Leading lights of the media were at the Senate yesterday with a strong demand on the lawmakers —drop the Nigerian Press Council Bill 547.
The Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) told Senators that the Bill is unconstitutional and subjudice to the ongoing case in the Supreme Court.
It expressed regrets that the bill seeks to criminalise journalists and journalism.
The President of the NPO, an umbrella body for all media organisations in the country, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, made the submissions at a public hearing by the Senate Committee on Information and National Orientation in Abuja.
The committee had invited stakeholders for their input on “A bill for an Act to repeal the Nigerian Press Council Act 1992(as amended) and to enact Nigerian Press Council Act 2018”.
But Obaigbena with whom were top publishers, editors, media rights activists and lawyers, described the bill as “unacceptable” to the Nigerian media.
He said the bill was a reincarnation of Decree 4 of 1984, with which two editors, Mr. Tunde Thompson and Mr. Nduka Irabor, who later became a member of the House of Representatives were jailed.
“We have come here as citizens of Nigeria seeking a better democratic society for our people,” Obaigbena said, adding:
”At a meeting of the NPO comprising the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Nigeria Guild of Editors and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) as well as other media stakeholders in Lagos last week to deliberate on ‘The Nigerian Press Council Bill 2018’, we painstakingly studied the provisions of the proposed bill in the context of its implication for free speech, press freedom, media independence, safety of journalists and the right to operate as a business in accordance with the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“The meeting also took note of the fact that a law suit instituted by the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) on the same subject matters of the bill is pending at the Supreme Court.
“ As responsible members of Nigerian society, we wish to state without equivocation that the media will continue doing all it can to further promote media ethics, professionalism, transparency, accountability and self-regulation, to ensure that the public interest is served at all times.”
“We decided that it is unacceptable. This proposed bill is unconstitutional as it runs against the principles of law. We believe this bill should not have been drafted seeking to oust the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
“We are asking that the bill should be dropped. It should be repealed and there should be no replacement. “
Obaigbena, who is also the President of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), highlightes the defects of the bill.
“The proposed bill is unconstitutional as it runs against the principles and tenets of the rule of law and is actually subjudice, given that a case on the subject matter is still pending in the highest court of the land -the Supreme Court – in view of which the bill should not have been drafted in the first instance.
“That the bill is, for all intents and purposes, draconian and anti-press freedom, being an amalgamation of the obnoxious Public Officers Protection Against False Accusation Decree No. 4 of 1984 and the Newspapers Registration Decree 43 of 1993, both vestiges of the dark days of military rule and therefore incurably and irreparably bad, being also inconsistent with values of our democratic society.
“That the bill seeks to criminalise journalism practice despite the fact the laws of the country already have enough provisions and avenues for seeking legal redress.
”That the bill smacks of an attempt at undue interference in the operations of the media in Nigeria as businesses registered under the relevant laws of the federation.
“That the bill seeks for a Nigeria Press Council to usurp the powers of the courts by assuming extra-judicial powers.
”That the bill seeks to incapacitate the media in the exercise of the duties and obligations imposed on it by Section 22 of the constitution to monitor governance and hold government accountable to the people. The section states as follows: ‘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’.
“That the bill violates the provisions of Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) sections 1 and 2 of which state as follows: ‘(1) Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference’.
Obaigbena also listed other defects in the bill to the consternation of the Chairman of the committee, Sen. Suleiman Adokwe and others.
He said: “ Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.”
“At the same time it also violates Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement Act) No. 2 of 1983 to which Nigeria is a signatory and which is now part of the country’s laws.
“ That the bill through some of its other obnoxious provisions seeks to indoctrinate Nigerians, through the use and misuse of curricula in training of journalists and usurp the powers of the regulatory bodies in the educational sector affecting media training, especially the National Universities Commission and the National Board for Technical Education.
“That the bill seeks to create the impression that the Nigerian media community does not take the issues of ethics and self-regulation seriously whereas it is a well-known fact that the mechanisms actually exist, including the Code of Conduct of Journalists in Nigeria, the Ethics Committees of the NUJ and NGE and the recently launched Nigerian Media Code of Election Coverage endorsed by media stakeholders”.
Rather than haunt the press, the NPO asked the Senate to enact laws that would ensure “debates before elections; complete transparency in election funding including public declaration of sources of election finance by all candidates and political parties and ensuring the integrity of our electoral process, etc”.
Senate President Bukola Saraki, who opened the hearing, said “the bill is for an Act to repeal the extant law and to re-enact one in keeping with democratic principles”.
He said the subsisting law was “a creation of the military rule which sought to exercise a heavy-handed clampdown on the activities of the press”.
Saraki said: “It is in order to cast off the vestiges of military era approach to the media that we have drafted the new bill.
“The bill expunges perceived draconian provisions of the extant law, amends some to fit current sensibilities, and inserts new clauses to situate the practice of journalism in a modern context in line with global standards.
‘It would also grant autonomy to the NPC, while creating an institutional framework for the enforcement of ethical codes and standards, as regulated by practitioners themselves.”
He was represented by Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi.
The Chairman, Senate Committee on Information and National Orientation, Senator Suleiman Adokwe, said the bill seeks to repeal the Nigerian Press Council Act Cap. N128, LFN, 2004 to re-enact the Nigerian Press Council Act, 2018 to promote high professional standards for the Nigerian press and deal with complaints emanating both from members of the public and the conducts of practitioners in the system as well as complaints from the press about conducts of persons or organisations towards the press in Nigeria.
Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Press Council, Mr. Mr. Nnamdi Njemanze faulted Section 23 of the proposed bill.
He said: “Section 23 of the bill does not expressly state that the conviction should be by a law court. The NPC is not a law court.
“NPC is to maintain standards; it operate within moral suasion. The bill has attempted to expunge most contentious areas like sections 30, 31, 32 that led to a court action. The composition has been tilted towards stakeholders so that agreement can be reached.”