A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Femi Falana, in this interview with SAMSON FOLARIN, urges media professionals to mobilise public support against the proposed amendments of the National Broadcasting Commission Act and the Nigerian Press Council Act.
The timing is totally wrong as the atmosphere is currently polluted. The sponsors of the anti-media bills should have awaited the resolution of the ban on Twitter. However, the sponsors have not bothered to familiarise themselves with the struggle for freedom of expression in Nigeria and in neighbouring countries. The colonial regime promulgated the Official Ordinance which prescribed a 14-year jail term for anyone who leaked official documents on the exploitation of the resources of the colonial territory and thereby exposed the atrocities of the British Government. The Public Order Ordinance prohibited public protests against the alien regime. The Criminal Ordinance contained sedition which criminalised the publication, circulation or possession of any statement which exposed the colonial regime to ridicule, odium or embarrassment. Truth was not a defence under the law. The ruling class in the post-colonial regime decided to retain the obnoxious laws. The military junta enacted decrees to jail journalists, proscribe newspapers and close media houses for embarrassing any of the dictators.
The proposed amendments of the two acts made provisions for journalists to be jailed for up to three years or fined up to N10m. How do these amendments compare with Decree 4 of 1984 enacted by Buhari when he was the head of state?
The provisions of Section 24 of the Cybercrimes Act 2015 are more stringent than what is being proposed in the amendments. But the section has been annulled by the ECOWAS Court. To that extent, the provision of the law can no longer be invoked to prosecute any citizen or organisation in the country. The Buhari regime has subjected journalists to trial under the Treason Act, while others have been charged with treasonable felony. Scores of journalists and other critics are standing trial for embarrassing some state governors. The National Broadcasting Commission has been used to close and suspend media houses and impose outrageous fines on them. It is against the background of intolerance that Twitter has been suspended.
In the proposed amendment to the NBC Act, the NBC is given powers to determine public interest and impose sanctions on television stations, including fines and revocation of licences where it feels broadcasters have acted against its perception of public interest. What danger does this portend for our democracy?
The controversial amendment of the NBC Code was not carried out by the NBC Board. The amendment has been challenged in court by an activist, Effiong Enibebe. The government has no defence to the case. That is what informed the proposal to empower the NBC to impose the prohibitive fines.
The amendment to the NPC Act gives the Minister of Information powers to approve the NPC Code. Is this right when we have professional bodies like the NUJ, NGE, NPAN?
The Federal Government cannot control the media to the extent that the Minister of Information will expropriate the powers of the state governments and the relevant professional bodies. Apart from Section 36 of the Constitution which protects the fundamental rights of Nigerians to freedom of expression, Section 22 of the Constitution has specifically tasked the media to promote accountability and transparency in government. Any act of the parliament that is inconsistent with either of the two constitutional provisions will be quashed.
What is the best approach for the media to stop these amendments from going through?
I know that the media succeeded in Ghana in ensuring that all anti-media laws were repealed. It may interest you to know that the Nigerian case of Arthur Nwankwo v. The State, wherein the Court of Appeal declared sedition law illegal, was one of the materials used by the media to make a successful case for the decriminalisation of the media in Ghana. The ECOWAS Court has quashed the anti-media law of 2017 enacted by the brutal Yahya Jammeh dictatorship. A couple of years ago, I addressed judges and journalists on the urgent need to repeal all anti media laws. Happily, The Gambia is currently involved in the decriminalization of the media in that country. Frankly speaking, the Nigerian Union of Journalism, Guild of Editors and Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria ought to have amended their codes to take care of the excesses of social media. With respect to these amendments, the media should mobilise public support and propose alternative amendments for the regulation of social media. It is high time the media in Nigeria began a campaign for the decriminalisation of the freedom of expression.