How to make our constitution a people’s constitution – Editors, others

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BY CLIFFORD NDUJIHE, DEPUTY POLITICAL EDITOR
THEY manage and mentor men and women, who are knowledgeable in all fields of human endeavour. They are usually the force behind the earth-shaking stories that help to re-shape society. But editors are rarely seen.

And their contributions to policy formulation are hardly sought, a neglect that has contributed immensely to getting the nation stuck in the cesspool of socio-economic and political underdevelopment.

Perhaps, the story would have been different if the three arms of government – the executive, legislature and judiciary seek the input of the media, often dubbed as the Fourth Estate of the Realm, in policy formulation, decision making and implementation.

Determined to change the tide, beginning with the on-going constitution amendment exercise of the National Assembly, the Democratic Governance for Development (DGD) Project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the office of the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr Reuben Abati, last Tuesday held a parley with editors in Lagos.

The leading media lights in Nigeria and other stakeholders did not disappoint. Speaking at the five-hour programme themed: “Media Dialogue with Editors on the Constitution Amendment Process,” held at Sheraton Hotel, they offered thought-provoking suggestions on how to improve the 1999 Constitution and make it a vehicle for the delivery of democracy dividends to the citizenry and enthronement of an egalitarian society.

Gbenga Adefaye, President, NGE

The editors said the country might continue to wallow in poverty and want, political instability and tension if meaningful adjustments were not made in the provisions of the constitution.

The areas they sought amendment include constitutional guarantee for right to access to information, making media’s governance monitoring function legally enforceable, affirmative action and gender issues, youth empowerment and fiscal federalism among others.Media icons at the parley included Editor-in-chief/General Manager of Vanguard Newspapers and President Nigeria Guild of Editors, Mr. Gbenga Adefaye; former Director General of the Nigeria Television Authority, Dr Tonnie Iredia; Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister, Mr. Mohammed Adoke (who was represented by his Special Assistant, Mrs. Stella Aborime); and UNDP Country Director, Mrs. Ade Letkoetje.Also present were Vanguard Daily Editor, Mr. Mideno Bayagbon; The Guardian Acting Editor, Mr. Martins Oloja; Chairman of the Inter-Party Advisory Council, IPAC, Dr Mohammed Shittu; IPAC Secretary, Mr. Emmanuel Mok; Mr. Lanre Arogundade, Mr. Festus Okoye, Daily and Weekend editors of major newspapers in the country as well as representatives of civil society organizations.Speaking at the event, Adefaye urged editors to buy into the constitution amendment process because a good constitution would yield a good press, which in turn would lead to a better society.

Thanking the National Assembly and the President for the Freedom of Information Law, he said the next task now was making the FOI law work. And the surest way of doing this is to  put press freedom expressly in the constitution, he said.Adefaye deplored the worsening state of affairs in the country and sought urgent action. He lamented that 52 years after independence, many Nigerians are still squatters in their country.

In like manner, Mrs. Letkoetje assured that the UNDP was committed to assisting in making the constitution amendment process a success by partnering with all stakeholders. She urged the media to keep the issue on the front burner, help the citizenry to make robust participation so that in the end the people would take ownership of their constitution.

Also speaking, Mrs. Aborime, who said the Justice Minister was working on a template that would make the FOI law effective, decried the frequent need to amend the constitution and hoped that the outcome of the current exercise would enrich Nigeria’s governance project.

She urged the media to help the government to be accountable to the people in line with provisions of Chapter two of the Constitution. Aborime said the Federal Government was ready to help the media achieve its constitutional responsibilities by making the FOI law effective and ensuring that there was no abuse of power.

On his part, Abati urged the media and the citizenry to take active part in the constitution amendment efforts. “Government is out to ensure that Nigerian citizens determine the amendment. Let’s draw attention to what the constitution amendment is all about.”

Recalling the controversies that greeted President Goodluck Jonathan’s recent suggestion of a single tenure for president and governors and allegations that the ongoing amendment was part of the president’s plan to get re-nomination, Abati said the President harboured no such plans.

He urged the media to boost the constitution amendment process and partner with the government to provide leadership and show direction for the citizenry.

