“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
By Daniel Kanu
Hon. Olusegun Odebunmi, a three – term lawmaker, member of the All Progressives Congress (APC) from Oyo State and the arrowhead behind the bill to amend the laws establishing the Nigeria Press Council (NPC) and Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) is déeply in the eye of the storm.
During the week, the lawmaker came under intense criticism as he, perhaps, dabbled in an area many believe he lacks the competence to handle.
In the first place, he has no media background.
Some say he is on a mission to accomplish a hatchet job.
In fact, the barrage of condemnation that trailed the surreptitious move by the House of Representatives member has been massive and unending.
It is certain that the legislative process on the bill was suspended due to the controversy it generated.
Odebunmi said his intention was not to gag the press, but to checkmate his observed lapses in the practice of Journalism in the country through the bill.
Critical Nigerians do not believe his submission as they contend that the bill portends dangers.
National President of NUJ, Chris Isiguzo was unequivocal in the position of the union which is “No to suspension, but outright cancellation and withdrawal” of the bill.
Many Nigerians and indeed media stakeholders have described the steps taken by the lower legislative chamber to amend the NBC and NPC acts as “draconian, mischievous” and an attempt to muzzle free speech in the country.
The bill going by the record has since passed second reading and public hearings have been held on them.
While the proposed amendment to the NBC law seeks to put online broadcasters under the purview of the commission, that of the NPC seeks “harsh punishment” for defaulting media organizations and journalists.
Media organizations and journalists could pay as high as N10 million and N250,000 respectively, for infractions in the proposed amendment to the NPC law.
Expectedly, the Nigerian Press Organization (NPO), comprising the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), have challenged the House of Representatives to step down the bill, particularly, as the matter is still a subject of litigation at the Supreme Court.
Stakeholders have commended NPO on its move. This is because it is a matter that has been in court since 1999.
Again, not less than 17 of the 39 clauses contained in the bill have already been ruled unconstitutional by the court. The Federal Government in its dissatisfaction, took it up with the Appeal Court where it lost, leading to the pending appeal at the Supreme Court.
Commentators are of the view that the government cannot, therefore, be a judge in its own case.
There are many considerations that seem to work against the clandestine reintroduction of the bill particularly in a democracy which we claim to practice.
There is no gainsaying the fact that democracy is about rule of law and separation of powers among the principal arms of government, that is the legislature, executive and judiciary.
Each is expected to respect the other so for the House of Representatives to proceed with the amendment of the bill on a matter still before the Supreme Court, is believed to be a slight on the judiciary and by extension undemocratic.
Critics have raised the alarm that there are various clauses in the new bill that are likely to discourage freedom of speech and press in the country.
The contentious clauses they contend need to be critically examined, if the process of the amendment must go on in the first place.
Also media experts have argued that there should be negotiated discussion if for any reason there is the necessity for such between the lawmakers and the various stakeholders in Nigerian media on the intended law.
Rather than emasculate the media with new bill, analysts contend that the National Assembly should rather expunge all laws intended to criminalise free speech and press freedom in the country.
In a democracy, as a matter of principle, the media unarguable hold power to account, by acting as the public watchdog overseeing the activities of the government and its institutions.
To achieve this, it must enjoy complete Independence from the government.
Freedom of the press in this sense is freedom from restriction which the new bill intends to institute.
Legal expert, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, told Sunday Sun that for the press in Nigeria to accomplish the role expected of it must be free from manipulation and undue restriction by the state, insisting that once the media become subject to undue public regulation, they will loose their bite as a watchdog.
A free press, no doubt, gives the people a voice in governance as well as act as check on the excesses of the government. It is this reason the press is commonly addressed as the fourth estate of the realm.
Some critics of Odebunmi who spoke with Sunday Sun, said that he is a product of “godfatherism” and that it would be better for him not to dabble into an issue he lacks sufficient knowledge as that would mean a celebration of his ignorance.
They said there is no infraction in the media that has not been taken care of by existing laws.
Odebunmi had his primary education at Baptist Day School, Oko, Oyo, between 1974 and 1980.
He enrolled at the Baptist Secondary Grammar School, Oko, in Oyo, where he obtained his secondary school certificate.
He also received a diploma at the Fashola Farm Mechanization Training Centre and another diploma in secretarial administration from the Federal Polytechnic, Ede, Osun State.
In 2011, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in business education from the University of Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State.
He is the chairman of the House Committee on Information and Orientation – meaning he presided over both public hearing on the bill.