From Godwin Tsa, Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja, Romanus Okoye
Moves by the National Assembly to amend the Nigeria Press Council (NPC) Act to abridge the freedom of speech and the press has received attacks.
The National Assembly is currently seeking a bill to amend the Press Council Act such that journalists and media houses can be fined N250,000 and N10 million respectively for any infraction.
The bill sponsored by Segun Odebunmi, member of APC from Oyo State, has attracted widespread condemnation for seeking to gag the press with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a House of Reps member and some lawyers describing it as draconian and unconstitutional.
The PDP claimed the bill was a desperate attempt by the All Progressives Congress (APC) to curtail free speech ahead of the 2023 polls.
National Publicity Secretary of the party, Kola Ologbondiyan, in an interview with Daily Sun, yesterday, called on PDP members in the House, lovers of democracy in the parliament and across the country to reject the proposed legislation.
“There is a desperation by the APC to gag Nigerians and curtail free speech in a manner that suggests that President Muhammadu Buhari is not prepared to leave on May 29, 2023. This is further strengthen by the intimidation, harassment and coercion of opposition leaders, particularly governors and members of the PDP. Whatever the plan of the APC is, ahead of 2023, it is working towards a strangulated environment on freedom of speech and freedom of association. It is important to let APC leaders, including President Muhammadu Buhari to know that nobody has succeeded in undermining or forcing Nigerians to change their wishes and desires. Our members must object to this bill. Our party entrenched the Freedom of Information Act and passed it into law and granted Nigerians their right on access to information. It is unfortunate that we have a party and government that thrived under the PDP and succeeded in winning elections, now seeking to gag Nigerians. All lovers of democracy must object to that bill.”
Member representing Esan North East/Esan South East Federal Constituency of Edo State, Sergius Ogun, in a telephone chat, said it was unfortunate that the ruling party, which came into power with the support of the media is seeking to gag the press.
“Anything that will gag the media, you know I can never be part of it. I think it will be a shame if the APC that rode on the back of the press to get to power will now come in and gag or strangulate the media. It will really be a travesty of sort.”
Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), said the Bill is demonic, ferocious and must be killed immediately with a sledge hammer.
“It reminds one of Hitler’s chief propagandists, Goebbels. Any bill that seeks to undermine a fundamental right of the citizens should not be considered in the first place. If the National Assembly goes ahead to pass the bill, very soon they will find themselves out of job because they may no longer have the legal right to legislate on critical national issues. Therefore, it should be thrown away.”
President, Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Ikeja Branch, Bartholomew Aguegbodo, said there were enough regulations in the country on media freedom.
“There is no need for more. It is a gross violation of citizens’ rights and an affront to our democracy. Why must they gag the press? Nigerians must ensure the bill dies like the social media bill the government wanted to do last time.”
In his contribution, Yinusa Magaji, said the proposed bill was a clear testimony that President Buhari is not comfortable with the press and he intends to stifle the media.
“It is an escalation of the current regime’s war against a free press and the civic space. President Buhari is not comfortable with democracy, he wants to decimate the remnants of democracy beyond repair. This regime’s obsession with stifling the traditional and social media is an indication that those ruling Nigeria today have run out of ideas on how to develop the country. Since they have grossly failed to change the country for the better as they promised when they sought our votes, they are now on a mission to suppress dissent.”
Joe Nwokedi, lawyer, said any attempt to further regulate the media would amount to gross violation of the fundamental right of freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution.
“It is an unfettered right donated by the constitution. So, any form of regulation amounts to interference. The government must not muzzle or gag the media. People should be allowed to express their views, ideas and opinions; that is the beauty of democracy.”
Another lawyer, Malachy Ugwummadu, said the Bill was not only morally wrong, but unconstitutional.
“It runs contrary to sections 39 and 22 of the 1999 Constitution as amended. It is also contrary to the Freedom of Information Act. Section 39 which covers Right to freedom of expression and the press, specifically stated that every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. While Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria States that the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
Key stakeholders in the media and broadcast space laid out clear reasons why the bill should not be allowed to pass into law.
From the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON), there was overwhelming consensus that most of the bill’s provisions were already captured in previous legislations like the Cyber Crimes Act of 2015 and the nation’s Penal Code.
The NCC provides infrastructure for internet service providers to operate. But it has no mandate to interfere with content or determine appropriateness, according to Umar Garba Danbatta, the organisation’s executive vice chairman who spoke in criticism of the bill.
“Certain provisions of the bill are difficult to implement,” he drew attention to an aspect highlighted by most critics which gives unconscionable power to the police to be the judge and jury of proper internet content.
“The bill is undefined and misleading,” said Sa’a Ibrahim, chairman of BON, reflecting the opinion of private-sector broadcasters in Nigeria. Without mincing words, she declared the bill and its intention as “not necessary.”