Journalists in Nigeria may soon be liable to spend up to 3 years in prison for violating a new law being put forward by the House of Representatives.
The proposed law which is an an amendment of the National Broadcasting Commission Bill and the Nigerian Press Council Act was sponsored by Odebunmi Olusegun, APC, Oyo State and Chairman, House Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values.
According to the submitted document, the bill seeks to remove bottlenecks affecting its performance and make the press council operate in tune with the current realities in regulating media.
However, the new bill has been met with resistance. The Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), umbrella organisation for the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) has rejected the bill.
Similarly, the International Press Centre (IPC) has kicked against it saying the content of the bill is an attempt by the government to criminalize journalism in the country.
The Senate however feels differently. The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Ajibola Basiru, expressed that the current efforts to amend the NBC Act and other relevant laws should not be misinterpreted as an attempt to stifle freedom of speech and free press. He added that it is to improve and sanitise the media industry and not to stifle the civic space.
“While freedom of speech is an inalienable right of the people and effectively captured in the 1999 Constitution as altered, there is the need to ensure that some regulations are put in place to prevent abuse of such rights as exhibited by a few media establishments and individuals in recent times.”Senator Ajibola Basiru, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs
Digging down to the roots of the bill, analysis shows that the concerns of the NPO and its sister organisations are not unfounded. Certain highlights of the bill reflect a black time for the press in Nigeria. Below are some of them.
An extract from the Media bill shows that any person that carries news established to be fake, commits an offence and is liable, upon conviction, to a fine of N5 million or a term of two years imprisonment or both. A compensation of N2 million is also payable to the person(s) against whom the news was carried.
While this may look like just punishment for breaking the law, for a profession like journalism the penalties for the alleged breach of the codes in the NBC and NPC acts appear highhanded and heavy.
It reflects the same ruthlessness as the now-scrapped 1984 Decree 4 which makes it an offence for any person to report or publish information that is false in any material particular, or that brings the government or officials into ridicule or dispute.
Then a breach of the decree was liable to to 2 years imprisonment sentence.
Looking back, The decree led to the 1984 prosecution of the Press that is forever ingrained in history. The arrest and imprisonment of the columnist Tai Solarin and the editor of the Nigerian Punch Haroun Adamu is one of many harassments of journalist that happened during the period.
This section is particularly injurious to the media because the country already has libel and defamation laws under which publishing or broadcasting falsehood already falls. It, therefore, begs the question of why the lawmakers are wasting time and resources on offences that are well covered by the law if not a deliberate move to ground the media.
Civil board or military tribunal?
The creation of a Board for the Nigerian Press Council was one of the new edits suggested in the bill. The board will be responsible for some heavy decision making in the industry like the creation of a national press code and standard guide of conduct.
Other functions of the board listed in the bill include regulating print media and related media houses, reviewing application for creation or ownership of a press organization, grant media related licenses and approval of penalties and fines against violations of press code.
The members of the board will include one representative of the Nigerian Union of Journalist, one from the Nigerian Guild of editors and one from the Newspapers proprietors Association of Nigeria.
Others include two reps from the general public, a legal practitioner, one rep from the broadcasting organization of Nigeria and one rep from the federal ministry of information.
While it’s notable that some of the organization listed here are already against the bill, it is more noteworthy that the chairman of the board will be selected by the president!
According to the Executive Director of the IPC, Lanre Arogundade, the proposed law would give too much power to an unelected body. He also questioned why the National Assembly confirms the board appointments of all regulatory bodies in Nigeria, but would not confirm the appointments to the media board.
Looking at the board, the distribution of members appear distributed and civil but there are concerns as members selected by the government still fill high-ranking positions on the board.
While this may not be the military tribunal that put so many journalists in prison in the 80’s, the power vested on the board is similar to those of the tribunal.
This means a tactical reoccurrence is plausible if unknown forces take over the board and make it biased. Like Mr Arogundade commented it could become an appendage of the Federal Ministry of Information.
More fines and no solution to boost performance
Another thing that jumped out of the 12 page long bill is that it is full of fines and do not’s. For a bill which claims that it wants to ‘remove bottlenecks’, it looks more like a regulatory blanket consisting of even more bottlenecks.
Number one, false publications now carry a fine of N250,000 or 1 year in prison or both. If the publication or journalist defies the board, the fine could be increased to 5million or 2 years imprisonment with a compensation of N2 million.
Media organizations are liable to pay N10 million or face closure for up to 1 year with an additional N20 million in compensations.
For misconduct relating to the standard of professional and ethical code, organizations will pay N1 million naira while journalist will pay N250, 000 and could possible face a suspension of up to 6 months. This is up from the current 3 months according to law.
For refusal to comply with the edicts of the board, a fine of N1 million will be levied on organizations while journalist would pay N250, 000. However, in extreme cases, the bill states that the board is allowed to strike out the name of the register. Which sounds like an indefinite suspension from practice.
For those who own or start a media organisation without proper documentation by the board, a fine of N5 million or 3 years imprisonment or both was proscribed.
Asides fines, the bill talked about new fees and levies on media as well as
returns on performance which caries a fine of failure 50k per day for failure to submit.
From the little glimpsed from the report, the returns on performance appears to be financial report
It is also noteworthy that the bill makes no provision for the decisions of the board to be contested or appealed to higher authorities like a court. It is therefore to be assumed that the decision of the board if final and any attempt to contest it would simply result in more punishment.
The idea of a bill to ease the bottlenecks for journalism in Nigeria may not be bad. The aspect of the bill that called for review developments likely to prevent access of the press to information would be very welcome.
However, the general tone of the bill reflects a totally opposite reality to what the lawmakers are painting. A repeat of the 1984 prosecutions should not be allowed to happen.
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