By Lawal Ogienagbon
WHATEVER the media is today, it was yesterday. And I daresay, it will be tomorrow. The media has its duty cut out for it; it is the voice of the people and more importantly, that of the voiceless. Those in this category are many. To be voicelsss does not have to do with class or wealth. You may be blessed with all the riches of this world and yet remain voiceless. You may play in the big league and still remain voiceless.
There are certain things money cannot buy. It cannot buy health. It cannot also buy you freedom if you cross the line with those in authority. But, in most cases, when people talk of the voiceless, the hoi polloi come to mind. The wretched of the earth, as Frantz Fanon put it. The rich and the poor have a common friend in the media. The media does for others, what ordinarily, it does not do for itself. It fights people’s battles. For a profession that carries others’ woes on its head, you will expect the media to go to the ends of the world for its distressed members. For where! It neglects its own to the consternation of the world. But try to trouble the media as a group, then you have another think coming.
From time immemorial, the media has guarded its integrity and independence jealously. The media sees it as a sacred duty to discharge its obligation fiercely and fearlessly. A fearless media and a government, whether military or democratic, which has something to hide do not see eye to eye. The media was a pain in the neck for the military in its days in power. It threw everything at the media, including obnoxious laws, but the Fourth Estate of the Realm remained strong. Things were supposed to be better under democracy. They were and are still not.
In 1964, the Tafawa Balewa administration, through the Newspapers Amendment Bill, tried to tamper with the independence of the media. It failed woefully. We are in another era and in another democracy, and history is about to repeat itself. Ironically, it is those close to the media that usually plot against it. In 1964, it was the Information Minister, the flamboyant T.O.S. Benson that led the onslaught against the media with the repressive Newspapars Amendment Bill.
Fifty-seven years later, another Information Minister Lai Mohammed is working through a proxy to exhume the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) in order to get back at the media for its ‘harsh’ criticisms of the Buhari administration. The proxy, a lawmaker from Oyo State, Olusegun Odebunmi, who knows nothing about the workings of the media, purportedly initiated a private member’s bill to amend the NPC Act, which since it was promulgated in 1992, had been in the archives, and the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) Act. The other day on television, Odebunmi was saying the NPC Act was long overdue for amendment to strengthen it to achieve its purpose. I just laughed at his ignorance. He should do his research well. Besides its Director-General and his staff, the NBC has nothing else going for it.
The law did not fly from day one because it was enacted to serve the selfish end of the Babaginda regime. It was meant to stifle the critical press, which was giving the junta a tough time. Even, the darkgoggled Abacha did not find the law useful in his nearly five years in office. Although Mohammed and the President’s media aides have since denied having a hand in the resurrection of the law, their denial sounds hollow. Reason: the Presidency says all enquiries about the bills should be directed to the ministry, which on its part, points finger at the National Assembly.
The not-so sleek Odebunmi gave the game away when at the public hearing on the bills, he described them as “ babies of the government”. For the avoidance of doubt, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila and Senator Ajibola Bashiru should note that the media is not afraid of regulation. The media has been regulating itself for decades. The Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), which comprises the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), drew up its Code of Ethics.
The code stipulates the dos and don’ts for journalists.
It does not end there. There are rules on who is a journalist, the qualifications to be a journalist and how media houses should operate. It also sanctions erring journalists, and intervenes in disputes between journalists and others, but leaves room for legal redress if the aggrieved party so desires. What is NPC bringing to the table that is new? Nothing. It only wants to confer the information minister with power to determine who is a journalist, what he writes, how he writes it as well as oversee the operation of the media generally. He would also be in charge of licensing media houses. The meaning of this is not lost on the discerning. You can only be licensed if the minister likes your face. And they say this is not the road to gagging!
Yet, Gbajabiamila, without reading the bill (that was what he said), has concluded that the media does not want to be regulated. He added that he would not allow the media to run amok, claiming that he had seen many marriages collapsed, businesses destroyed, countries ruined and children hanged themselves because of “irresponsible journalism”. He forgot to add that he has also seen insurgency, kidnapping, rape, herders-farmers skirmishes become the order of the day because of bad press! It is a pity that Mr Speaker spoke like that. To Ajibola, the media resorted to “emotional blackmail” by using graphics, as contained in the front page adverts titled: INFORMATION BLACKOUT carried by the papers on Monday, to attack the bills.
It was no blackmail, it was another mode of communication to state the media’s opposition to the bill. If he has been following the matter well, he should know that despite not being invited, the NPO appeared at the hearing on the bills to state its case. The media will not use blackmail; no, never, to fight these draconian bills. It will use the force of reason and sound logic. What is bad is bad; there is no other name for it. The NPC and NBC amendment bills are bad. There is no room for them in a democracy.
By the way, Odebunmi should not be talking of “suspending the bill for further consultation”, he should be talking of withdrawing it. In retrospection, for the too trusting media, which sees a friend in all who run to it when they are contesting election, this is a big lesson. May the scales fall off the media’s eyes to know its true friends.
The media was awash with reports of former finance minister Mrs Kemi Adeosun’s victory in court last week. The court ruled that she did not need a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) discharge certificate to become a minister. The ruling was based on the civil suit filed by her. Of course, no Nigerian needs that certificate to hold public office. But, she presented one in order to get the job even when she never served. Her certificate which caused her resignation from office was never the issue before the court. In their reports, the media failed to put things in context.
So, the question remains how did she get that certificate when she did not serve? Will the police look into the criminal aspect of this case, considering what presidential spokesman Garba Shehu said about it during the Isa Pantami brouhaha? Is that one still in government? Questions! Questions!! Questions!!!