By OSCARLINE ONWUEMENYI
Respected media practitioners including journalists, academics, administrators and media-rights civil society organisations recently converged in Abuja to give a prognosis on the health of the media and the survival of Nigeria’s democracy.
Much of the talk revolved around the latest report of the Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project (AfriMAP), a programme of the Open Society Foundations, which proclaimed that the media in the country is still warped in fossilized and archaic laws that have long been dumped by progressive societies.
According to the report, part of an 11 country survey of the broadcast media in Africa, Nigeria’s democratic progress could be under threat due to the absence of dynamic and modern laws to effectively ensure an open society where the media can hold the government to greater accountability. The survey starts on the premise that development and democracy cannot thrive without open and free public space where all issues concerning people’s lives can be aired and debated; and which gives room and opportunity for participation in decision-making.
Indeed, the report stressed that there is “little or no political commitment to address policy gaps regarding the creation of a truly public broadcaster, frequency management and national community radios.
“This has resulted in a situation where more than 100 radio and television stations, which have been granted licences to operate in the country, continue to exist in a vortex,” the report noted.
Presenting the report to the forum, the Acting Country Coordinator for Open Society Initiative for West Africa, OSIWA, Mr. Oladayo Olaide, noted that the absence of modern laws to guide media practice in the country has robbed the citizenry of knowledge and impoverished the state.
He said, “It is an irony that with a 148- year history of a dynamic media culture, Nigeria is still grappling with harmonising media policies, and enacting laws that align with continental treaties which it has committed to.”
He added that, “Fifty years after independence, legislation that contravenes the Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression still remain in the statute books and they should be scrapped.”
In his submission, the researcher on the report and Executive Director, Institute for Media and Society (IMS), Mr. Akin Akingbulu, pointed out that despite the liberalisation efforts in the broadcasting sector, these reforms have only been partially achieved.
He noted that the media in the country still operate under laws initiated with the introduction of the press in Nigeria by colonial lords.
He said, “Despite its impressive records in Africa and globally, the media in Nigeria is still thwarted by the non-abrogation of colonial laws which has led to a colonial mentality towards the operations of the media in Nigeria by our politicians.
“For example, no effort has been made to repeal colonial laws such as Law of Sedition, which has been used by present- day politicians to repress and harass the media.”
According to him, “The fact that more than a decade after military rule, the nation still has not managed to enact legislation focusing on media reforms that are in line with continental standards, particularly the Declaration on Freedom of Expression in Africa, points to a situation where law and policy-makers are shunning their responsibilities to live up to their commitments.”
Akingbulu stressed that the “much- vaunted freedom of the media in Nigeria is nothing but a façade to systemically muzzle the media and ensure that it does not perform to its full potential.” He added that more than 19 years since the well-reported ‘liberalisation’ of broadcast media in the country, no effort has been made by the authorities and regulators to establish a truly national public broadcast media.
Director of AfriMAP, Mr. Ozias Tungwarara, noted that, “Nigeria is a key player in West Africa and on the continent. It is critical that it sets an example regarding media reforms as this will have positive influence on the rest of the continent. A robust public broadcast media is a necessary ingredient for building democracy.”
The report strongly recommends the transformation of the two state broadcasters into a genuine public broadcaster as an independent legal entity, with editorial and strong safeguards against any intervention from the Federal Government, state governments and other interests.
It noted that there is already a broad consensus on the need to open up the airwaves to commercial and community broadcasters and for state broadcasters to be transformed into truly public broadcasting services.
It also alluded to fundamental laws that undermine the freedom of expression and called for their immediate repeal. These include the Nigerian Press Council Act, Official Secrets Act, Offensive Publications Decree, Printing Press Regulation Act, as well the Newspaper Act and Newspaper Amendment Act, amongst others.
It also called for an urgent consultation with all stakeholders on the Freedom of Information Bill, which has been in limbo since before the millennium in 1999.