It is not for nothing journalists are sometimes called news hunters. I wear the badge with pride, and I know my colleagues do too.
For we really hunt – digging up facts, holding those in public positions accountable, dissecting their words and actions, suggesting alternatives. Now, the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has issued a fresh invitation to us. This one isn’t for the usual team he and the officials in his ministry are used to. This is more extensive. For by pushing two bills at the National Assembly that will further gag the press, he sent a combined invitation to the Nigerian Union of Journalists, Nigerian Guild of Editors, as well as the Newspaper Publishers Association of Nigeria.
I interrogate this invitation from two angles. The first addresses the reason the minister is trying to curtail the freedom of the press. The second is what news hunters and all their organisations should be doing with regard to the steps that the minister has taken. The first angle is located, and is actually informed by my academic background in Political Science. This makes me able to imagine what is in the head of a government that takes a step which amounts to provoking all journalists as one to resist it, and stalk its every step more than before; the Information Minister only happens to be the face of the government in this matter. Now, it’s known that all governments desire to maintain an upper hand over, or at least outmanoeuvre other influential voices in any polity among which are journalists.
In the past, we had demonstrated the extent of ground we could cover when we stood together. The government is wary of this because minds are involved. Get the mind of the populace firmly set against a government and the legitimacy of such a government is eroded. Meanwhile, governments everywhere can use state force to compel people, but they haven’t been able to really influence their minds as effectively as news hunters do. Nigeria’s Information Minister recognises this. So, the highly unpopular bills sent to the National Assembly are his contribution to the regime’s efforts to do what all governments do when they can.
In any democratic system, all forces or institutions are entitled to do what they can to have the upper hand. It’s about interest. What the Nigerian government is using the Information Minister to achieve is for the purpose of protecting its interest. It’s part of the political process. Up to that point, the minister is doing what his employers expect from him i.e. his own contribution on how to have an upper hand over any other influential voice such as the press. In the face of this onslaught, the other interests that may be on the receiving end are the ones that must not let down their guard. It was the veteran Yoruba Juju musician, Ebenezer Obey, who sang the song, “Ode to n’so Olodumare, ori egun lo ma ku si.” Roughly, it means the hunter who’s watching God should be prepared to remain at the stakes forever. The song is a reminder that all the bodies representing news hunters must remain ever vigilant. But exactly what is it that the Information Minister is trying to do? He already has so much power, but he wants to have more control over the very air that the press breathes.
There’s no doubt that the bills with the lawmakers will give more powers to the Minister of Information to control the conduct of print media houses and journalists. According to its Section 3 (c), the bill will, “with the approval of the minister in charge of information, establish and disseminate a National Press Code and standards to guide conduct of print media, related media and media practitioners. The minister will also approve penalties and fines against violation of the Press Code by print media houses and media practitioners, including revocation of license.” The minister is to consider applications for the establishment, ownership and operation of print media and other related media houses.
This bill also proposes punitive measures for media outlets and journalists that act contrary to its provisions. According to the bill, “when an offence under this section has been committed by an individual or a body corporate, such a person(s) or body corporate shall be deemed guilty of an offence and liable to be prosecuted against and be punished accordingly,” Section 3 further states that, “Where any person or body corporate has been convicted of this offence,” the erring journalists and media houses “shall be liable to a fine of five million naira only or three years imprisonment to the person or the promoter (in case of body corporate).” The bill also mandates media houses to be members of the Press Council or be liable to “conviction or to a fine of five million naira or a term of three years imprisonment or both and to an additional fine of twenty thousand naira for every day the offence continues.”
Now, I move to the second angle to my response. As I’ve already stated, most governments would want to have an upper hand over other relevant voices in a polity. In the event, one major thing those being threatened have as a pillar of support is what the Constitution provides for them to enjoy. We’re fortunate that even the current Nigerian Constitution hasn’t been completely sapped of its provisions that protect journalists. For instance, in the 1999 Constitution (as amended) Section 22 states that “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.” But through the Information Minister, the government is stepping in to take the freedom that the constitution gives us. It’s in this same constitution we have an instrument which we must use in fighting hard if the Information Minister mustn’t wage a one-man battle and prevail against all the bodies representing Nigerian journalists. So, the case we have in court is in order.
This battle to protect the freedom of the press cannot be won on one front though. As things stand, the promoters in the National Assembly are insisting they will pass the bill no matter the opposition put up against it. The Information Minister hasn’t said he’s withdrawing the obnoxious sections of the bills. That’s not unexpected of governments and the politicians who work to promote their interest. Anywhere, in especially Third World countries, when a government has decided to curb the freedom of its most potent critic – the press – it hardly backs down.
Considering their posture at this time, therefore, what the Information Minister is doing is playing catch-me-if-you-can. He has issued an invitation to news hunters to have him watched, stalked, and contested against. That’s okay. But this is an uneven contest because the government in control of state instrument of coercion. However, in Nigeria the press has something going for it. We don’t have a history of been cowed as the current bill intends to do. One reason is that this nation is too diverse, it has bold courageous media practitioners, and there’re other forces as well that exert pressure on the government. All of this has ensured that the press is never fully suppressed in Nigeria as it’s the case in most African countries. So we have an in-built resilience, an ability to build a collision of civil forces which we can leverage. It’s what we need to do at this time when we face existential threats.
Besides the foregoing, the bills should push us to maintain our position better at the stakes at different points, enter the trenches for the long battle, as well as watch more closely the actions of government and the lawmakers in the National Assembly that it’s using to push through the obnoxious sections of these bills. This is important as any government will do even more to shackle the press if the coast is clear. As for the Information Minister, let’s hope he won’t look back one day to see that the only notable contribution history remembers him by is how he further shackles the press that assisted him when he was in the opposition.