Once again, we are back at the starting point in the battle between government and the media on how to co-exist. It is daydreaming on both sides to believe or even assume that one can exist without the other. None should try it because there is no such precedent in history or anywhere in the world. Only such miseducation could intermitently be leading to naivety of various kinds as experienced in this country.
Disturbingly, there are noticeable but wrong perceptions on both sides. The government believes the press exists or survives at its (government’s) pleasure. This is totally wrong, as both are limited in their respective function. Government exists to ensure good conduct of the media but then, strictly within other controlling provisions of the Nigerian Constitution. For example, despite government’s main duty to guarantee law and order, a powerful mandate of the media under the same Nigerian Constitution is to make government accountable. In a way, Nigerian Constitution is, therefore, fair to both sides but rather subtly more powerful than the government, whose activities are under leash all the way or to be examined, upheld or nullified by law courts, as the case may be. Only Nigerian Constitution has that power, although occasionally through the law court.
On their part, Nigerian media must be humble to concede the bitter truth that government-media showdown is not limited to Nigeria. Indeed, currently, Indian government is in a “no-going-back” battle on the social media, while the press is insisting on self-regulation. Is the position any more tolerant or liberal than Nigeria? The most irritating is government’s proposals for curbing excesses of the social media or the response. It is less than rational to expect that Nigerian media should not be subject to any control, all in the name of any freedom of the press. Nowhere in the world does such licentiousness operate on press matters or anarchy descends. India is currently in such national dispute. The only latitude is the unabridged, either in Nigeria or India, right of the press to challenge in a law court whatever curb(s) the government is proposing.
So far, the media are ignorant on how or unwilling to check or even neutralise whatever government excesses in its bid to spank the media. As argued earlier, the media cannot stop any control of the media but may compel the government not only to follow the procedure for even the worst of sanctions through natural justice and the country’s constitution. Any new law can be challenged in a court of law and it is up to any judge concerned to put his name in history, if necessary.
On technical grounds, the first of the proposed laws against the media does not even stand. The proposal compels existing and future news publications (specifically, newspapers and magazines) to be registered with a government body to qualify for publishing and continued stay in business. Thereafter, any publication deemed offending, could have its registration suspended or even revoked, depending on the assessed gravity of the publication’s offence. That gravity will not be adjudged by a court of law but by whoever occupies the Press Council. Such, in particular cases, could be “Men of God” whose reputation, these days, could be anything but honourable. Such “Men of God” are not likely to serve public good.
Newspapers and magazines constitute an entity, which, like an ordinary citizen under the Constitution, shall neither be subject nor subjected to discrimination. The major requirement for any business venture to exist or operate in Nigeria is to be registered at Corporate Affairs Commission, Abuja. Therefore, proposing publications to register or re-register with another statutory body is double jeopardy and undisguised discrimination, which Nigerian Constitution forbids.
The proposal is what medical staff label as BID (brought in dead) as would be pronounced on a deceased in-coming patient. It must also be noted that members of a Press Council are not necessarily qualified on judicial matters and are also not qualified to assume the role or authority of law courts, according to a Supreme Court Chief Justice of Nigeria, Fatayi Williams.
Completely untenable as a law in Nigeria is the one conferring power on National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to completely shut a purpotedly offending radio or television station. Such is power of life and death. That closed station is like a man accused of murder and, without trial by a competent criminal court, was tasered or executed on the orders of an administrative body. NBC should not have the power to close down any broadcasting house without first obtaining the approval/authority of a law court for that purpose, an event which Justice Fatayi Williams pronounced as the exclusive preserve of a law court, rather than an administrative body, “no matter how called.”
Unfortunately, no broadcasting house or even media organisation is prepared to stand its ground for the battle against the illegal authority conferred on NBC to be closing down radio and television houses. The NBC, therefore, through no fault of its own, continues to exercise that illegality of complaining, accusing, prosecuting and passing unilateral judgment. It is against legal procedure and Nigerian Constitution. The media is a legal entity and subject to the rule of law.
To realise the danger and illegality of the current power of NBC to shut broadcasting houses, here is a vivid example.
In the build-up to the 2019 elections, we decided at Nigerian Television Authority on very fair coverage, especially for the two major political parties. After the elections, NBC faulted NTA and three private television houses. As chairman of NTA, I inquired from the station’s Director-General, Yakubu Ibn Muhammed, what was the complaint. I was informed NBC had been contacted for necessary information on the alleged fault of NTA during the campaigns.
Up till the time of writing, there had been no response from NBC. In short, NTA had been stigmatised by NBC merely for federal character purposes along with three private television houses owned by southerners, without any chance for any of the stations to challenge or even reject the unspecified fault.
What should happen was that, even if NTA, along with the other stations, was correctly faulted for biased coverage, NBC should have no power beyond that. Thereafter, it should be mandatory for NBC to approach a law court for the necessary approval to shut stations.
NBC should not be made to have power to shut media houses in a democracy, as such a decision will ever be tainted with political prejudice in favour of government. Whatever genuine need to shut down a broadcasting house will always be impartially examined and approved by a law court.
Next week: Devaluation gone mad