Media practitioners from the print, broadcast and internet casters converged on Lagos penultimate Thursday to review incessant clampdown on the media by government agencies contrary to constitutional provisions and international conventions guaranteeing freedom of the press and freedom of expressions to Nigerians.
At the end of the discourse, they collectively asked the Federal Government to drop all forms of charges against journalists, bloggers, media houses and cease further arbitrary closures of radio and television stations without court order.
The occasion was at the public presentation of the latest publication of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) titled: “Something to hide?: Media Freedom under siege in Nigeria” and held at Raddison Hotel, GRA, Ikeja.
Lawyer and rights activist, Femi Falana (SAN) delivered the keynote address, President, Nigerian Guild of Editors, Issa Muistapha, former Editor-in-Chief and founding member of the defunct NewsWatch Magazine, Ray Ekpu and former Chairman, Editorial Board, The Guardian, Dr Reuben Abati were panelists while Mrs Maupe Ogun-Yusuf was the moderator.
The 76-page publication was presented by the Executive Director, Centre for Free Speech, Richard Akinnola.
In his keynote address, Falana took a swipe at the National Braodcasting Commission (NBC) for its incessant clampdown on the broadcast orgnisations in the country, describing such actions as a violation of the rights of Nigerians.
He described the recent clampdown on Channels Television arising from the interview of the spokesman of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) as a nullity. This, he said, was because the (NBC) Act under which Channels Television was sanctioned and fined N5 million was illegal, null and void.
Falana said the NBC Act which was amended last year was not debated nor approved by the board of the commission as provided for under the law and as such “no Nigerian, print and electronic media organisation can be sanctioned under the law without first making any representation to the commission.”
He also said the conduct of the NBC for sanctioning Channels Television two weeks ago cannot be justified under the 1999 Constitution ,as amended, and provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
According to him, the NBC had made itself “the accuser, the prosecutor and a judge under an illegal law.”
Falana said the act requires the NBC “to make representation to a journalist and any organisation alleged of any infractions. The journalist or organisation shall be served an order containing the charges. After sending a reply, the board of the NBC, not the Director General (DG), would convene to jointly agree on a decision.”
He emphasised: “Majority of the board members of NBC must endorse the decision or punishment to be meted out on the journalist or media organisation if found guilty of any infraction.”
He said if Channels TV has paid, the NBC must refund the money to the station.
Falana contended that the NBC must apologise to Channels TV and Nigerians “for violating our collective rights”, stressing that the Chairman of the board of NBC had said the amendment to the Act was never debated nor approved.
He said the apology tendered by Channels TV does not in any way obliterate the rights of millions of Nigerians violated by the DG of the commission.
Falana reminded journalists and other media organisations that the Press in Nigeria has a history of agitation and that they stop apologising to government.
He recalled that in the case of Ismaila Issa Vs FGN, the Nigerian media, NGE protested against Decree 3 and went to court and won at the High Court.
He said while the Buhari and Idiagbon military government promulgated Decree 4, that of Obasanjo promulgated Decree 11 which stated that truth was not a defence.
Falana said the media in Nigeria has absolute freedom to speak the truth saying, “ the law on sedition in the Penal Code has been nullified by the Court of Appeal in a suit by Arthur Nwankwo Vs the FGN. Similarly section 24 of the Cybercrime Act under which some online publishers were charged has also been nullified by the ECOWAS court.”
The Executive Secretary, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Anthony Ojukwu who was represented by Mrs Halima Oyedele, said that Nigerian has a right to demand accountability from their leaders and other public officers, saying that the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act 2011 gives every citizen the right to demand for information and that when denied, the right to file a suit against such organisation or public officers.
“There is also the perception that some public officers do not like the idea of accountability even though it is not supposed to be negotiable. In fact, the citizens are empowered under relevant laws to demand accountability and transparency from their leaders, be they elected or appointed.
“For instance, the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) has expressly given the citizens the legal backing to write to public institutions requesting for information and where such information is withheld or denied, citizens can go to court to enforce their right to obtain such information or documents as the case may be. “
For us as a Commission, Freedom of Expression and the Media is one of our cardinal thematic areas of focus because we believe that there will be a serious disconnect between the government and the people where this right is given a backseat.
For example, she said, the people will be in the dark with respect to the policies and programmes of the government, and this will lead to speculations and outright falsehood about the direction government is taking, adding that it is to the advantage of the government to give the media its freedom.
Oyedele said purveyors of information like journalists should be allowed to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression and freedom of information respectively, to the fullest otherwise it will be tantamount to undermining the very essence of democracy.
