The Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) yesterday criticised ongoing efforts by the National Assembly to amend two media-related laws, describing it as an attempt to criminalise journalism.
It also said that the media industry should not be regarded as a political opponent or enemy of the federal government, adding that many of the politicians' attacks on the media are habitually not envisioned to win an argument on the values, journalistic or legal, but to bully media organisations.
Reacting to what it described as draconian provisions in the two bills to amend the Nigeria Press Council (NPC) Act and the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) Act that are currently before the National Assembly, which the sponsors said were aimed at moderating the recklessness of the media, the guild said the bills are meant to restrain journalists from discharging their constitutional duties.
The editors, in a statement yesterday by their President, Mr. Mustapha Isah, and General Secretary, Mr. Iyobosa Uwugiaren, said as the oxygen of democracy, the media would be strangulated if the bills are passed in their present forms.
NGE stated that the bills were unhelpful, especially at a time when there is a popular ongoing global conversation about the need for a '#NewDealForJournalism' - for immediate and sustained action from, and collaboration between governments and other influential actors to improve the policy, funding and enabling environment for independent professional journalism.
The NGE added that while it is not opposed to any law to promote media stakeholders-driven regulatory council, the many draconian provisions in the Hon. Odebunmi Olusegun-sponsored bills are actually aimed at criminalising journalism in Nigeria.
NGE said the intention of the sponsor of the bills was suspicious, while the bills negated all known features of media regulatory bodies in the world.
"For example, while the NPC Act. CAP N128, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1992, created by the military dictatorship, gives the council board full responsibility to administer the council, the proposed Act restricts the council's board to advisory capacity on a part-time basis without direct interference in the day-to-day administration of the council, and gives the executive secretary all the powers.
"The proposed NPC Act says the board shall consist of one representative each from Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON), Ministry of Information, two representatives of the general public, one of whom shall be a legal practitioner and a woman and executive secretary of the council, who shall serve as the secretary to the board, the board is a mere advisory body.
"The bill also says that the chairman of the board shall be appointed by the president on the recommendation of the Minister in charge of Information. And that all other members of the board shall be appointed by the president on the recommendation by the Minister of Information. The intension of this kind of council is suspicious," NGE added.
The guild added that the professional body doesn't need the approval of the Minister of Information to establish and disseminate a national press code and standards to guide the conduct of print media, related media houses and journalists and approve penalties and fines against violation of the press code, as provided for in the bill.
It said it was not aware of any media regulatory council in the world, which requires the media regulatory council to establish a national press and ethical code of conduct for media houses and journalists, which shall come into effect and be disseminated after approval by the Minister of Information, and the code will be binding on every media houses and journalists.
"Again, apart from the fines for journalists or media houses that violate the Act, the bill also says that in an extreme case, the council shall order the striking out of the name of the journalist from the register; and suspend the person from practice by ordering him not to engage in practice as a journalist for a period not exceeding six months; as may be specified in the directive," NGE said.
According to the NGE, this kind of media regulatory council will neither serve the interest of the media industry, strengthen its constitutional role of holding public officers accountable to the people nor serves the general interest of the public-who are the original trustees of the media.
The NGE stated that in the proposed NPC legislation, the sponsor mischievously smuggled in the controversial "fake news" provision by stating that any person who carries news, established to be fake thereafter, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N5 million or a term of two-year imprisonment or both, and compensation of N2 million payable to the person(s), group(s), corporate bodies, government or any of its agencies whom the news was carried against.
According to the NGE, the bill also states that any print media house whose medium was used to carry such news is liable on conviction to a fine of N10 million or closure of such media house for a period of one year or both and compensation of N20 million to the person, group, corporate body, government or any of its agencies, whom the news was carried against.
On the proposed NBC amendment legislation, the guild said section 23 of the bill, which gives the Minister of Information powers to participate in the making of regulations is unhelpful, as the participation of the minister will turn NBC into a tool for political interference.
The guild stated that the provisions of the two bills give the impression that the federal government is out to crush its enemy, adding that the media is not an enemy of the state.
The NGE added that the two bills, if passed, will compound the nation's negative image in the global community.
"Nigeria comes in at No. 120, the rough equivalent of a D+ in this year's index by Reporters Without Borders. You'll find similar results on the Democracy Index where Nigeria is ranked No. 110 - the lowest-ranking Hybrid Regime, one slot away from authoritarian," the NGE said.
It said the bills were seen by many as attempts to further stifle the democratic space, currently having challenges on all fronts.
The editors said they were also opposed to the prescribed involvement of the president and the minister of information in the composition of appointments into the boards of NBC and the NPC, adding that the board members should appoint their own chairmen.
NGE insisted that the NPC and NBC should be truly independent, and shouldn't be under the supervision of the minister of information, who is a political office holder and affiliated to a political party.
"The Ghana model comes to mind here. Nigeria should be seen to be moving with time, instead of taking retrogressive steps in media freedom," it added.
The guild called on the National Assembly to remove the obnoxious provisions in the two bills that make it look as if they are meant to strangulate, instead of regulate the media.