SEVERAL credible mainstream media houses have been warning of the havoc that Olusegun Odebunmi’s Nigerian Press Council, NPC, and National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, amendment Bills will wreak on the media industry and our constitutional democracy if they sail through.
He will succeed in achieving the total subjugation of the highly reputed vibrant and independent Nigerian Press, a “feat” that not even the British colonial masters and the military were able to achieve.
The contentious bills seek to create extra harsh laws, toppling the courts of law and criminalising media business as well as the profession. The bills seek to create a monster Minister of Information with the media as his footstool. Simply put, the media would operate as a department of the Ministry of Information where the partisan Minister will draw up the Code of Ethics and ensure responsibility of the press.
Notwithstanding that media business is normally registered at the Corporate Affairs Commission of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, notwithstanding that the Nigerian Union of Journalists and the Nigerian Guild of Editors maintain a register of their members, the Federal Ministry of Information would technically keep a register of the media and journalists and such can be deregistered at will.
That is in addition to proposed crippling fines and jail terms for journalists and media organisations that do not adhere to the Minister’s Creed. The proposed laws have no redeeming features. They are satanic. They are toxic.
We also need to draw attention to the fact that the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, NPAN, recognising the danger of the NPC Act (which Odebunmi’s proposal seeks to amend) poses, went to court to challenge its constitutionality. The Federal High Court had initially ruled it “unconstitutional”, but the Appeal Court on December, 2015, upturned that verdict. The case is still pending at the Supreme Court.
It makes sense that the sponsor of the amendment bills immediately withdraws them pending the final outcome of the court case, failing which we advise the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, to intervene. The sixth National Assembly led by Senator David Mark and Dimeji Bankole, expanded the frontiers of Free Speech and Freedom of the Press for Nigeria with the passage of the Freedom of Information Law. We advise Femi Gbajabiamila not to shrink the public sphere with an obnoxious law gagging the media.
We are aware that the Legislative arm of government always insists that the Judiciary cannot stop it from carrying out its functions. We doubt if that applies when a fresh bill is brought to amend an Act that is already being challenged in court. Suppose the apex court invalidates the original NPC Act or some of its provisions, what would Odebunmi’s proposals be seeking to amend?
We wish to remind the promoter of these draconian amendments and his faceless sponsors that the Nigerian Press Organisation has long resolved not to cooperate with any legislation that purports to tamper with the constitution’s direct mandate to the media to feel free to hold the government to account on behalf of the people. It is a sacred and inalienable mandate. If we allow the Executive’s unpatriotic parliamentary handmaidens and their cohorts pussyfooting behind the curtains to push through these anti-media, anti-people legislations, the highly acclaimed freedom of the Nigerian Press will be gone and our democracy will never be the same.
We call on all media stakeholders to remain firm in their resolve to stand by our constitutional mandate which is above any legislation. We will maintain our decision to operate only a more civilised, constitutionally-compliant and media-regulated NPC and not cooperate in setting up any Nigerian Press Council that is regulated by government; an NPC designed to strangle the media and free speech.
Nobody should support any NPC that emerges from Odebunmi’s draconian amendments if the national lawmakers ignore wise counsel and pass these amendments. Nigeria is a free country; a liberal democracy, not a totalitarian state like China which appears to be the inspiration of the promoters of these amendments. We share democratic and Press ideals with countries like the US, the UK, Ghana and others where Press freedom is only subject to the laws of the land and the judicial authority of the courts.
As an added self-restraint in the light of the fact that there is no unlimited freedom, we are ready to play our patriotic role in an industry-regulated Press Council. If doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants and other professional guilds could regulate themselves without government interference and in line with universal best practices, the media can do the same and even better. As the custodians of the people’s trust, we cannot sell out our constitutional mandate.