By John Ikani
There are 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, Daily Trust reports.
Strong voices against the bill said on Thursday at a 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 Act.
Representative of NPO, Azu Ishiekwene, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of Leadership newspapers, made the call for the bill to be dumped Thursday at a public hearing organised by the House Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values.
Before the NPO presentation Thursday, the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN) through its Chairman, Malam Kabiru A. Yusuf who is also the chairman of Media Trust Limited, said amendment to the NPC Act would have important consequences on the freedom of the press in particular and good governance in general.
The latest debate on the faith of newspapers came days after the federal government banned the American microblogging and social networking service, Twitter from Nigeria’s cyberspace.
The federal government 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.
Position of press organisation
Ishiekwene told the House committee that there was a pending matter at the Supreme Court challenging the amendment of the NPC Act.
He said it was imperative for the House of Representatives to stay all actions on the NPC amendment until the apex court must have given its verdict on the matter.
“We did not receive enough information that would have allowed us to engage the committee at this hearing as robust as we would have done.
“Be that as it may, honourable members, as stewards of the law, there is a pending matter at the Supreme Court between the NPO and some of the actors spearheading the amendment of the NPC Act.
“As stewards of the law, we expected that there should have been wider consultations before the amendment of the bill. We are appealing to the honourable members of this committee to step down this bill because of the pending matter in court,” he said.
Earlier, Ishiekwene had expressed deep concern over the exclusion and non-engagement of the NPO and other critical stakeholders prior to the public hearing on the NPC bill amendment.
He said no formal invitation was extended to the body and some other stakeholders to prepare and take part in the public hearing.
‘We’ll go on with our work’
Responding to the request by the NPO, the Chairman of the committee, Odebunmi Olusegun, insisted that the committee would proceed with its legislative work on the bill.
According to him, they were representatives of the people empowered to make laws and that no pending matter in court could stop it from going ahead.
He described the NPC bill as a “baby of the government”, urging all relevant stakeholders to make the necessary contributions to the bill.
Earlier, the committee chairman while opening the public hearing, apologised to media stakeholders that did not get a formal invitation from them regarding the hearing.
He, however, said that the committee believed that the advertisements and commercials ran in national dailies and some national television channels sufficed as an invitation for the hearing.
Don’t infringe on press Freedom — IPC, MRA, others
In another presentation, the International Press Centre (IPC) alongside Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Centre for Media Law and Advocacy (CMLA) and the Premium Times Centre For Investigation Journalism (PTCIJ), kicked against moves to infringe on press freedom and media independence in the country.
Executive Secretary of IPC, Lanre Arogundade, who made presentation on behalf of the other groups, 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.
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.
They added that with the 30th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, they expected Nigeria 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.
“Independent regulation free of political encumbrances is one of the channels to the process of such strengthening and it is in this regard that we are worried that the proposed amendment to the Nigeria Press Council Decree falls short of these expectations and standards.
“It is not that regulation is not necessary especially in this age of fake news and hate speech, but the point to stress is that regulations must be such that do not erode media independence or freedom and are not unduly punitive.
“The regulator must also be free of the stranglehold of the powers that be, political or other interests, so that it can judiciously adjudicate in matters bordering on the infringement of the code of ethics of the profession of journalism,” he said.
Sanction for erring media outlets
Arogundade on behalf of others also expressed concern over a clause in the new bill, which sought to empower the NPC to penalise defaulting newspaper organisation fine of N10 million and N250,000 against individual journalists.
In his presentation, a former member of the House of Representatives and former Chairman of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Sani Zorro, expressed concern over the NPC bill amendment, which he noted, was coming at a time when the government had taken some decision in regulating social media.
Zorro said the best way to go was for the NPC and critical stakeholders in the media industry to dialogue and chart way forward in the best interest of all.
He advocated that the NPC Board should be made up of professionals rather than being a “political board” which will not augur well for the interest of the media industry.
On its part, the Radio, Television and Theatre Arts Workers Union of Nigeria (RATTAWU), said Section 3 of the bill which wanted to empower the NPC to “approve penalties and fines against violation of the Press Codes by print media houses and media practitioners, including revocation of license,” should be expunged, arguing that print media houses were business ventures registered by the CAC and not NPC.
The union said any move to censor them would amount to a nullity.
National President of RATTAWU, Comrade Kabiru Garba, also pointed out that Section 9(1) of the bill which said, “the council shall establish a national press and ethical code of conduct for media houses and media practitioners, which shall come to effect and be disseminated after approval by the minister”, should be discarded, saying the codes should rather come from the board of the council which comprised all the stakeholders.
Bill will remove bottlenecks affecting our operation — NPC
In his submission, the Executive Secretary, Nigerian Press Council (NPC), Francis Nwosu said the amendment bill was aimed at removing bottlenecks affecting the performance of the NPC Act Cap N28.
“The NPC Act has been a subject of controversy and litigation since 1999. Efforts to resolve perceived disagreements have been carried out by former ministers of information and former members of the National Assembly, but some issues had continued to linger,” he said.
According to him, the bill proposed amendments in 13 sections bordering on many areas in the first schedule of the extant laws.
Dwelling on some of the proposed amendments, the NPC commended the inclusion of fake news and called for the inclusion of hate speech as well as expanding the concept of “freedom of the press”.
“The inclusion of fake news is a welcome development. The proposed act should define what will constitute fake news for easy interpretation.
“The council suggests that a provision against hate speech should also be included in this amendment,” he said.
On the prosecution of offenders, the NPC suggested that it should be done by the Attorney General of the Federation after an investigation by the police.
“This is so because the council does not have powers to prosecute criminal acts. The principal act also made provisions for conviction of offences and it was an area of contention.
“Stakeholders opposed that provision saying that the council did not have the powers of the court. However, for purpose of clarity, council suggests that the issue of prosecution should be clearly spelt out,” he said.
The council suggested that Section 9(1) of the Act should be recast to read; “The Council in collaboration with the Nigerian Press Organisation shall establish a National Press and Ethical Code of Conduct for Media Houses and Media Professionals, which shall come to effect and be disseminated after approval by the Minister”.
The suggestion did not go down well with the stakeholders as they saw it as an attempt to subject their profession to undue political influence.
“The desirability of a press council should indeed not be in dispute as not only does it serve as a people-oriented democratic, efficient and inexpensive forum for hearing complaints.
“It also serves as Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanism that helps in reducing the barrage of litigations that otherwise would clog the courts. This is in addition to its mandate of the maintenance and promotion of high professional standards for the Nigerian press,” he said.