March 26, 2024

Challenge forces shrinking civic space, Falana tells media houses, CSOs

Challenge forces shrinking civic space, Falana tells media houses, CSOs

Challenge forces shrinking civic space, Falana tells media houses, CSOs

Human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN) has called on media houses and civil society organisations to challenge attempts by the government at all levels to shrink the civic space.

He said the Nigerian Constitution guarantees the protection of public space, specifically the fundamental rights of freedoms of expression, assembly, and association, and suggested that shrinking the civil space was a way for the government to avoid being held accountable.

Falana said this at an interactive session organized by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) in collaboration with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) on Tuesday in Lagos.

Citing examples of the Muhammadu Buhari-led government banning micro-blogging site Twitter (as it was known then), Falana said the Nigerian government has adopted anti-democratic measures to constrict the civil space.

He lamented that despite constitutional protections, the police and security agencies have continued to intimidate journalists, activists and trade unionists for exposing corruption and abuse of office.

Disclosing how his firm dealt with a related incident and other examples, he said, “Recently, the Nigeria Labour Congress announced its plan to hold public rallies from February 27-28, 2024 to protest against the rising cost of living in the country. The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Lateef Fagbemi SAN said that the rallies were illegal and contemptuous.

“As Counsel to the NLC, our law firm pointed out that the Court of Appeal had upheld the fundamental right of Nigerians to protest peacefully. See Inspector-General of Police v All Nigeria PeoplesParty (2008) 12 WRN 68. Of course, the NLC held the rallies and the police provided adequate security for the participants in line with the provisions of Section 83(4) of the Police Establishment Act.

From left: Foremost journalist and human rights activist, Mr. Richard Akinnola, Funmi Falana, SAN , Hon. Akintunde Rotimi jnr. , Chairman House Committee on Media and Public Affairs at the launch of SERAP’s latest report on “State of Civic Space in Nigeria” held in Lagos on Tuesday.

“In a suit filed against certain provisions of the CAMA (Companies and Allied Matters Act 2020), by Emmanuel Ekpenyong, an Abuja-based lawyer, Justice James Omotosho nullified nine sections of CAMA for infringing on freedom of conscience and religion as well as freedom of peaceful assembly and association enshrined under sections 38 and 40 of the Constitution.

“In a similar suit, the Christian Association Nigeria (CAN) had challenged some sections of the CAMA  Justice Inyang Ekwo restrained the CAC from suspending or appointing trustees of religious bodies and struck down the provisions of the CAMA over rights violations. 

“From time to time, the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation closes down media houses and imposes fines for alleged breaches of the provisions of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code. The Media Rights Agenda sued the NBC following the commission’s imposition of fines of N5m each on Multichoice Nigeria, owners of DSTV; Trust TV; NTA-Startimes Limited and TelcCom Satellite Limited for airing documentaries on bandits in 2022 which allegedly undermined Nigeria’s national security.

“In a judgement delivered on January 17, 2024, the Federal High Court declared null and void the code authorising the NBC to impose fines on broadcast stations on the ground that administrative and regulatory bodies cannot exercise judicial powers.

“The presiding judge, Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia held that the NBC acted above its powers by imposing such fines, thereby setting aside the fines imposed and declaring the regulator’s action as wrong and unjustifiable in a democratic society.

“The Judge issued an order of perpetual injunction restraining the NBC or anyone acting on its behalf from further imposing any fine on any media platform or broadcast station in Nigeria for any alleged offence committed under the NBC code. The Judge commended the Media Rights Agenda for filing the case.”

While calling on CSOs and media houses to collaborate in challenging the forces that are shrinking the civic space, Falana also urged SERAP and other progressive CSOs to ensure that provisions of the 2024 Appropriation Act that cannot be justified in law and in fact are challenged once it is published.

He further tasked lawyers to constantly use public interest litigation to counter restrictions on civic space and to hold governments at all levels to account for the resulting violations of human rights.