By Tony Momoh
I have no quarrel with the ruling of the judge bearing in mind that he had to pronounce on what was before him. My concern flows from what had happened since that suit was filed in 1999.  That 1999 suit was instituted by Messrs.

Ismaila Isa, Sam Amuka, Ray Ekpu, Ajibola Ogunshola, Nduka Obaigbena and Lade Bonuola, for themselves and on behalf of other members of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, NPAN, against the President, Attorney-General of the Federation, Minister of Information and the National Assembly.  The NPAN are owners of the print media.

The Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria, electronic media owners, was not a party to the suit. Other media bodies, as members of the Nigerian Press Organisation, were also not there.  Those who initiated the suit in 1999 were not officers of the Nigerian Press Organisation (that is, the NPAN, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, and the Nigeria Union of Journalists) outside of Ismaila Isa Funtua, publisher of the rested Democrat who was then president of the NPAN.

Two major events have taken place since that 1999 suit to address the press council question. The first was on August 30, 2002, and the second, November 16, 2009.

The first was the agreement reached by media bodies to package a press council acceptable to the stakeholders in the media; and the second was the outcome of the public hearing arising from the bill that was initiated in the House of Representatives 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 …”  The August 30, 2002 event was a signing session at which stakeholders agreed on a proposal that would be sent to the National Assembly  to resolve outstanding disagreements regarding the subject matter of the 1999 suit.

The signatories were  Ray Ekpu, President, Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria; Remi Oyo, President, Nigerian Guild of Editors; Smart Adeyemi, President, Nigeria Union of Journalists; Taiwo Allimi, Chairman, Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria, Alhaji Alade Odunewu, Chairman, Nigerian Press Council, and Prof Jerry Gana, Minister of Information and National Orientation.     The document they signed was titled “Nigerian Press Council (Amendment) Act, 2002.”

The November 16, 2009 public hearing of the bill led to the setting up of a technical committee which I headed to look at the bill and make recommendations to the House on what to do.  We cleaned up that bill and settled by and large for the document of August 30, 2002.  All the stakeholders endorsed the outcome of the technical committee deliberations aside of the NPAN which asked for time to consult their members before taking a decision.  They finally decided not to sign it, and opted to go ahead to establish the office of ombudsman which has since taken off, but which the Nigeria Union of Journalism does not seem comfortable with.

As I have said, I have no quarrel with the NPAN asserting their right as guaranteed in the Constitution, but what is the fate of the journalist who must never, repeat never, compromise his constitutional obligation to ensure, in monitoring of governance, that facts remain sacred and comments free! How can facts be sacred and comments free when there is the constitutional provision, which media owners are tagging on to, that he who pays the piper must dictate the tune?

Two dangers stare me in the face with this bravado than commonsense position of the media owners.  The first is that journalists who are the professionals and must be guided by the code of professional conduct  are on their own. They should study closely the proposal made by Alhaji Lateef Jakande to the technical committee on the  public hearing  that journalists be the focus of the law rather than the press which is the medium.

In other words, journalists should chart their own course rather than be part of the arrangement made by media owners who always have insisted that the media is a body to act as one  only when the issues at stake  threaten their existence as businessmen.  The second threat is to media owners themselves.  They insist that press, not being on the exclusive or concurrent legislative list, remains a residual matter that only states can make law on! This is true but a dangerous argument to pursue.

A state law can provide for castrating  distribution requirements for newspapers.  Where we have governors who are now a disturbing power block, it is not unthinkable that they can decide to cut the wings of proprietors by asking their houses of assembly to make laws setting stiff conditions for registering distribution offices in their states.  Imagine proprietors moving from one state to the other to  meet registration requirements for distributing their papers.

Having looked at the rightness, in my view of what the court is telling us, about the status of the press council in relation to its power to adjudicate on complaints, what of other functions of the council to undertake research et al?

The Ombudsman initiative is a great idea but how much is it functional on the lines of the Press Complaints Commission of Britain whose reports show clearly that  a code of behaviour that the public respects is being implemented. The press in Nigeria must work to be respected, rather than to be continued to be feared.

The people will support them when any mad person or group of persons want to impose controls, but where individuals set up  media to promote and impose on others greedy ideas and opinions, and employ willing and hungry and unqualified people to do so, then they will be on their own when the come comes to become.

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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.