The Nigerian Press Council Amendment Bill now before the National Assembly has been condemned by many media stakeholders across the country. The promoters of the bill may be unaware of Nigeria’s Press history. Nigeria’s Press Council and the disputations surrounding it have outlived at least four different administrations, military and civilian. It is kept aflame by a small group of people who are obsessed with a desire to control and manacle the press for their personal and political ends.
It is, however, reassuring that President Muhammadu Buhari has promised that he would not sign the bill into law if he found that it compromised the provisions of the Constitution. Following the numerous adverse reactions to the bill, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, has distanced the President from the bill, noting that it was a private member bill. President Buhari, he said, would not compromise his “impeccable and untainted democratic credentials” by signing into law any bill that violates the letter or the spirit of the Constitution.
The Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), comprising the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Nigeria Guild of Editors and the Nigerian Union of Journalists, Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) as well as other media stakeholders have rejected the Press Council Amendment Bill, describing it as unconstitutional and against the principles and tenet of the rule of law. They also noted that a case concerning the bill is still pending in the Supreme Court and that the bill should not have been drafted in the first instance. The Press Council Bill was a specially fabricated vehicle to stifle public opinion during the military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo in 1977. The Nigerian Press then labouring under a military dictatorship found the courage even at that time to point out that no useful purpose would be achieved by the legislation than to further deprive Nigerians of their freedom of speech which was already constrained by the various decrees enacted by the Obasanjo regime. The media were unanimous and everyone thought the issue had been laid to rest.
But the Press Council Bill is like the devil that never sleeps. Every military ruler from the Ibrahim Babangida regime through the General Abacha’s junta to the Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar regime under various pretenses and different appellations tried to foist this bad law upon Nigerians. The current effort is, therefore, the fifth attempt and trying to do this in a democratic dispensation is a betrayal of our democratic disposition.
Whichever way it is presented, the Press Council Amendment Bill is a bad law. The bill is unconstitutional and shorn of all legalese. It intends to serve as a registrar of journalists and control media content as well as create a court to try journalists. The bill has powers to fine journalists or send them to prison and will constitute another layer of regulation since the NUJ, NGE, NPAN, each has bodies regulating their activities according to law. It will also deprive the Nigerian Press of the constitutional guarantees and protection provided in Sections 22 and 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). The African Charter of Human and People’s Rights demands that the Press should not be censored in addition to all the fundamental rights it guarantees.
The Nigerian Press has been the historic institution that must be credited with all the na- tion’s struggles for freedom, equality and liberty, including the freedom of parliament which the sponsors of this nefarious law are currently enjoying. We had thought that the era of such draconian laws was over and rather than encumber the press, our parliament should rather widen the freedom of the Press as in Ghana or even in the United States where the very first amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”
The Nigerian Press has lived through Decree No.4, the Public Protection Against False Accusation Decree under which journalists were jailed and a newspaper house heavily fined.
It has gone through detentions, jailings, contempt trials, libel suits and other kinds of privations too numerous to mention. The Nigerian Press has been the single most consistent institution that has stood the test of time in Nigeria’s history. It has proved itself to be the most patriotic institution and cannot be taught anything about patriotism by politicians.
If Nigerian legislators cannot find ways to widen Press freedom, they should, at least, not constrain the bit we already have. We suggest that this legislation be dropped.