Noting that the media was in the forefront of independence struggle and making the Nigerian nation, he said the crucial tasks before the media now include setting positive development agenda that would promote the cause of enlightenment and growth instead of instability.

Relatedly, Iredia, who said he did not really believe in constitution amendment because the country had been amending constitutions since 1922 with little or no results, stressed the need for effective implementation of the Constitution.

Not necessarily dismissing the need to amend the constitution, he said Nigerians need not only constitution amendment but also following the spirit of the amendment by amending their orientation.

Media can’t function effectively with shackled hands

Although, the country now has the FOI law, the editors said some specific and crucial amendments in the grand norm were needed to enable the media carry out its watchdog role robustly to the betterment of the country.

Some of the amendments include: constitutional recognition for media/press freedom, relocation of the media’s governance monitoring function to make it enforceable, constitutional guarantee of the right of access to information, exclusion of presidential participation in the broadcast media licencing,  constitutional recognition for broadcast regulatory body  and repositioning the responsibility for licence fee collection and management among others.

On right of access to information, the media urged “that a constitutional backing for the right of access to information should be included in the proposed new Constitution as a sub-section of the current Section 39. The section should be a comprehensive section containing guarantees for a range of free expression, media freedom and access to information rights.”

The media lords lamented that the rights conferred on the media by section 22 of the Constitution were not enforceable.

Section 22 of chapter II (Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy) obligates the media as follows: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”

However, the editors said this right could not be enforced because the whole chapter II of the 1999 Constitution where section 22 is located is non-justiciable.

In a memo prepared by Media Network on the review of the 1999 constitution, which has been sent to the National Assembly, they lamented that given the culture of secrecy and impunity that prevails in the country, journalists have been attacked and press freedom violated in the course of making government accountable to the people. “Recently, six journalists attempting to cover a police visit by a former state governor were barred from their legitimate duty by being locked up in an office in the station.

From Dele Giwa in 1986 to many others in recent times, many journalists have been killed with no clue yet on the assassins. Yet investigative journalism remains a major tool through which journalists could monitor governance and make government accountable to the people as envisaged by the constitution. Indeed, it allows them to work in accordance with the definition of their profession as a public trust with citizens to expose wrongs and promote human rights.

“State media on the other hand are often incapacitated from professionally performing their oversight functions through the mode of appointment of the managers and editors, which leaves little to desire about editorial independence, critical journalism, tenure security and compliance with code of ethics. To the extent that their deserved security is not in place, an attitude of self censorship prevails.

“Against this background, it is worrisome that the obligation by the media to freely monitor governance and make government accountable to the people as provided for in section 22 cannot be legally enforced; a journalist whose right has been violated in the course of ensuring governance accounta-bility cannot seek the protection of the court.

“Also, Section 22 does not impose an obligation on the state or public institutions not to initiate policies and actions that can jeopardize the ability of the media to carry out the responsibility of monitoring governance; it does not declare illegal any state action that prevents the media from acting in accordance with the provision of Section 22 and it does not provide strong protection for state media.”

Noting that the foregoing makes a constitutional mechanism to strengthen the watchdog role of the media a key imperative, they canvassed that section 22 be removed from chapter II and be made a section or subsection of Section 39 under chapter IV (Fundamental human rights) to make it possible for the right conferred on the media therein to be legally enforceable.

· Identification of issues for the presentation  round of amendment – Apr 2012
· Request for submission of memoranda – May/June 2012
· Retreat to consider memoranda – July 2012
· Public hearing on issues highlighted in memoranda – Oct 2012
· Retreat to aggregate pubic views and inputs – Jan 2013
· Drafting of Amendment bill – February 2013
· Introduction of the bill to the Senate – Mar 2013
Passage of the bill – June 2013
· Passage of the Bill in the state Houses of Assembly – July 2013

Issues to be reviewed
· Devolution of powers
· Creation of more states
·Recognition of the six geo-political zones in the constitution
· Role of traditional rulers
· Local Government
· Removing Land Use Act, NYSC Act and code of conduct from the constitution
· Fiscal federalism
· Immunity clause
· Nigerian Police
· Judiciary
· Executive
· Rotation of executive offices
· Gender and special groups
· Mayoral status for the FCT
· Residency and indigene provisions
· Electoral reform

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