Clownish National Assembly Gags the Media – By Sanusi Muhammad

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Media practice all over the world is the same. There has never been any difference in practice or style. The core value of the profession remains unchanged. The media educates, informs and entertains while conscious of the fact that the world must be a peaceful place for all.

But in its faulty wisdom directed at a return to the Stone Age, and encouraging rumor peddling,  the Nigerian National Assembly Members have silently resolved within their shallow thinking to gag the press for God knows why.

The action of the national assembly is targeted at impinging on the people’s rights to freedom of information. The media is feeling very uncomfortable that it’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom is being contravened, by strange people that are completely ignorant of the profession but privileged to be where they are either by divine intervention or through a rigged electoral process.

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The annoyance of the media was compounded by the deductions that the bills sought to lay waste to Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). It was even rumored that the sponsor of the Bill, one Segun Odebunmi, was simply a pawn used to perform a dirty job.

For the most part, the sponsor of the Bill insisted that he is not a philistine to the profession as his detractors would label him, that he was simply a concerned stakeholder in the country’s information sphere, and that his intention was not to gag the press, but no one tends to believe him other than his senile and ignorant colleagues and those that feed on him as surrogates, pimps, appendages or otherwise. He never explained why he did not interface with stakeholders in the media industry before sponsoring such garbage, and his motives remain vague despite his spirited attempts to explain them whenever he made a public defence of the Bill. But the media has insisted that a doctor does not treat a patient before diagnosing him. Neither does a chef serve a dish before cooking it. In a word, the horse must be put before the cart. The presidency, meanwhile, has distanced itself from the bill, unequivocally stating that the president has nothing to do with it. Nigerians are leery about that.

However, the offending Nigeria Press Council Act Amendment Bill, which proposes to remove bottlenecks affecting the Council’s performance and make the council be in tune with the current realities in regulating the press, has been suspended. For the NPC Act, one of the key amendments was made to Section 2, which grants the President and the Minister of Information a crucial semi-oversight inroad into the operations of the press. They get to control the appointment of members of NPC, and if the Nigerian Judicial Council (NJC) should serve as a lesson, then the bill bodes no good. It is with dismay that the bar and bench remember the current administration’s cavalier raid on its dignity with respect to the removal and appointment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria in 2019.

Although there are ample provisions under the Law of Torts and Criminal Law, as well as the ethics of journalism which media bodies have upheld overtime, the Bill in Section 3 still sought to introduce an Ethical Code of Conduct to be approved by the Minister of Information for the regulation of media practice. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a step, and in the unsubtle Bill, it was clear to see that the legislation would only serve as a forerunner to a calculated series of statutorily-backed incursions into media operations. It grants the executive secretary the power to issue summons, prescribes punishments and fines, dictates the constitution of an administrative system of adjudication, dictates who can and cannot enjoy Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution, and seeks, in a word, to be a sovereign act unto itself with powers of legislator, judge, jury and executioner.

Freedom of the press remains a key institution in the consolidation of democracy, almost as much as independence of the judiciary. Yet, it would be an oddity for a non legal practitioner to propose an amendment Bill to the very practice of law. Legal minds will hang, draw and quarter both the interloper and his Bill before he gets very far with it. It was therefore, disrespectful and contemptuous to the journalism profession for the lawmaker to propose a bill that suggests a method for the practice of journalism without consulting media professionals. The media, after all, deserves that respect. They have paid their dues- from the struggle for independence to the war against overbearing governments, whether of a military hue or of a civilian toga as many have accused the current administration of being.

Sustained pressure from every corner, however, forced the sponsor of the unfortunate Bill to suspend legislative process on it with the following comment: “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. 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. All is not well with the NPC agency. It is an agency of government and you’re expecting something to be given back to the society but until now nothing has been coming from the agency.”

His intent from my understanding is not clear when he said the NPC is expected to give something back to the society. Was Segun Odebunmi referring to Corporate Social Responsibility? If yes, then it’s doubtful, because the amendments do not seem to compel NPC to perform any social responsibilities. When he was asked on Channels Television what he meant by saying there were lapses in media operations, he maintained some degree of incoherence and kept insisting that all was not well with the media. He even turned the tables and sought to find out if the programme host had taken time to examine the NPC Act. This left analysts and media experts pondering if the national legislator actually knew what was broken before he proposed to fix it, and if he was in fact a captain of his own ship. Did he mean to say that NPC and the media in general are not performing any function in the society or to the society? That guy must be one of those braggers warming the seat of the Green Chamber that are more active during budget padding and pursuance of contracts at the various federal ministries, departments and agencies than contributing to robust debates of substance at the national assembly. At best, Segun Odebunmi is an analogue lawmaker that outlived his usefulness to democracy within the 100 days of inaugurating the 9th National Assembly.

Perhaps, the lapse that the media can be accused of being guilty of are the restrictions on its dissemination of foresight as fact, and its lack of second sight. Foresight functions by helping its possessor arrive at logical conclusions through a series of deductions from a cause to an effect. Second sight, on the other hand, functions by granting its possessor unordinary divination to operate outside the scientific boundary of space and time and obtain knowledge of occurrences that should manifest at a later date. Thus, the media could fairly accurately predict that the government of former president Jonathan would bring the country to ruin if left for another four years, but could not predict that the government to succeed it would be worse.

It was unwise for the national lawmaker to ruffle feathers in the media, for the media do not shirk a fight, nor do they forget and forgive. We are trained to remain fighting for the rights of the people to infinity. The media is the voice and the ears of the people, and the voice of the people is the voice of God. It was doubly unwise for him to have ruffled those feathers on the heels of the Federal Government’s assault on the Social Media. Even if he had been stung by some mysterious puppeteer and forced to act as he did, it would not be a valid defence for him to stand before those who elected him and give an account that the virtue of firmness of purpose was not convenient at that time. He will have to think of how he sunk from being a man of the people when he was elected to being an enemy of the same people and the press.

The Bill may eventually stand as the only tangible legacy of Horoble or sorry, I mean ‘Honorable’ Segun Odebunmi—and a miasmic one—when he exits the national assembly in 2023 through popular of total reject.

The drowning lawmaker missed the point and shot off board. He wanted courting trouble. We accepted the invitation for the trouble. We all know that by 2023, that ignorant lawmaker may be consigned to the dustbin of history wearing the insignia of former Member of the House of Representatives hanging on his worn out tattered dress. He wants to play ostrich but we are not napping. Our submissions are right there at the National Assembly. Let action be taken. Let the legislative process commence. We are there to defend our profession as we fought for national independence with the might of our pens. But Allah de! I come in peace for the good of my journalism profession.

Muhammad is a commentator on national issues

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