August 2, 2021

Let the Press be, Mr. President


Dan Agbese
Sun Jun 27 2021

The struggle never ends. Haroun Adamu usually signed off his column in the Daily Times with the warning: the struggle continues. Under every government and in every clime, the press (to use the generic name) must struggle and struggle to survive in a social climate made hostile for it either through formal legislations or through the whims, the caprices and the intolerance of rulers.

Almost every government treats the press as a necessary evil. Being a necessary evil obliges governments to treat it like the enemy they verily believe it is, unless, of course, it chooses to put the rouge on their faces to cover up unruly pimples. Laws are trundled out at convenient intervals to place hurdles in the path of the press to limit its operation and its capacity to roam in the service of the public, so the big man could sleep soundly.

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According to the late Prince Tony Momoh, former minister of information, editor and newspaper chief executive, and undoubtedly the most skilful and professional government information manager we have had so far, between the controversial Newspaper Act of 1964, to somewhere during the Babangida regime, we had some 51 laws that specifically targeted the press. None of that was a friendly piece of legislation. The undue attention to the press arose then and arises now from rulers addressing the nasty question, to wit, what do we do to make the press serve our exclusive needs and ignore the constitutional or the conventional right of the people to know what their government is doing or not doing and why?
The dust of controversy is currently swirling over a new government attempt to put the press in its place through some amendments to the Nigerian Press Council Act Cap N28. The proposed amendments are before a committee of the House of Representatives. And from why I have read of its handling by the honourable members, there appears to be some chuckling in the lower chambers of the national assembly. Perhaps some of its members relish the prospects of being made famous as the sledge hammers that hammered the press in our country. A more unworthy ambition you could not find among law-makers.

It should surprise no one that we have come to this pass again. We have received hints of this in various forms since the Buhari administration with bells and whistles of a citizenry clamouring for change in how we are governed and to what end. There were hints from both Lai Mohammed, minister of information and culture, and the senate of both legal and administrative plans to regular the social media. The chance came last month when Twitter took down one particular tweet by President Buhari because it offended its policy that obliges those who use its services to keep a civil tongue.

Mohammed gleefully brought the hammer down on Twitter and later issued open threats to Facebook and Instagram in a childish petulant reaction. Taking down the president’s tweet was not an assault on him. It was essentially a simple act of making him respect a simple company policy that users of its service agree to abide by. It makes no exceptions on the basis of high positions in the society. Ask former US president Donald Trump.

Some elements in the Buhari administration, with or without the support of their principal, believe the fastest way to make a name for themselves is to take on the press, put a leash on its scrawny neck and narrow the space for its freedom. Lai Mohammed is happy to be the commander-in-chief of the anti-media forces. With leash around our necks we shall remember his eight eights as minister. It counts for something.

The Nigerian Press Council Act reflects the tendency on the part of governments in developing countries to jump into anything that would make the press docile and quiescent. Ordinarily, the press council should not be the business of government. It was not so intended from the beginning. Its proponents envisaged an institution similar to that in Britain, the first nation to recognise the necessity for such an institution as a self-regulatory body set up, funded and run by the press establishment.

Its primary purpose is to give the members of the public a platform for an alternative resolution of their grievances and disagreements with the press. Under its provisions, members of the public are free to raise any issues against the behaviour of the press such as the publication of photographs in a newspaper that someone finds insensitive or offensive. The council has no powers to press charges against an offending newspaper but it has the full powers to chide it and order it to apologise for causing an offence. It publishes its findings and decisions in all matters brought before it for the education of the media men and women. The parties are usually satisfied and there the matter ends. Chief Obasanjo once took the editor of the rag sheet called Razor to the press council headed by the late Chief Alade Odunewu to defend his good name. He chose not to sue the newspaper.
In our own case, and regrettably so, the generals jumped in when they found that our media managers who had the responsibility to birth the proposed press council had problems agreeing among themselves. Government took over its establishment, complete with the right to appoint its principal staff, such as the chairman and the secretary. Things, as they are wont to do, have been going down the hill for the council since then, not least because the journalists surrendered what was intended to be their self-regulatory institution to an external boss exercising its assumed right to use the council to bend the will of the press. Decree upon decree has watered down the council and its ability to take control in its essential task of making the press self-regulate itself in its relations with the public.

The current proposed amendments to the council act are intended as pure punitive instruments to cow the press and narrow the frontiers of free speech. Fake news and hate speeches would now make it into the press council act, thus turning the council into what it was never meant to be. There are enough laws, such as that of libel, in the books to take care of the new fanciful phrase, fake news, and hate speech. There is no reason why the government should seek to impose on the press council a burden it was never meant to bear.
We do not need the Sword of Damocles of N10 million and N250,000 fines respectively hanging over an erring medium and an individual journalist. The press has enough problems as it is because of hostile and benign acts that impinge on its commercial and professional interests. The Buhari administration need not pile it on. It should, instead, pay attention to the revival of the paper factory at Oku-Iboku and the completion of the huge paper factory at Iwopin to free the press from importing newsprint from as far away as Brazil.

The president’s men in the executive and the legislative branches of government seem to lose sight of what happened to the press in Buhari’s military regime. Early in his administration, he promised the nation through an interview with Concord editors – the late Dele Giwa, Yakubu Mohammed and Ray Ekpu – that he would tamper with the press. He was as good as his word. He soon enacted Decree 4 of 1984 targeted at the press. Two Guardian reporters, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, were jailed one year each under the decree for publishing a leaked or speculative information of impending ambassadorial appointments by Buhari. We have not forgotten the injury it caused the press. The press has been wary since the man became a born-again democrat and was elected president in 2015 and re-elected in 2019. We know that he treats the press with benign condescension and has never pretended that the love of the press ranks pretty low in his heart.

The press may be a difficult and irritating social institution but it is not a necessary evil because much good it does the society. It a) gives effect to the constitutional provision for freedom of speech and all other freedoms without which a society is no better than an animal kingdom without a government and b) serves the vital human need to be informed and educated.

I believe that the Nigerian press is not Buhari’s problem. The press has not been hostile to him or acted irresponsibly to justify the current resort to the anti-press posture. His problems are the national economy burdened with N33.11 trillion debt, the loss of 324,000 children and the $27.8 billion to the insurgency in the north-east. He should not condescend to dirtying his hands in a fight with the press. Use the press to promote human rights and freedoms. Whatever your men may say, chaining the press is not
worth your while as a born-again democrat.