Nigeria has never had much luck with Press Freedom because for some strange reasons we did not have the Thomas Jeffersons. The few Jefferson wannabe’s we had, didn’t reason like Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson, the profound thinker behind the US Constitution which the Nigerian Constitution strains to ape, wrote from Paris to Edward Carrington, whom Jefferson sent as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1786 to 1788, on the importance of a free press to keep government in check. He concludes that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” He explained:
“The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs through the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”
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The Nigerian Senate is the exact opposite of what a 21st Century legislature should be. For 17 years it held its budget as a secret and conducted its financial matters like a secret society. Why would it not be afraid of transparency? It shrouded the pay of its members in cult-like confidentiality and awarded itself more emoluments than the US Senate. The senate of the 6th poorest country in the world awarding itself more emoluments than the senate of the richest country in the world. It pads the budget when and as it pleases, spends billions buying extra cars for its members for ‘committee’ work; collects billions for imaginary constituency projects; and the former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala narrated in her new book how she was blackmailed by the Senate into paying N17 billion to members for election campaigns in 2015. The so-called “expenses” by which each Senator collects N15 million a month in addition to 17 different allowances even to a layman are outright illegal and it is still a riddle that a machinery has not been set for the recovery of those monies and the prosecution of the senators.
The Press Council bill is therefore the handiwork of idle fascist minds in the Senate who think they might be punishing the Press by taking the country backwards to the 19th Century at a time the Nigerian media have reached such a level that trying to foist such a Press Council law would be resisted. The Nigerian Press has survived similar attempts in the past. The Newspaper Amendment Act of 1964 had all the essential elements of the current bill. When it was passed, it was considered one of the most shameful legislations enacted in the Third World. It criminalized journalism, aimed to impose censorship and control, sounded alarms over “fake news” similar to what we hear today from the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed. The Nigerian Press survived it all. It is not new for those who find themselves in the corridors of power to privatise patriotism, and think they are doing the country a favour. Yet as Burke stated, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
Nigerian politicians cannot handle transparency and it is no surprise that they often find themselves at odds with the Press which tends to want to expose public affairs. Even as liberal and as sophisticated as the founding fathers were, some of them wanted the Daily Times nationalized. They were worried about the immense power of the Daily Times which then was the most powerful newspaper in Africa.
The Nigerian Press survived Major-General Muhammadu Buhari’s Public Officers Protection Against False Accusation (Decreee) No. 4 of 1984 under which Mr. Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor were sent to prison for a year each and the Guardian newspapers fined N10,000. That monstrous piece of legislation was one of the worst in the world because truth was not a defence.
It was akin to the Seditious Offences Ordinance (1909) which was later repealed, in which truth was also no defence. The Nigerian Press survived the First Republic’s regional control of newspapers which empowered the regional governments to pick and choose which newspapers they would permit to circulate in their areas of political control. The Nigerian Press survived the numerous legislations banning various newspapers and magazines. It will survive this ill-fated Press Council Amendment bill of 2018..
Peter Obi at 57
Former Governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, celebrated his 57th last week. We did not expect the typical bash which would not have been undeserved of a man of his accomplishments. But Peter Obi is Peter Obi. He remains as solid as the rock of Gibraltar, true to his principles, unwavering in his convinctions about what constitutes virtue in public life.
In true democracies, his achievements as Governor of Anambra State are such that various groups would be seeking to draft him for President. He is one of less than half a dozen men who, given the opportunity, would turn the country around from Third to First within a cycle.
Many happy returns to Okwute Ndigbo.