She said it is imperative for all government agencies, civil society groups and individuals to leverage on the report to make changes where necessary towards ensuring a full implementation and enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and the media.
Former Editor-in-Chief and founding member of the defunct NewsWatch magazine, Ray Ekpu during a panel discussion was nostalgic as he gave insight into why media stakeholders should fight for press freedom.
He explained this on the backdrop of the insecurity plaguing the country, exposing children to kidnapping, and killings.
Ekpu described the decision of the NBC on Channels TV as parochial, saying that it was wrong for the commission to think of running private electronic media like NTA despite the fact that the country is in democracy.
“The NBC wants the private media to run like the Federal Government, we should fight for the review of the NBC code because it is only in Nigeria that television stations are run like this and this is not the kind of Nigeria we wanted’’.
He said the media in Nigeria has all this while fighting for its freedom and that it should not rest until it is achieved.
According to him, “I have been to 18 countries, I don’t see the kind of things happening in Nigeria today.”
He lamented what he described as gross retrogression on every aspect of lives adding “this is not the kind of country I thought I would live in when I was growing up.
“Today, your child cannot go from here to there without having high blood pressure. Even if he is accompanied by soldiers, by police men, you cannot be sure because what happens is who pulls the trigger first?”
Ekpu said the elected lawmakers failed to tell Nigerians that they would make laws that will abridged freedom.
“They did not tell us that they would make obnoxious laws”, he said and urged parliamentarians not to renege on their promises to the people.
Former Editorial Board Chairman, The Guardian, Dr Reuben Abati noted that nothing has changed despite that Nigeria is now running a democratic government.
Abati said: “Democratic dispensation is to expand the media space. Those that are to protect the constitution are the ones violating it. Section 22 of the constitution gives right to journalists to hold government accountable but government would not allow journalists to do this.
“We are running a regime of secrecy because the government determines what they want you to know. Some government officials are running their administration like a secret cult.
“The media should not be complacent in continuing to demand for press freedom,” he said.
President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Mustapha Isa also lamented that most times, those in government refer to national interest as their own interest.
He warned that media practitioners must avoid escalating conflict in the manner they report issues by using words that would not offend the mentality of the public.
He urged journalists to always strike a balance between reporting truth and endangering lives saying “Whatever it is we write affects the lives of people.”
Isa called for synergy between the Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the NGE to entrench freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the country.
Akinnola, while presenting the new publication of SERAP advised the Nigerian Press to be careful and watchfull that the NBC has been too over-bearing on media houses.
According to Akinnola, between January and September 2019, 19 journalists and media practitioners suffer attack, assaults, arrest and detention by security agents.
He said government has been using COVID-19 to shrink the media space while he accused some state governors of using detectives and the police to track some journalists and media users.
Akinnola advised media practioners to get acquainted with various laws guiding their practices.
“Some laws look innocuous and dormant and some already nullified by courts but can be used to stifle the practice.”
He reminded media practitioners: “ Nigerian Press is is a product of struggle. That freedom will not be given on a platter of gold but by resilience of Nigerian media.”
In its recommendation, the report urged President Muhammadu Buhari to publicly condemn all attacks on journalists and media organisations and also issue a clear statement to all government and security officials, prohibiting any acts of intimidation, threats, harassment and arbitrary arrest of journalists and media workers for press freedom to thrive in the country.
It asked the President to publicly support the right to freedom of expression and the media, including public reporting of sensitive political matters and other issues.
The publication which made recommendations to different stakeholders also asked the president to publicly condemn all harassment, intimidation bans attacks on journalists, bloggers and media organisations by state governors.
The National Assembly was asked to promptly and comprehensively review the cybercrimes Act and other restrictive legislations and revise them as necessary to bring them in line with Nigeria’s international obligations regarding the right to freedom of expression and the media, ensuring that any restrictions on media freedom in the law are necessary, proportional and least restrictive.
It asked the National Assembly to pass a resolution condemning all harassment, attacks on journalists and media organisations by the state governors and the Federal Government.
It suggested that any state governor or security officials found responsible for obstructing, abusing or attacking journalists or media organisations are appropriately disciplined or prosecuted while adequate compensation be made to victims including restitution, satisfaction and guarantee of non-repetition.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was urged to publicly condemn all attacks on journalists and media organisations by issuing a clear, public statement to all government and security force officials prohibiting any acts of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary arrest of journalists and media workers and such incidents will be immediately investigated and appropriately disciplined or prosecuted.
It urged the NGE and Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) to work closely with NGOs and other stakeholders to carry out systematic monitoring and reporting of freedom of expression abuses throughout the country as well as pushing for support to journalists throughout the country including those requiring legal, medical and psychological assistance.