By Tonnie Iredia
It must have been with delight that concerned journalists watched Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos on national television last Thursday showing ample displeasure over the apparent lack of media freedom in Nigeria.
He thereafter told a workshop organized by the Nigerian Guild of Editors NGE that: “I stand with you guys in solidarity to say that, indeed, your profession is not just a noble one, but is the one that gives the general public an independent assessment, holding our governance and government accountable at all times.”
The governor was probably ruminating on several major national events in Nigerian history whose successes are credited to the media.
It is in fact incontrovertible that the media aligned with the great leaders of the nationalist movements and other political activists of the colonial period to oust colonialism.
As for military dictatorship, the media through the instrumentality of ‘guerilla’ journalism played similar heroic roles in the struggle to end the aberration in the country.
Even elected governments that should be regarded as democratic had and still have running battles with media professionals for patronizing undemocratic practices.
Unknown to Sanwo-Olu, many of his political colleagues have the mind-set of authoritarian leaders who abhor accountability and; criminalize political dissent and who are always uncomfortable with critical media reports.
Whereas governor Sanwo-Olu’s public deprecation of any attempt to gag the press is salutary, using law and regulatory agencies in repressing the press in Nigeria is not new.
It is a practice which dates back to the colonial period when laws such as the Newspapers Ordinance of 1903, the Seditious Offences Ordinance of 1909 and the Criminal code of 1916 were enacted by colonial officers to distort the struggle for independence.
One would have thought that with the end of colonialism some six decades ago, Nigerian leaders would have since discarded those laws; but that has not been the case.
Instead, many of the vestiges of feudal laws such as the one on sedition have been reenacted with different titles directed at the same old goal of virtually decapitating critics of those in authority.
In other words, media control subsists in Nigeria as part of her governance culture.
It is neither about to change nor is it the creation of the present government. It is rather a strategy for self-preservation.
Interestingly, Britain which introduced such retrogressive laws to Nigeria has since abolished and removed them from her statute books. Sedition for example was repealed in 2010 in England and Wales, while Scotland did same in 2011.
Nigeria on its part has remained reactionary about the enduring role of the media in a democracy.
But for the stern opposition of our civil society groups, our federal legislators would have passed many anti-media bills to muzzle dissenting voices.
To mention only a few, there was the proposed Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters connected therewith.
Under the cloak of national security, there was the Protection from Internet Falsehood and manipulation Bill which created offences for which truth was not to be accepted as a defence.
There was also one bill on Hate Speech which in earnest was designed to turn Nigeria into a timid rather than a communicating nation. Painfully, the propensity to over regulate the media is a double-edged sword.
The more serious dimension is that when a government successfully emasculates the public media which it controls on behalf of the people, it loses huge credibility to the extent that no one listens any more to public policies disseminated through such government-controlled channels.
Against the backdrop which the Authoritarian Media Theory exemplifies, the recent sanctioning of certain media organizations that joined the BBC to air a documentary determined by our information minister as ‘glamourising’ criminals and criminality is not against the run of play.
It will come and go. The other day, media organs in Nigeria were banned from relating with Twitter.
Months later, the ECOWAS Court declared that the order to ban Twitter was unlawful and a violation of the rights of Nigerians and asked the administration to never repeat it again.
Were those who advised Twitter’s suspension ignorant of its inconsistency with the provisions of Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights both of which Nigeria is a state party?
It therefore serves no useful purpose for the media to allow its attention to be diverted from the substantive issues of poor economy and grave insecurity confronting our people to a dry debate on the activities of information authorities and their regulatory agencies.
Any untoward provision, guideline or directive from them should rather be tested in court in line with the due process of law.
In 2010 for instance, a Federal High Court voided the Nigerian Press Council Act CAP N128. According to the presiding Justice A. M. Liman, ‘the Act was potentially censorial; oppressive, over-bearing, grossly incompatible with civilized standard of society and capable of being used to restrict the guaranteed right under Section 39 of the constitution.’
The case in question was instituted by the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigerian NPAN against the activities of the Nigerian Press Council, the regulator of the print media in Nigeria to stop her from tailoring the editorial directions and policies of the media.
Only a few weeks ago, another Federal High Court declared illegal the amended 6th edition of the national broadcasting code which sought to regulate content exclusivity, enforce content sharing and empower the broadcast regulator to determine prices at which content is sold to sub-licensees by rights holders.
Ambrose Lewis-Allagoa, the presiding judge, said the amendments of the broadcasting code were ultra vires, incompetent, null and void and perpetually restrained the NBC from implementing the document.
When this decision is placed side by side with the NPAN case, it becomes clear that activities of regulatory agencies which undermine media freedom are unsustainable, because they can potentially restrict the expression of opinions of individual media professionals and stall the expansion of ideas that universally characterize the development of ideas.
By the way, everyone knows that the standard of professional knowledge available to Nigerian media regulatory agencies is not superior to that in the media organizations, yet the former often portrays a know-it-all posture.
Archibald Kaiser, a Canadian law professor probably had this in mind when as far back as 1995 he argued that “it is self-serving to think that it is only the media that has failings and that the rest of us really are the sole trustworthy guardians of the public interest, an outlook which is a diabolically dangerous conceit.”
There are outstanding patriots in the Nigerian media who are propelled by the spirit of communication for development to show more commitment to nation building than politicians, administrators, law enforcement agents etc. that blame the media all the time even for their own failings.
In my recent comparative study of legal empowerment of the media across jurisdictions, I found Nigeria as the only one that enacts functions for its media to perform while others give their media power to operate professionally.
In Ghana, Section 162 of the nation’s constitution provides that “editors and publishers of newspapers and other institutions of the media shall not be subject to control or interference by government nor shall they be penalized or harassed for their editorial opinions and views or contents of their publication.”
In Malawi, Section 36 of their constitution says the media “shall have right to report and publish freely, within Malawi and abroad and should be accorded the fullest possible facilities for access to public information.”
Section 22 of the Nigerian Constitution which mandates the media to hold government accountable to the people, is a huge joke because when a journalist exposes the ills of a governor that he is supposed to make accountable to the people, the journalist is locked up and tortured for embarrassing his excellency.
No opportunity is ever provided for the alleged wrong, usually corruption, to be defended or denied. In the end, no one is held accountable because media control is part of Nigeria’s governance culture.