By Tony Momoh
NASS is short for National Assembly. I am inviting you to the National Assembly tomorrow.  For the avoidance of doubt, tomorrow is Monday, November 16, 2009. The National Assembly?  It’s a big complex where you have, making law for our governance, 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives.

You may even miss the way to where I want you to be at. In the choice we have made to walk the democracy highway, the National Assembly is the ijele masquerade among the lawmaking organs of the polity. It has power to make law in about 93 areas, that is the exclusive list in which it has total control in lawmaking without any input from the state assemblies, and the concurrent list in which it has preponderant law-making powers.

What that means is that even in areas where the National Assembly can make law and state assemblies can also make law, if there is any clash in the provisions of the National Assembly law and a state law on the same subject matter on the concurrent list, then the federal law takes pride of place. And although we have been arguing recently about lawless countries and countries that make laws that are identifiable in the books but are ignored or selectively obeyed, we have never denied that laws that are made are binding on the citizens; and in spite of what you may think, the courts will enforce them!

All that has to happen is that a bill is presented to the legislature in respect of a subject matter in which it has power to make law. It may be from the executive or a member of the house. The bill is mentioned on the floor of the house, that is it is introduced.

That is the first reading. Then there is a second reading of the bill when it is, as the practice goes, sent to a committee that has responsibility for the area that will be affected by the law being proposed. That committee now goes to town to seek opinions on the law being proposed.  There are, therefore, public hearings, and those the laws will affect and other interested parties will go to the committee of the house responsible and raise issues of import at that committee level.

The committee then packages what it believes is best for the polity because they are the elected representatives. Please don’t play the usual politics of telling me that many of them were selected. I am now faced with the fact that they are there to make law for us and that the law they make binds us, whether we like it or not. See how tied your hands are! So if there is any opportunity to make any contribution and you fail to take advantage of the hearing, then you are to blame if what comes out is what you did not expect.

So, I say come away to Abuja on Monday, to room 231 which is on the second floor of the new building, House of Representatives, National Assembly, Abuja. I am this confident about what is going to be done that Monday, November 16 at 10.00 a.m because I was invited to the hearing. It has to do with a law being proposed by a private member of the House of Representatives, the one we know as Abike Dabiri-Erewa.

She is one of the few there who still accept that they passed through the portals of journalism.  What I am asking you to go to witness is the most important issue to be raised in the National Assembly in respect of the media aside of the Freedom of Information Bill, another private member’s bill  which both Houses passed, but  the then President Obasanjo refused to sign into law, and which the present National Assembly has been tossing up and down.

If this Freedom of Information Bill  has been the one sent to a committee for public input, I would not give any part of my limited space to what I expect to happen tomorrow at the committee room where the future of the press in Nigeria will be determined. Oh yes, that is where the future of the press in Nigeria will be determined.

Those who should be there are first and foremost the owners of media, both print and electronic; the managers of the media, the workers in the media and those who have a stake in the media because of the fact that they are vehicles for articulating the feelings of the governed. Civil society bodies that cherish freedom should also be there to say what they want the National Assembly to do.

I have myself seen the bill and I should tell you the outline of what is there for you to go to Abuja for. The title is long. It is reflected in a letter to me signed by the acting chairman of the House Committee on Information, Hon. Khabeen Mustapha.

It was an invitation to the public hearing on a bill for “An Act To Provide for the Repeal of the Nigerian Press Council Act, 1992 and to Establish The Nigerian Press and Practice of Journalism Council, to Promote High Professional Standards For the Nigerian Press and Deal with Complaints Emanating from Members of the Public about the Conduct of Journalism and Media Houses in their Professional Capacity or Complaints Emanating from the Press about the Conduct of Persons, Organisations or Institutions of Government Towards the Press and for Matters Connected Therein 2009”.

Both mouthful and earful! But that is the long title of the bill that the public is being invited to address tomorrow. It is when you read it you will know that if you have any business being a journalist or communicator or stakeholder in free speech and its uses and abuses, then that public hearing is where you must be at.

The bill has 79 sections in 12 parts. I will mention only the heads of the parts. Part 1 establishes the Nigerian Press and Practice of Journalism Council  (NPPJC);  part 2 tells us the powers of the council; part 3, ownership of the media; part 4, freedom of journalists to practice their profession; part 5, qualifications to practice as a journalist; part 6, appointment as editor; part 7, conditions of service;  part 8, responsibilities of journalists and the media;  part 9, disciplinary process and procedure; part 10, offences and penalties; part 11, miscellaneous; and part 12, interpretation.

The impression I had when I looked at the bill was that the different bodies in the media had inputs into what seems to be the yeowoman’s job of our own darling Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa in whose name the bill is being pursued. I will not comment on the bill here, at least before my appearance at the committee meeting.

But while reading the provisions of the bill, my mind roamed the field of media regulatory efforts between 1903 when the colonial government promulgated the Newspaper Ordinance and 1999 when the Nigerian Press Council Act of 1992 was amended by the outgoing Abdulsalaam administration!

Although the world over, the presence of a freedom of information law in the books is increasingly being seen as part of the requirements for assessment of democracy in polities, it is important that stakeholders be present at the public hearing of the bill so that those who make laws for us will be told what  we need to grow our democracy.

Come one and all and let’s  talk. We did this type of talking in 1964 and the parliament, the one we elected, amended the newspaper ordinance of 1917 and criminalised reporting of what they said was rumour.  We know better now. We must go there and make our case. Or lose.


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