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Media Bills’ Amendment Act of Controversy

Ahmed Lawan And Femi Gbajabiamila
R-L: Senate President Ahmed Lawan and House Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila.

July 25, (THEWILL) – For the Nigeria Press Organisation (NPO) the Olusegun Odebunmi-led House of Representatives Committee on National Orientation, Ethics and Values should drop and not suspend the move to amend the Act of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the Nigeria Press Council (NPC).

Officials of the NPO, comprising the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), who met with Odebunmi, Chairman of the Committee in Abuja, two weeks ago, told him without mincing words to drop the bill and, out of courtesy, urged him to draft another with inputs from the stakeholders.

The meeting, which was attended by Chairman of the NPAN, Malam Kabiru Yusuf; National President of the NUJ, Mr Chris Isiguzor; President of the NGE, Mr Mustapha Isah; Mr Azubuike Ishiekwene, Editor-in Chief of Leadership Newspaper and Mr Gbenga Adefaye, Rector of the Nigeria Institute of Journalism, drew the attention of Odebunmi to a serious gap in the bills, with regard to the non-consultation and the pending case in the Supreme Court over 17 clauses in the NPC Act, being challenged by the Federal Government at the apex court.

Speaking with THEWILL on their meeting, the President of the NGE, Mr Mustapha Isah, said the NPO would stick to its guns that the bills should be dropped.

He said, “We have told him to drop the bill. He should first consult with the stakeholders so that we all agree on it. If his motive is not sinister, why should he insist on going ahead with the bill in spite of the readiness of stakeholders to discuss the provisions we consider draconian and obnoxious? He kept telling us to go and bring inputs and we said no he should drop it in its entirety and consult.”

Faced with a barrage of opposition, especially after the newspapers front-page blackout of last Monday heightened the protests, Odebunmi on Tuesday said that the bills for the amendment to the laws establishing the NBC and the NPC had been suspended.

Speaking on Sunrise Daily, a Channels Television programme, on that Tuesday, Odebunmi said he initiated the suspension of the bills to allow for wider consultation with stakeholders in the industry. “Personally, I’m suspending the process for more consultation,” he said.

Making a veiled reference to his meeting with the NPO, Odebunmi added, “What I’m saying is that the NUJ cannot gag the activities of the National Assembly by saying ‘No you must drop it’, because obviously that is not the way.

“We have suspended the process for more consultation to happen on it. They demanded a lot of time and I said ‘no problem, we have given you; even if you spend three, four to five weeks’. So far, more consultations from critical stakeholders and many people have been submitting their memoranda to the National Assembly even within the industry.”

The federal lawmaker also said he has since recognised the lapses in the practice of journalism in Nigeria and the fact that the amendments are aimed at fixing those problems, stating that his intention is not to gag the press but to regulate those activities he considers obsolete in the profession.

“My intention is not to gag the press and unless all the practitioners can say all is well with the industry, to the best of my knowledge I know all is not well. And I know the National Assembly has the power to look into the existing act,” he said.

In his reaction, Isah said, “Suspension of the bills is not enough. He should drop it completely.”

The two bills have generated so much protest, campaign for and against, especially from media stakeholders, since the senior lawmaker muted it and the committee he heads called for a public hearing on June 16 and 17, 2021 at the committee’s office in Abuja.

Media stakeholders have described the steps taken by the lower legislative chamber to amend the NPC and the NBC Acts as “draconian” and an attempt to stifle free speech in the country.

Supporting Isah’s position, #FixPolitics censured Nigeria’s National Assembly for suspected moves against press freedom and democratic voices in the country.

In a statement made available to THEWILL and signed by the #FixPolitics Co-Chair, Constitutional, Political and Electoral Reforms, Prof Remi Sonaiya, and its Executive Director, Anthony Ubani, the group expressed support for the media against undemocratic tendencies.

“We take our stand firmly alongside the Nigerian press, particularly the Nigerian Guild of Editors, the Nigeria Union of Journalists, the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria and other civil society bodies that have equally expressed consternation at this unacceptable development,” #FixPolitics stated.

The group stressed that the two bills sponsored by Mr Odebunmi were “outright authoritarian and constitute a blatant attempt to stifle free speech and the voice of Nigerian citizens,” as they seek to hand over control of the press to the Ministry of Information.

“This move must be properly understood in the context of a government, which is increasingly intolerant of criticism and divergent opinions and which continues to fail in its primary responsibility of providing security and basic services to the Nigerian populace,” it added.

They contended that recent developments in Nigeria have raised concerns globally about the deteriorating state of press freedom in the country. These include the harassment and arrest of journalists, the ban of Twitter, the closure of media houses and imposition of fines due to spurious allegations.

“The bills being proposed are intended to impose very strict conditions on journalists and media houses seeking to cover government proceedings. For example, journalists’ access to the National Assembly will be restricted, while media houses will have to prove that they have a daily hard copy circulation of 40,000 copies or substantial online presence, with at least 5,000 daily views.

“There are several other restrictions proposed in the bills, with the intention of disqualifying journalists from gaining access to government news and reporting such to Nigerians,” #FixPolitics further stated.

Expressing shock at the draconian bills, the group lauded the outrage expressed by the press as portrayed on the front pages of several independent newspapers across the country on July 12, 2021.

What is the way forward?

Isah said the NPO has written to President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan and Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, for a meeting. “We are expecting their reply and hope we will be able to resolve the issues involved,” he said.