Opinion

Muzzling media freedom in a democracy

Of recent, there has been what is apparently a guided and concerted attempt by the President Muhammadu Buhari headed All Progressives Congress (APC) Federal Government’s drive to stamp its control on what is churned out as information within the Nigerian media space as it has become obvious that the administration is not at home with the kind of access Nigerians, both within the already regulated and the unregulated media platforms such as the electronic and print media, and micro-blogging sites – a favourite of the mostly youth population of the country, seems to have.

The manner of news reportage in public space is apparently not in tandem with the policy drive of the government of the day, hence the need to reign in such perceived excesses, which have been allowed under the right to the freedom of expression, being a fundamentally guaranteed constitutional right of the citizens of all true democratic states the world over. It should be recalled that three months ago or thereabout, the media was inundated with the news of the decision by the FG to suspend indefinitely, the functioning of microblogging site, Twitter within the Nigerian space following the deletion of President Buhari’s tweet which was considered quite inflammatory, and goes against the standard of Twitter.

The government, through its information Minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who announced the ban, attributed the move to the proclivity of Twitter to promote a state of insecurity in the country, while citing Twitter’s role in fostering last year’s #EndSARS national protest in the country. In the course of the weeks, the Information and Culture Minister had asked the Federal House of Representatives during a public hearing, to assign more constitutional powers to the FG to enable it bring some form of regulation on the use of microblogging sites or social media platforms in the country.

Earlier, the FG had also directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all Over-The-Top (OTT) media services and social media operations in Nigeria. It said platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others must now be registered in Nigeria. As if that was not enough, The FG has also asked the members of the House to review its regulatory role on the Nigeria Press Council Act of 2018. Already, stakeholders have expressed deep fears that a bill seeking to amend the Nigeria Press Council, NPC, Act will lead to the death of serious newspapers in Nigeria if it scaled through the two chambers of the National Assembly and finally assented to by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Strong voices against the bill said on Thursday, June 17 at the public hearing in the House of Representatives that some provisions in the proposed amendment to the NPC Act would make it difficult for the media houses to operate in an atmosphere of freedom and hold those in the position of authority to account. The Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), an umbrella body comprising the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, (NPAN), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) has therefore called on the House of Representatives to step down the bill immediately.

This is even as media rights groups and other critical stakeholders in the media industry kicked against any move to infringe on press freedom through the proposed amendment of the NPC and NBC Acts respectively. The Executive Secretary of IPC, Lanre Arogundade, said the focus should be more on a “truly independent and media freedom friendly Nigerian Press Council” instead of working hard to muzzle media freedom. He expressed concern over a clause in the new bill, which sought to empower the NPC to penalise defaulting newspaper organisations with a fine of N10 million and N250, 000 against individual journalists.

The professional organisations stated that their observations and recommendations were based on their respective mandates and well informed norms and standards based on regional and international instruments and frameworks that are applicable to Nigeria.

The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has queried Channels TV for alleged violation of Nigeria’s broadcasting code during its breakfast programme, Sunrise Daily, days ago was “unconstitutional” illegal and uncalled for. The regulator claimed that the programme which hosted the Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortum, contained “inciting”, divisive and unfair comments. On the programme, Mr. Ortum expressed his displeasure about the growing insecurity in the country and accused President Muhammadu Buhari of an agenda to “Fulanise” the country. Which the present administration could work harder to address instead of tagging it as “inciting”.

He said: “Mr. President is pushing me to think that what they say about him, that he has a hidden agenda in this country is true because it is very clear that he wants to Fulanise but he is not the first Fulani president. “Shagari was a Fulani President, Yar’Adua was a Fulani President and they were the best in history. But President Buhari is the worst president when it comes to the issue of security and keeping his promises.

Going back to 2015, what did he say? He spoke about human rights issues, he talked about press freedom, about the economy, corruption, and security. Tell me one that Mr. President has achieved? On this, a notice signed by its Director General, Balarabe Ilelah, the NBC accused Channels TV of not “thoroughly interrogating the comments made by Governor Ortum. Consequently, Channels TV is required to explain why appropriate sanction should not be applied for these infractions of the NBC code. Your message should reach the Commission within 24 hours of the receipt of the letter”, notice read. Indeed, the NBC, under President Muhammadu Buhari, has become intolerant of views critical of the president and the government.

In October 2020, Channels TV was one of the broadcast stations fined N3 million for their coverage of the #EndSARS protest. Also, in April, the TV station was warned over an interview the station held with the spokesman of the outlawed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). Again in May, it was fined N5 million for alleged violation. With this query being given to Channels TV, is categorized as an “assault on press freedom” aimed at intimidating “dissenting voices”. There are more pressing issues demanding statecraft and leadership than the hounding of journalists and repression of the media merely on account of interviews granted by opposition figures.

In fact, it would be recalled that the legality of the Broadcasting Code, invoked by the NBC against Channels TV, is still a matter of contention before the Federal High Court, Abuja Division in suit No: FHC/SUIT No: FHC/ABJ/CS/1136/2020 between Rep. This no doubt is geared to protect the palpable inefficiencies of the present administration; intimidate dissenting voices and erode standard democratic ethos.

Nigeria is expected to embark on legislative paths that help to expand the frontiers of press freedom through frameworks that strengthen the freedom and independence of the media to enhance its roles. It is the heartfelt concern of media houses that these moves by the government appears to form an ominous sequence as there have been hues of alarm raised in public space in the recent past, concerning the fact that the space for healthy political rivalry and or opposition is gradually but steadfastly being narrowed under the Buhari regime. Some public space watchers have expressed fears that it may see the country declining down the path of a full dictatorship such as China, North Korea, Russia just to mention a few.

Òrúnbon, an opinion writer, poet, journalist and public affairs, writes in from Federal Housing Estate, Olomore, Abeokuta, Ogun State, and can be reached via: orunbonibrahimademola@ gmail.com, or 08034493944, 08029301122.

 

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