Last Monday, major stakeholders in the Nigerian media industry stormed the National Assembly for the public hearing on a bill that seeks to give the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) more powers to gag the media.
The draft law is titled “A bill for an act to repeal the Nigerian Press Council Act, 1992 and to enact the Nigerian Press Council Act 2018.”
Led by the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), the media stakeholders rejected the bill in its entirety and called on the Senate to ensure its withdrawal without any waste of time.
The NPO said during the public hearing by the Senate Committee on Information and National Orientation that the bill is, for all intents and purposes, draconian and anti-press freedom.
Presenting the position of the organisation, Mr Nduka Obaigbena, who is the President of NPO and the Newspapers Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), said the bill is “an amalgamation of the obnoxious Public Officers Protection Against False Accusation Decree No. 4 of the 1984 and the Newspapers Registration Decree 43 of 1993.”
He said the bill is unconstitutional as it runs against the principles and tenets of the rule of law and that it is subjudice as a case on the matter is still pending in the Supreme Court as a result of which the bill should not have been drafted in the first place.
The bill, he said, seeks to criminalise journalism practice despite the fact that Nigerian laws already have enough provisions and avenues for seeking legal redress.
Besides, the NPO said the bill smacks of an attempt at undue interference in the operations of the media in Nigeria as businesses registered under relevant laws of the land, saying it would empower the Nigerian Press Council to usurp the powers of the courts by assuming extrajudicial powers.
The bill also seeks to incapacitate the media in the exercise of the duties and obligations imposed on it by Section 22 of the Constitution to monitor governance and hold government accountable to the people, the NPO said further.
Thus, the organisation, which comprises the NPAN, the Nigerian Guild of Editors and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Media Rights Agenda, International Press Centre, made the following demands:
That the bill should be dropped forthwith until the determination of a similar case in the Supreme Court of Nigeria, the Nigerian Senate should borrow from best practices in other jurisdictions that have expressly provided for and guaranteed press freedom without any form of government interference and that the Nigerian Senate and indeed the National Assembly should enable the media in the exercise of its constitutional obligations as spelt out in Section 22 by passing laws that will promote transparency, accountability and open government such as: Mandatory delivery of the State of the Nation address by the President and the State of the State Address by Governors on specified days of the year, ensuring by law, Presidential and Governorship Election Debates before elections, complete transparency in election funding, including public declaration of sources of election finance by all candidates and political parties and ensuring the integrity of our electoral process etc.
As part of its commitment, the NPO said it would continue doing all it could to further promote media ethics, professionalism, transparency, accountability and self-regulation to ensure that the public interest is served at all times.
However, the Executive Secretary, the Nigerian Press Council, Nnamdi Njemanze said there were aspects of the draft law that needed to be addressed owing to certain lacuna.
He said “Section 23 of the bill does not state that the convention should be at the law court. I want them to address this lacuna because the Nigerian Press Council is not a law court but a body established to maintain the ethics of journalism profession.
“Press Councils around the world operate on a moral suasion. I believe any grey areas can be addressed so that agreement can be reached. Section 31 and 32 are concerned with administrative matters. Let’s not forget that it was the NPC that gave the NUJ its professional outlook,” Njemanze said.
Also, a former Executive Secretary of NPC, Mr Atoyebi Bayo, said: “We are here today just like in 2009 at the House of Representives, who initiated this kind of bill then as sponsored by Abike Dabiri.
“The bill before us today is a bill that the stakeholders agreed on and approved. But I think Section 2 of the bill, which recommends 23 members, has to be addressed because the members are too large.
“The inclusion of members of the National Assembly is also unnecessary and should be replaced with representatives of the NCC and the Federal Ministry of Information. The NPC is an adjudication body not just an administrative body. As an ombudsman, journalists can take recourse to the NPC to redress grievances done them.
“Furthermore, Section 8 (Code of ethics) had been amended in 2012 as initiated by the NUJ and the Ilorin Declaration of 1998, and should be incorporated into the bill. The Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanism should be incorporated,” he noted.
Now, what dimension the friction will take will unfold in weeks ahead.