IT is curious that nearly 20 years after the end of military dictatorship in Nigeria, elements in the governing circles have continued to explore ways of gagging the media. In March 2016, the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill (also known as the Social Media Bill) was being pushed in the Senate. It was later thrown out due to massive opposition.
Renewed efforts to curtail media freedom currently pending in the Senate comes in the form of the Nigerian Press Council Amendment Bill which is already at the public hearing stage. The Bill seeks to regulate journalism practice by establishing a statutory body to arbitrate between the media and members of the public. This is opposed to the insistence of media practitioners that self-regulation subject to the existing laws of the land is the best guarantee for media freedom in a democratic society.
As expected, stakeholder groups such as the Nigerian Press Organisation, NPO; the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, NPAN; the Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE; the Nigerian Union of Journalists, NUJ and the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria, BON, have risen against the bill, asking the Senate to drop it entirely.
In the first place, the Bill is sub judice. A suit instituted by media interest groups against it is still pending at the Supreme Court. Secondly, this Bill appears to be a subtle crossbreed of the obnoxious military decrees: the Public Officers (Protection Against False Information) Decree No. 4 of 1984 enacted under Head of State, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, and the Newspapers Registration Decree No. 43 of 1993. Incidentally, the former military ruler is now our elected President.
These are totally at variance with the democratic culture which we won after a long, hard struggle led by the media. It is like taking a long leap back into the dark days when the military held our people hostage. We should be making steady progress towards more freedom and the promotion of open, democratic and accountable governance.
We join other stakeholders to emphasise that this bill seeks to unduly criminalise aspects of media work which we find objectionable. There are enough existing laws which guarantee against excesses by media practitioners. Besides, media houses and journalists are bound by the ethics of the profession, and citizens who feel injured can always approach the courts for legal redress.
We call on lawmakers at all levels to rein in their impulsive tendency to champion or condone draconian legislations to avoid exposing citizens to the executive excess of government.
The Nigerian media have a long history of stiff resistance to efforts to curtail press freedom. We will always stand and uphold this noble legacy whenever the situation calls for it because it is in the overriding public interest.
This Bill should be stepped down. Let the Supreme Court decide.