NPAN said it believed that any movement towards that end would portend a return of a tool in the hand of government officials to gag the press. The association noted that during past military administrations, many attempts were made to use the NPC to abridge press freedom. With an elected government now in place, no one would expect that such tried and failed tactics would be contemplated, let alone revived.
The Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) also lent its voice to the rising chorus of concern regarding the effort of some groups to revive some provisions of the NPC, despite a court judgment ruling that outlawed them. The NGE said the Guild had noted “efforts by certain groups to revive some provisions of the Nigerian Press Council which a competent court of law had voided. The Guild urges that the judgment of the court in this regard should be respected by all concerned, lest it tantamount to an attempt to gag the media.”
The NPC issued its own statement calling such assertions “opinions based on half-truths”. The truth, the NPC statement added, was that because of an “appeal against the High Court decision at the Court of Appeal, the judgement is held in abeyance until the appeal is resolved”.
The NPC, an agency under the Federal Ministry of Information, was established in 1992 to police ethical standards in the press. The law empowered the council to take up public complaints made against the press and also look into complaints from the press about the conduct of persons or organizations towards the press. It was meant to serve as a two-way dispute resolution channel between the press and the public.
The Federal High Court, Lagos, presided over by Justice A.M. Liman, in Suit No FHC/L/CS/1324/99, filed by the NPAN against the President, the Attorney General of the Federation, the Minister of Information and the National Assembly, held that the NPC was unconstitutional.
As the NPC statement made clear, an appeal against that judgement is pending.
But the bottom line is whether with the various existing laws, the government would need an organ such as the NPC to punish media practitioners and their organisation for any alleged offence. Such laws include those of libel. The NPC has no place in contemporary times. Indeed, the fact of the recent arraignment of journalists from the Leadership newspaper stable for alleged forgery of some document purporting it to have been signed by President Goodluck Jonathan is indication of the government’s confidence in the judiciary to deal with such issues.
Trends in democratic practices around the world should caution against any back-channel moves to muzzle the press. Particularly with the advent of social media, such attempts would be futile and counterproductive.
When the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) became effective, there was a sigh of relief that an era of openness and engagement had arrived. The government’s reported contract to an Israeli firm to monitor the Internet was therefore a surprising move that the government must recognise is antithetical to an open society.
On the contrary, what the government needs to do is strengthen opportunities for robust access under the FoIA to ensure the law serves its purpose. This would strengthen democracy and promote openness.
When the FoIA was signed into law, President Jonathan said on the occasion that he would run an open government anchored on the principle of freedom of the press. The government should live up to those words by squelching any attempt to bring back the NPC.