By Ochereome Nnanna
IT is not my intention to focus this article on the person of Hon Abike Dabiri-Erewa who represents the Ikorodu Federal Constituency of Lagos in the House of Representatives on the platform of the Action Congress. Rather, I seek to point out a few things wrong with the Nigerian Press and Practice of Journalism Bill she is sponsoring and which has raised hackles in media circles.
Before this Bill became public knowledge, Dabiri-Erewa had been one of the federal legislators who always stood on the right side of every issue or controversy, be it the Ettehgate, the Freedom of Information Bill or the Diaspora issues. In fact, only last Monday, a young man from my hometown who is languishing in a Benin Republic prison on drug offences, called me requesting that the plight of people like him should be brought to the notice of Hon Dabiri.
This is a recognition of her efforts beyond our borders and even behind prison walls.
I am not in any doubt as to the genuineness of Dabiriâ€™s intentions and concerns for the sanitisation of the journalism profession to raise its standards once again. But in her enthusiasm and youthful exuberance, she strayed into a minefield and the mines are now exploding all around her.
I was glad when I saw the embattled MP on television last week Wednesday where she made it clear that her Bill is still open for correction and she does not claim it is a perfect proposal.
I called the Bill a heretical document for the reason that it portends great dangers for the practice of the journalism profession, especially press freedom. And it comes from a renowned television journalist who has plans to return to the profession when she is through with her political forays. The greatest of these dangers is that it seeks to place the practice of the media profession under governmental regulation.
By calling for the President through the Minister of Information to appoint the Chairman and Executive Secretary of the Council, Dabiri-Erewa seeks to put the Fourth Estate of the Realm under the Executive branch (the Second Estate).
Under the presidential system of government where the principle of separation of powers is central the Nigerian media have been empowered by the Constitution to hold government accountable.
How can the media truly do this when the Executive branch is empowered to hire and fire the helmsmen of a statutory body that regulates media practice? The Bill will make the proposed Council another federal executive body in the mould of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) which the hugely popular Uwais Panel Report seeks to â€œunbundleâ€ for greater independence and impartiality.
It is okay for government-owned media to work under a government-regulated atmosphere. Abike Dabiri, being a government media journalist, may not see anything wrong with it. But the private media, especially the press, do not find it funny or acceptable.
The Bill empowers the Executive branch, through the Council, to proscribe media houses which it deems to have fallen foul of its regulations. Private media houses have a right to accuse Dabiri-Erewa of targeting them because it is they that often come under the hammer of proscription. It is the private media that have the liver to criticise and hold government accountable. Government media only publicise government activities.
By sponsoring this Bill, Dabiri-Erewa intends to take the Nigerian media back to British-style paternalism, where the state reserves certain regulatory powers over the media. It will interest her to know that the Nigerian press (private) won her independence from the state back in the 1940s when the Zik Group of Newspapers, with its American-style traditions, was employed as a big gun in the decolonisation process.
The Nigerian press won her independence before the Nigerian state became independent. The Zik Group raised a generation of journalists in the tradition of standing as a healthy adversary to government.
Even while Nigeria practised the Westminster system of government under British colonial rule, the Nigeria press pioneered by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe who was educated in America, was already practising the American system before Nigeria in 1979 adopted American presidential model. In America, government is barred from owning media houses.
The only media the American government owns is the Voice of America and it is strictly forbidden to beam its broadcasts on American soil. It is only for foreign consumption.
Freedom of the press was so important to the founders of America that the very first amendment of the constitution forbade Congress to make any law abridging freedom of speech and of the press. It is on this tradition that the Nigerian press stands.
The Nigerian press won the countryâ€™s independence, preserved her unity during the war, fought for justice when Abiolaâ€™s election was annulled and drove away dictators who sought to perpetuate themselves in power. Dabiri-Erewaâ€™s Bill seeks to rob the tiger of its â€œtigritudeâ€ (apologies Professor Wole Soyinka) by removing its fangs and clipping its claws.
There is nothing in the draft Bill that is not adequately covered by the laws of the land. If the idea is to professionalise journalism and tighten its ethical regime, it is not government control that will achieve it.
Just as the lawyers, doctors and accountants have found a way to regulate ethical governance among their members, only journalists, through the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) can do it, which they are already doing through the Ombudsman system.
The laws of libel and sedition are enough checks and balances and they are effective. Let the journalist practice his profession subject only to existing laws of the land.