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Nigerian media fight NASS blitz

Published by The Nation on Sat, 17 Jul 2021


UnderTowIn a demonstration of their ire against the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) Act Amendment Bill and the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) Amendment Bill, newspapers across the country displayed, on their front pages, the same dreary image of a gagged visage. Boldly splashed beneath the image was the message that the National Assembly sought to impinge on peoples rights to information. It was a bold move, the culmination of weeks of protest against the National Assembly, which had obstinately ignored agitations against the amendments to both Acts. The media generally felt uncomfortable that their constitutionally guaranteed freedom was being contravened, and that too by someone who they thought was a strange man to their profession, but their annoyance was compounded by their deductions that the bills sought to lay waste to Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria. It was even rumoured that the sponsor if the Bill, Hon Segun Odebunmi, was simply a pawn used to perform a dirty deed.For the most part, the sponsor of the bill has insisted that he is not a philistine to the profession as his detractors would label him, that he was simply a concerned stakeholder in the countrys information sphere, and that his intention was not to gag the press; but no one is believing him. He has not explained why he did not interface with stakeholders in the industry before sponsoring the Bills, and his motives had remained vague despite his spirited attempts to explain them whenever he made a public defence of the Bills. But the media have insisted that a doctor does not treat a patient before diagnosing him. Neither does a chef serve a dish before cooking it. In a word, the horse must be put before the cart. The presidency, meanwhile, has distanced itself from the Bill, unequivocally stating that the president had nothing to do with it. Nigerians are leery about that.However, the offending NPC Act Amendment Bill, which proposes to remove bottlenecks affecting the NPCs performance and make the council to be in tune with the current realities in regulating the press, has been suspended. For the NPC Act, one of the key amendments was made to Section 2, which grants the President and the Minister of Information a crucial semi-oversight inroad into the operations of the press. They get to control the appointments of members of the NPC, and if the Nigerian Judicial Council should serve as a lesson, then the Bill boded no good. It is with dismay that the bar and bench remember the current administrations cavalier raid on its dignity with respect to the removal and appointment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria in 2019.Although there are ample provisions under the Law of Torts and Criminal Law, as well as the ethics of journalism which press bodies have upheld, the Bill in Section 3 still sought to introduce an Ethical Code of Conduct to be approved by the Minister of Information for the regulation of media practice. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, and in the unsubtle Bill, it was clear to see that the legislation would only serve as a forerunner to a calculated series of statutorily-backed incursions into press operations. It grants the executive secretary the power to issue summons, prescribes punishments and fines, dictates the constitution of an administrative system of adjudication, dictates who can and cannot enjoy Section 39 of the 1999 constitution, and seeks, in a word, to be a sovereign act unto itself with powers of legislator, judge, jury and executioner.Freedom of the press remains a key institution in the consolidation of democracy, almost as much as independence of the judiciary. Yet, it would be an oddity for a non-legal practitioner to propose an amendment Bill to the very practice of law. Legal minds will hang, draw and quarter both the interloper and his Bill before he gets very far with it. It was therefore disrespectful and contemptuous to the profession for the lawmaker to propose a bill that suggests a method for the practice of journalism without consulting media professionals. The media, after all, deserve that respect. They have paid their duesfrom the struggle for independence to the war against overbearing governments, whether of a military hue or of a civilian toga as many have accused the current administration of being.Sustained pressure from every corner, however, forced the sponsor of the Bill to suspend legislative process on it with the following comment: We have suspended the process for more consultation to happen on it. They demanded a lot of time and I said no problem, we have given you; even if you spend three, four to five weeks. So far, more consultations from critical stakeholders, and many people have been submitting their memoranda to the National Assembly, even within the industry. My intention is not to gag the press and unless all the practitioners can say all is well with the industry, to the best of my knowledge, I know all is not well. And I know the National Assembly has the power to look into the existing Act. All is not well with the NPC agency. It is an agency of government and youre expecting something to be given back to the society but until now nothing has been coming from the agency.His intent is not clear when he says that the NPC is expected to give something back to the society. Does he refer to Corporate Social Responsibility' That is doubtful, for the proposed amendments do not seem to compel the NPC to perform any social responsibilities. When he was asked on Channels Television what he meant by saying that there were lapses in media operations, he maintained some degree of incoherence and kept insisting that all was not well with the media. He even turned the tables and sought to find out if the programme host had taken time to examine the NPC Act. This has left analysts and media experts pondering if the legislator knew what was broken before he proposed to fix it, and if he was in fact captain of his own ship. Does he mean to say that the NPC and the media in general are not performing any function in the society'Perhaps, the lapse that the media can be accused of being guilty of are the restrictions on its dissemination of foresight as fact, and its lack of second sight. Foresight functions by helping its possessor arrive at logical conclusions through a series of deductions from a cause to an effect. Second sight, on the other hand, functions by granting its possessor unordinary divination to operate outside the scientific boundary of space and time and obtain knowledge of occurrences that should manifest at a later date. Thus, the media could fairly accurately predict that the government of former president Goodluck Jonathan would bring the country to ruin if left for another four years, but could not predict that the government to succeed it would be worse.It was unwise for the lawmaker to ruffle feathers in the media, for the media do not shirk a fight, nor do they forget. They are the voice of the people and the ears of the people. It was doubly unwise for him to have ruffled those feathers on the heels of the Federal Governments assault on the Social Media. Even if he had been strung by some mysterious puppeteer and forced to act as he did, it would not be a valid defence for him to stand before those who elected him and give an account that the virtue of firmness of purpose was not convenient at that time. He will have to think of how he sunk from being a man of the people when he was elected to being an enemy of the people and the press. The Bill may in the end stand as his only tangible legacyand a miasmic onewhen he leaves office.
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