Attempts by the Federal Government to introduce some regulatory bills against the media have become very worrisome. During a recent public hearing organised by the House of Representatives Committee on Information and National Orientation, Ethics and Values, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, restated the need for the country to regulate the social media. He was reported to have urged lawmakers to grant full regulatory powers to government over internet broadcasting and all online media outfits.
This came a few weeks after the Federal Government banned the operations of the micro-blogging site, Twitter, for removing a post by President Muhammadu Buhari, which the social media giant considered offensive and against its rules. The Federal Government did not just stop at banning Twitter, it also threatened to prosecute any Nigerian found violating the ban. It also directed broadcast stations to deactivate their Twitter accounts and hinted that social media outfits might have to register before operating in Nigeria.
Over time, the government has shown intolerance to certain media criticisms. When a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Dr. Obadiah Mailafia, granted live interview to a Lagos-based radio station, Nigeria Info 99.3FM, last year, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) imposed a N5 million fine on the station. It accused the radio station of using its platform to promote unverifiable and inciting views that could incite public disorder. Then, the National Broadcasting Code (No.6) had just reviewed the fine for infraction by broadcast stations from N500, 000 to N5 million.
In 2019, the NBC similarly sanctioned DAAR Communications Plc, owners of Africa Independent Television (AIT) and its sister radio station, Raypower. The NBC alleged that AIT and Raypower gave room for hate speech, divisive and inciting comments in discussion of national issues. Just last April, it warned Channels Television for interviewing the spokesman of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). There are many other examples.
Many individuals and groups see government’s latest actions as attempts to intimidate the media. The aim, as the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) put it, is to stop Nigerians from using social media platforms to assess government policies, expose corruption, and criticise acts of official impunity by the agents of the Federal Government.
The Nigerian Guild of Editors sees some of the provisions in the proposed bills to amend the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) Act and the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) Act currently before the National Assembly as draconian and meant to criminalise journalism practice in the country. The NGE said it “is not aware of any media regulatory council in the world, which says that media regulatory council shall establish a National Press and Ethical Code of Conduct for media houses and media practitioners, which shall come into effect and be disseminated after approval by the Minister of Information, and that the code shall be binding on every media houses and journalists.” It said this kind of media regulatory council would neither serve the interest of the media industry nor serve the general interest of the public.
Ironically, the Presidency has denied being part of the move by the National Assembly to amend the NPC and NBC Acts. Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, said last week that it was a government thing and that only the Minister of Information and Culture could talk about it.
No doubt, any attempt to gag the press under any guise is anti-democratic. It undermines the spirit of Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution which stipulates 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. It is also against different international covenants which uphold people’s rights to seek, receive and impart information without any interference. If the government is doing the right things, it does not need to be averse to criticisms. If it feels a particular medium is dishing out false reports, there are various existing laws to deal with such situations.
Churning out fresh bills aimed at gagging the media can only produce negative consequences. It will not only put us in the league of countries with repressive regimes in the world but also send wrong signals to the international community and investors.
In the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Nigeria ranked 120th out of 180 countries. Last year, the country ranked 115th. The international non-governmental organisation, Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders), which compiled the index, described the country as “one of Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are often spied on, attacked, arbitrary arrested or even killed.”
Nigeria has enough problems already. Innocent citizens are being slaughtered by bandits and sundry criminals on a daily basis. Kidnapping has become a lucrative business. Poverty, ethnic tensions and threats of secession by some sections of the country have held the nation by the jugular. There is no need to add more problems by waging war against the media. Since President Buhari has pledged to recommit himself to the ideals of press freedom, he needs to walk his talk.