourth Estate of the Realm.

As things stand, there are more than a surfeit laws that regulate journalism in Nigeria. The government does not require any crutches to hold the media accountable. The media merely mirror the society. And unless some photoshopping is done, there is no cheating in photography: you see yourself exactly the way you posed for the photograph. If things are hard in the country, the media cannot say things are rosy, and vice versa. It is only a matter of time for any medium that cannot report or analyse events correctly to lose its life, not just its licence. It is a natural sequence; it does not require any governmental intervention or legislation for such medium to die suddenly, ‘after or during a brief illness’. Any arrangement that gives an individual sweeping powers to issue and withdraw licence to media houses at will is one sure way to kill democracy and, ultimately, the country itself. God is yet to create such a mortal, with the requisite patience and maturity for such a sober assignment, especially in our kind of clime.  Certainly not the present drivers of the sector.

So, what is to be done? Simple. The National Assembly (NASS) should do its work such that it would make the executive come down from its high horse. When people who were shouting “hosannah” yesterday suddenly begin to say “crucify” him today, there must be a reason for it. When a child stumbles, he looks forward, but when an adult stumbles, he looks backward to see what fell him. The government and the NASS should behave like the adult in this case, instead of looking for the media as fall-guys for their actions and inactions.

The truth of the matter is that President Buhari appears not keen on reshuffling his cabinet despite criticisms that the government is not doing well, that have been making the rounds over the years. We keep hearing of some inner cabinet; the inner cabinet that could not gift him the presidency despite the millions of Talakawa votes he had been able to garner in his three attempts at the presidency before the 2015 experience. I have no issue with inner or kitchen cabinet, don’t get me wrong. But when such cabinet continues to expose the government to ridicule home and abroad, like the government has been experiencing over the years, then there is need for rethink on the part of the president on whose desk the buck stops.

This government has not been able to deliver much by way of democracy dividend and it is painful to those of us who, even in spite of the president’s past inadequacies, still campaigned for him without any prompting whatsoever. The security issue still lingers just as the economy is not responding to treatment. Unemployment rate remains dangerously high. We do not seem to be making any appreciative progress on the economic front, contrary to our high expectations from the government in 2015. We certainly did not expect the government to perform any miracle given the rot left by its predecessor. But many people, including myself, got pissed off with the government on insecurity and the kid gloves that the government initially treated it with, a thing that emboldened the bandits and terrorists. That tardiness is what has led us to where we are today, where we are now beginning to see bodybags as part of the norm in the country.

This is the crux of the matter. Nothing can be more painful for people who are being whipped and are not expected to cry despite the flogging. This is the light in which many Nigerians are now seeing the proposed review of the press code. The government has all the while turned deaf ears to the calls of the present, despite all the seemingly intractable challenges on ground, obedient only to those of our inglorious military era.

But President Buhari must have stunned many people on Thursday when he told the National Executive of the Ijaw National Congress (INC) led by Prof Benjamin Okaba who visited him at the Presidential Villa in Abuja that he would assent to any amendments to the constitution on restructuring.  According to him, it is only the NASS that has responsibility for amending the constitution. “As soon as they finalise the process, necessary action would not be delayed on my part,” he said. This is unlike what he has always said before, that advocates of restructuring are dangerous and naive. Even if they are, that is the beauty of democracy. In a democracy, the majority carries the day. This is the right spirit. The fact is that, not all those clamouring for secession are really interested in it but they are frustrated by the unitary system that is stagnating the country’s progress. Majority of Nigerians want a return to our glorious past where each region developed at its own pace. They want a situation where competition would drive development. A situation where the centre would devolve more powers to the states/regions because it is too far and detached to understand what the constituent parts want. It is only when they perceive that rather than accept the reality of restructuring, the government keeps romanticising the system that is not working and therefore unsustainable, that they are going for broke.

The scripture enjoins Christians to rend their hearts and not their clothes. I likewise urge the government to ‘rend’ its heart (read policies) and not the press. It is time for it to change tact. The press is not its problem. Even if the number of online platforms that want the country to disintegrate is more than the about 450 quoted by Mr Mohammed, all their efforts would come to naught if the government is not providing the fuel or fertiliser to catalyse their endeavours.

Foremost journalist, Chief Segun Osoba, despite being a member of the ruling party has joined a legion others to condemn the proposed law: “It is a terrible draconian law. It has never happened in the history of Nigeria that a law as sweeping as this will be proposed.” Not even under the military was this done. That is for Chief Osoba. No journalist worth his salt would support such a law.

President Buhari cannot be absolved of non-involvement in this matter even if the Federal Government is not the sponsor. His information minister’s statements at the stakeholders’ meeting have given a clue as to where his government stands in the matter. I however rest my case with the consoling words of George Githii, the only editor to have headed Kenya’s two largest media houses, and Daily Nation’s fourth editor-in-chief in 1965: “For governments that fear newspapers, there is one consolation. We have known many instances where governments have taken over newspapers, but we have not known a single incident in which a newspaper has taken over a government.”

Definitely, this too shall pass; and so shall the sponsors.



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