The Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), comprising the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), yesterday called on the House of Representatives to step down a bill seeking to amend the Nigerian Press Council Act as the matter is sub judice.
The media organisations and other groups also criticised the various clauses in the bill, saying that they will discourage freedom of speech and the press.
The representative of the NPO, Mr. Azubuike Ishiekwene, who is also the Editor-in-chief of Leadership Newspapers, said at a public hearing on the Bill for an Act to Amend the NPC Act, organised by the House Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values, in Abuja, that there is a matter before the Supreme Court on the Act.
But the Chairman of the Committee, Hon. Olusegun Odebunmi, said no court could stop the National Assembly from performing its constitutional role.
Ishiekwene said: “There is a matter, and I am sure as the stewards of the people and stewards of the law you are aware that there is a pending matter between NPO and some parties being called in this legislation.
“There is a matter pending before the Supreme Court between NPAN and some parties involved in this bill that is being amended. And as stewards of the law, I’m sure you are constrained just as I am to make any further conversation on this matter because it is a pending matter and it is before the Supreme Court.”
Ishiekwene said the case had been in court since 1999.
He stated that the last time the matter came up in 2010, 17 of the 39 clauses contained in the bill being considered in the new amendment were declared unconstitutional by the court at that time.
Ishiekwene added: “Of course, the federal government has appealed the ruling and the matter is currently before the Supreme Court. So, I will rest my case by appealing to the honourable members of this committee to refer to the conversation that was had on a similar matter in 2018 when this matter came up before the Senate and the pendency of this matter before the court was canvassed and the 8th National Assembly at that time agreed that the prudent thing to do was to step it down. I urge this House to also, consider a similar step.”
However, Odebunmi said the committee had the mandate of Nigerians to amend any law.
He added: “And that is what we are doing. It is not about the matter being in court or not.
“To the best of my knowledge, constitutionally, we are doing our own job and I am very sure no court will restrain us from doing the job.”
He stated that the amendment does not prevent the parties involved from pursuing the case in court, adding: “This is the position of the National Assembly.”
Earlier in his opening remark, Odebunmi had said the committee tried its best to get all stakeholders to attend the public hearing of the bills.
He said: “I want to categorically state that we tried to do our best in getting all the stakeholders invited, but some said we couldn’t reach them. Notwithstanding, we are all human beings and we are bound to make mistakes. It was published in the daily news and announced on Radio Nigeria that cut across all the federation and even on social media platforms. And I’m sure that’s why we have this kind of audience. I’m sorry if anybody thinks we didn’t invite them but it’s not by intention.”
However, media development organisations expressed worry that the proposed amendment to the Nigerian Press Council Act falls far short of the expectations of the type of legislative paths Nigeria would pursue to expand the frontiers of press freedom.
Presenting a joint memorandum on behalf of various organisations, including International Press Centre (IPC), Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Centre for Media Law and Advocacy, and Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, the Executive Director, IPC, Mr. Lanre Arogundade, said it was not that regulation was not necessary, especially in this age of fake news and hate speech.
He stated that regulations must not erode media independence or freedom and are not unduly punitive.
According to him, 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 journalism.
He added that the amendment seeks to restrict freedom of expression.
Arogundade added that the amendment attempted to do what other laws have done like the Cybercrimes Acts which Sections 24 and 38, which in no fewer than 10 instances have been used to clamp down on bloggers or journalists for expressing opinion antagonistic to politically or economically powerful elites.
He stated that bodies like Amnesty International have documented 50 cases where the law had targeted, not cybercrime suspects, but bloggers and journalists for writing on what they “know to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another.”
He described the penalties for offences as stipulated in Section (3) i & ii of the proposed amendment, including a fine of N5 million or three years imprisonment, as being too punitive, saying it will threaten media independence and freedom.
Arogundade also criticised Section 17 (3)( a & b), which provides that a journalist could be held liable for the offence committed by his or her organisation and can be made to pay a fine of N250,000, saying that it is punitive.
He decried that Section 33 (3) and (4) does not give room for retraction or apology where fake news is mistakenly published but recommends a blanket sanction of up to N10 million or closure for a period of one year or both.
Arogundade recommended that the committee should take a cue from the Ghanaian constitution by recommending the inclusion of the provision for press freedom in the constitution while it should also recommend that government should not appoint managers of the public (state) media.
He added that the board should have management control over the commission, including the executive secretary and the appointment should be made by the President through the confirmation of the National Assembly
Arogundade said the composition and functions of the Council and the philosophy of the bill all run counter to international best practice and urged the committee to treat it by rejection.
He suggested that the provision relating to revocation of licence for alleged publication of fake news should be removed from the Act, adding that decisions for appropriate sanctions in relation to such offences should be vested in the court.
In his presentation, the Executive Secretary, Nigeria Press Council, Mr. Francis Nwosu, commended the section of the bill that seeks to empower the executive secretary of the council to issue a summons, saying it would enhance the council’s effectiveness and efficiency in handling complaints.
He suggested that the name executive secretary should be changed to director-general to be in tandem with other agencies under the supervision of the Ministry of Information and Culture.
He added that the inclusion of fake News was a welcome development but that the proposed amendment should define what will constitute fake news for easy interpretation.