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PUNCH EDITORIAL OPINION: Assault on the press cannot stand (MEDIA AT WAR AGAINST PRESS FREEDOM)

RISING from a recent meeting, the Nigerian Press Organisation took a resolute stand against fresh attempts to legitimise the ongoing assault on the press under the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), with the collaboration of the National Assembly. Taking its anti-democratic and dictatorial identity a step further, enablers within the parliament are rushing through two bills designed to asphyxiate freedom of the press and erode the fundamental rights of Nigerians to free expression. If the plot scales through, it will permanently obliterate the capacity of the media “to disseminate pluralistic views and news.” And that will sound a death knell for democracy and its attendant freedoms.

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Hiding hypocritically under the desire to “remove bottlenecks affecting its performance and make it in tune with current realities in regulating the Press,” the NASS is seeing through two devious bills: ‘An Act to amend the Nigerian Press Council Act 1992,’ and the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission Amendment Bill. The sinister aim of both is to pave the way for the government to seize control of the media space and subjugate the free flow of information to the whims and direction of the state and its officials. But Adolph Ochs, the New York Times founder, once said: the fearless exchange of information and ideas is the surest means of resisting tyranny and realising human potential.

Since the advent of the Buhari regime on May 29, 2015, it has been steadily but vigorously rolling back due process and the rule of law with one hand while promoting arbitrariness, impunity and extrajudicial actions against the media with the other. The major problem with the regime and the pliable lawmakers is that they are neither democrats attuned to the ennobling principles of liberal democracy, nor are they guided by Nigeria’s turbulent political history and the heroic role and battles of the press since amalgamation. If they subscribed to the first, they would have known that a free, unfettered press is the oxygen of democracy. “Freedom of the Press,” declared Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former US president, “is essential to the preservation of democracy.”

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America’s founding fathers, in framing the US constitution after which Nigeria’s is partly patterned, were unanimous in this belief. One of them, Benjamin Franklin, declared it as a “principal pillar of a free government,” so important that “when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.”

Nigeria’s past is also replete with many attempts to subjugate the press and choke freedom of expression. All failed in the face of Nigerians’ determination to freely express themselves and the media survived to write the political obituaries of the successive administrations.

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The NPC bill is typically odious; it attempts to control the media in a manner fit only for dictatorships. It seeks to regulate the print media through a press code and standards, proposes to grant or revoke publishing licences, register, or delist journalists and laughably “ensure truthful, genuine and quality services and media practitioners.” It empowers the new Press Council to solely determine ethics and “fake news,” investigate infractions and punish errant operators.

The fines prescribed are no less prohibitive. Individual journalists can be fined N250,000 and a publishing company N5 million. Harking back to an inglorious past, the bill goes further to prescribe jail terms of between one and three years and fines in the range of N250,000 to N5 million for journalists, news agents and media organisations. Purveyors of “fake news” are to be fined N2 million to N5 million, two years in jail and in addition, pay compensation, while the media outlet will be fined N10 million or shut down for one year; it will also pay N20 million as compensation to the aggrieved party!

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Similarly, the NBC Act confers sweeping powers on the Minister of Information to make and enforce regulations to control broadcast content as well as online and offline material. In the words of the NPO, it transforms the minister into a “Monster Minister” with unprecedented power over electronic media and private business.

Both bills violate the 1999 Constitution by seeking to circumscribe fundamental freedoms enshrined in Chapter IV, and by going ahead with the legislation despite a subsisting court action. The legislators betrayed their mischief by the surreptitious manner they went about the NPC Act. Of the three-member groups of the NPO, two were never notified of the public hearing, the only one notified received its invitation on the day of the hearing, a move the NPO described as “a sinister, legislative ambush.”

The New Media Association, a United Kingdom-based media watcher, argues that freedom of expression is a universal human right. It is not the prerogative of the politician. Nor is it the privilege of the journalist. In their day-to-day work, journalists are simply exercising every citizen’s right to free speech. Nigerians should, therefore, not see the assault as the media’s battle alone. The media is a platform for all citizens, made even more so with new media and access to telephones and computers.

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This assault of freedom is not new. The Nigerian media has faced official hostility– and survived.

The colonial administration, uncomfortable with the independent stance of publishers, enacted laws to control the media; it jailed some journalists and jailed others. In the immediate post-independent era, the federal and regional governments retained some colonial ordinances and enacted new ones. In the old Western Region, harsh laws were rushed through as the region descended into political strife. Successive military regimes also enacted decrees when they were not detaining or proscribing media houses without one.

In his first outing as military Head of State (1984/85), Buhari made no pretence of his aversion to free press and public scrutiny. Under his notorious Decree 4, two journalists, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, were jailed.

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His successor, Ibrahim Babangida, who initially courted popularity by abrogating Decree 4, was to enact an even harsher version with the Newspapers Registration Decree 43 of 1993 as he sought to cling to power. The brutal military despot, Sani Abacha (1993-98), like Babangida, frequently shut down and proscribed media houses, hunted journalists and detained several indefinitely. The PUNCH, like some other media concerns, endured shutdowns under both dictators. But the media, as usual, triumphed.

Disappointingly, the liberal spring that civil rule was expected to usher in has been elusive, and liberty has been under siege, especially under the Buhari regime. The US State Department Human Rights Report 2020 details a decline in Fundamental Rights and abuses in Nigeria, including freedom of the press. Nigeria has ranked consistently low in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the non-profit, Reporters Without Borders. It ranked 120 out of 180 countries in the 2021 edition, 115 in 2020, 122 in 2017. In their State of Media Freedom in Nigeria report by a coalition of NGOs in collaboration with the Nigerian Union of Journalists, no fewer than eight journalists have been killed in the line of duty under Buhari; about 300 rights violations and harassment affecting over 500 journalists, media workers and media companies have occurred across the country.

Following the example of the Presidency, the police, State Security Service agents and state governors serially maltreat journalists, hound them and file spurious criminal charges against professionals. Maltreated, detained, and tortured, Agba Jalingo, a Calabar-based journalist, has just won a N30 million award for rights violation at the ECOWAS Court of Justice against the Federal Government. Several state governors have been known to harass journalists. Police and the SSS personnel routinely brutalise journalists at events, seize their notebooks, phones and cameras and detain them while on their legitimate duties.

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Some FCT policemen did just that on Sunday, attacking a PUNCH reporter and a Roots TV reporter who had gone to cover an event at the Dunamis Church, Abuja. The police and SSS bizarrely think journalists need their permission to report some events or take photographs.

The lethal threat to liberty and citizens’ right to know should be challenged by all lawful means. Lawmakers with a good conscience should back out of this odious venture and shoot down the amendment bills. As the American statesman, Thomas Jefferson, said, “Liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

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Written by Adesoji OMOSEBI

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