The speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, has reacted to campaign against moves by the National Assembly to pass bills providing tighter regulations for the media, declaring that no institution in the country is above the law.
He lamented that, despite its attempt to ensure the proper checks and balances for the Executive, Judiciary and the Legislature through scrutiny, the media appeared to be averse to regulations.
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He spoke in Abuja at the Second Dinner/Award Night organised by the House of Representatives Press Corps, with the theme ‘Recognising Good Governance and Legislative Excellence in the Face of Adversity’.
The Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN) had, in a joint release on the front pages of major national dailies on Monday accused the National Assembly of planning to achieve “information blackout” with the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission and the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) Act Amendment Bills.
Parts of the proposed amendments will empower the minister of information to issue licenses to print and broadcast media, and penalise journalists and media organisations for offenses already covered under the country’s penal and criminal codes.
Gbajabiamila, who said he would not be part of any attempt to gag the media, however, underscored the need to regulate aspects of media practice in the country to transform the media industry and the practice of journalism in Nigeria.
The speaker decried opposition against the move to regulate the media, just like similar opposition in other fields, lamenting that no one is willing to submit to regulations.
Gbajabiamila said there were aspects of the press that need to be regulated to ensure sanity and protect the socio-economic, political as well as security interests of Nigeria.
The Speaker said, bringing in reforms in the media industry and journalism practice is the best at this time when fake news and unethical practices have crept into the profession.
According to the Speaker, fake news and irresponsible media contents have ruined countries, businesses, families and other entities around the world with far-reaching negative consequences.
He said despite the advocacy to ensure free press in the world, there is nowhere in the world where freedom of expression is absolute.
“However and I hold very strongly the view that there is press freedom and there is freedom of expression. There has always been and there will always be.”
Gbajabiamila insisted that “There is nowhere in the world where freedom of expression is absolute. Freedom of expression is limited to the extent that it does not affect another person’s freedom.
“Freedom of expression is not absolute and this is made abundantly clear even in the constitution itself.
“If you go to section 45 of your constitution it tells you how your freedom which someone said was guaranteed, is constitutionally allowed but the government may limit that freedom for the sake of health, morality, security. It is written in black and white,” he added.
The Speaker said while he will never allow gagging of the press, he is worried that every time the National Assembly tries to promulgate a law with the best of intentions people descend on its members.
“Some just jump on the bandwagon without even knowing the details. Without even knowing the issues.
“I am using this as a sample of this press council bill. I called the proponent of the bill, who you all know very well. What is going on? What have you done? What is in this bill? He tried to break it down to me.
“I have not read it personally myself, I will confess to that, but I will read it in the next couple of days in detail. I just have a perfunctory general idea of the contents.
“He told me he had a meeting with all the stakeholders. I was not present at the meeting. But that was what they wanted.
“Whatever provision that is in that bill that is inimical to the development of the press, we will remove it or tweak it in such a way that everybody will be happy.
“But from my understanding and I don’t know how far this is true, the issue was not about any provision.
“The issue was that we do not even want any bill to regulate. We don’t want to be regulated. Now that gives me concern because first, we are getting to a point in this county that nobody wants to be regulated.
“The NGOs don’t what to be regulated, religious bodies don’t to be regulated. Social media does not want to be regulated. Professors of universities go on strike because they do not want to be on the same payment platform as everybody else.
“Everybody just wants to have a free reign. What is government there for if not to regulate for good governance. We talk about good governance but we don’t want to regulate and achieve good governance.
“So regulation is an essential element of good governance. We cannot just let people or any institution run amok. The executive is regulated.
“The Executive is regulated, the Judiciary to a large extent is regulated, the legislature is regulated. Just name it. Institutions are meant to be regulated.
“There is no one institution that can be above the law especially an institution that is meant to be the fourth estate of the realm whose utterances or writings can make it break even a government.
“We cannot hide behind freedom of speech to say we must not be regulated. I have seen marriages break up, businesses, countries ruined.
“So, we must not be shy to tell each other the truth. To be clear, I will not, as a speaker, table any bill that seeks to gag the press. It will not happen. There is a difference between regulation and gagging. Let us not conflate the two.
“There is a big difference. I don’t know how the press will like it if the legislature said we do not want to be regulated. You will be the first to jump on us. So let us do a rethink.
“Let us consider the provisions of the bill. As far as we are sure that the provisions in that bill sustain the independence of the press. That is not negotiable.
“I’m doing some research and I will want us to do the same. I will ask my office to research on the international best practices as far as media is concerned. Is media regulated in other parts of the world?
“If media is not regulated in any part of the world then we have to do a rethink where perhaps this bill will be dead on arrival”, he said.
Gbajabiamila told the gathering that the 9th National Assembly has achieved a lot especially on the PIB bill, the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, and many others.
“In the past few weeks, we have been inundated with the issue of the electoral amendment. Like I said on the floor of the house that we are not aware that any provision as agreed by the joint committees was changed.
“We will lay that report this week. We will follow the procedure of the house. We will vote clause by clause and the result will be the outcome of the debate, the long work and the consideration of the report by the house.
He said the House leadership will be presenting President Muhammadu with the report of the security summit held a few weeks ago.
“We will make a formal presentation of our recommendations and the outcome to the president tomorrow.
“That is just to say this house is working irrespective of what anyone says. In the past few weeks, we have been inundated with the issue of the electoral amendment.
“Like I said on the floor of the house that we are not aware that any provision as agreed by the joint committees was changed. We will lay that report this week.
“We will follow the procedure of the house. We will vote clause by clause and the result will be the outcome of the debate, the long work and the consideration of the report by the house,” he said.
Don’t strangulate us – BON
Reacting, the chairperson of the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON), Hajiya Sa’a Ibrahim, said the issue is not about whether or not media should be regulated but about actions that could strangulate the media industry with the regulations.
“After all, we have NBC and it is saddled with the responsibility of regulating broadcast operators and we have such regulatory agencies all over. What we are saying is that regulation should not be at the detriment of the industry. That is the area of concern for all practitioners. When you are regulating you should not come up with laws that will not be favourable to the industry you are regulating”, she said.
Hajiya Sa’a, who is also the Director-General of Kano state-owned Abubakar Rimi Television (ARTV), noted that the reality today has pointed to the fact that the media industry is going through “extreme hardship”, adding that the industry “needs to be nurtured”.
She said in every clime with best practices, there is always a mutually benefiting relationship between the regulator and the industry being regulated.
“This is what we should begin to understand. Why will you in the name of regulation kill the industry? It doesn’t make sense!
“When we are regulating, we should do so with care. We should regulate in such a way as to provide a conducive atmosphere for the growth of the industry. That is our concern”, she added.
We’ll not take it – NGE
The President of the Nigeria Guild of Editors said it was unfortunate that the Speaker was taking this line. “We will meet at the field’’, he said, adding that the provisions of the bill were draconian meant to stifle free speech and expression.
“We will not take it. We are working with the NUJ, NPAN under Nigeria Press Organisation to ensure that this bill is not passed’’
He said going ahead to pass the bill was like going to war with Nigerians whose freedom of speech would be trampled once the bill was passed.
Isah advised the legislature to study the law setting up the Ghana Media Council to understand how the issue was addressed.
The president said the laws of libel and defamation have adequately provided for redress to anyone malign through fake news.
He said the problem was that the lawmakers did not want to explore such avenues rather they wanted to stifle press freedom.
By Itodo Daniel, Balarabe Alkassim (Abuja) & Clement A. Oloyede (Kano)