Will Press Council Bill enhance or kill the media?

The Nigeria Press Council was established as a regulatory agency for the profession. The body was championed by media owners before it was taken over by the government. An attempt to amend the Press Council bill is now generating controversy.

The bill titled “A Bill for an Act to amend the Nigeria Press Council Act CAP N128, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1992 to resolve bottlenecks affecting the performance and make the Council in tune with the current realities in regulating Press and for related matters” is sponsored by the Chairman of the House Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values, Segun Odebunmi, who incidentally presided over the public hearing on the bill.

A close study of the bill reveals several contentious clauses. The law increases the fine placed on a journalist for publishing a false news from N2000 to N20,000 upon conviction by the court to N250,000 flat with an imprisonment of between 6 months and two years. It also increased the fine for media houses from between N30,000 and N100,000 to between N1 million to N10 million with an option of total closure of such media house. Other provisions include the fact that media houses will now be required to pay a percentage of their annual financial return to the Press Council as part of its funds, but however failed to specify the actual percentage, but vested the Council with the power to determine the percentage to be paid. Under the old law, such percentage of fees and levy were paid by the NUJ, NGE, NPAN and BON. This is in addition of license fees, fines and penalties to be charged by the council. Also, to publish newspapers, journals and magazine without first documenting same with the council will now be an offence under the law which will attract a fine of N5 million or a term of three years imprisonment. Newspaper vendors are not left out of the draconian clauses as they are forbidden to circulate any of such publications. The proposed section 33 (2) of states that “any news agent who circulates for sale, any copy of a newspaper, magazine or journal that is not documented in accordance with the provisions of this Act commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N250,000 or to a term of one year or both”.

Speaking on behalf of the Nigeria Press Organisation (NPO), at the public hearing on the bill, the Managing Director of Leadership, Azu Ishekwuene, said it was out of place to consider such a bill without the input of major stakeholders in the industry. Incidentally, apart from the Radio, Television and Theatre Workers Union (RATTAWU), all other stakeholders failed to present a memo before the committee. The Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) said it was not invited to the event. The President of the NUJ, Chris Isiguzo, said the letter of invitation to the union got to the National Secretariat a day before the public hearing. The Committee gave them two additional weeks to make their presentation before the House Committee. The controversial bill and the National Broadcasting Commission amendment bill are sponsored by Hon. Olusegun Odebunmi, who is also chairman of the House Committee on Information.

Ishekwuene said: “I am here to represent the Nigeria Press Organisation which represents three groups, the Nigeria Guild of Editors, the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria and the Nigeria Union of Journalists. Some of these groups are represented here as well, but the NPO is the umbrella organisation. There is a matter pending before the Supreme Court between the NPAN and some parties involved in this bill that is being amended. As stewards of the law, I am sure that you are constrained just as I am, to make any further conversation on this matter because it is a pending matter before the Supreme Court. The last time the matter came up in 2010, it is a matter that has been pending since 1999. When it last came up in 2010, 17 or the 39 clauses contained in the bill you are considering were ruled unconstitutional by the court at that time. Of course, the Federal Government has appealed the ruling, they won the appeal and the matter is currently before the Supreme Court. I would rest my case by appealing to the members of this Committee to refer to a 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. The 8th Senate 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.”

But Odebunmi said: “Constitutionally, we are doing our own job and I am very sure that no court will restrain us from doing their job. We are not stopping anybody from continuing any process in court. But we have the right, the mandate of Nigerians to amend Nigerian laws and that is exactly what we are doing. It is not about the matter in court, but an act of the National Assembly which we deemed fit to amend and we are doing that. It does not stop you from pursuing whatever you have in court. But this is the position of the National Assembly.”

The Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Press Council, Francis Nwosu, said the desirability of a Press Council should not be in dispute.

He said: “The principal Act also made provisions for conviction of offences and it was an area of contention. Stake holders 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.”

RATTAWU is more concerned about and licensing of media practitioners and the code ethics. The union said: “No print media practitioner is licensed in Nigeria. They obtain registration as business venture from the CAC and not the Press Council. This section 1, therefore, is talking about a reality that does not exist and so, should be expunged. Approval of the code should come from the board and not the Minister.”

Former NUJ President Mallam Sani Zorro said it was unfortunate that the amendment was coming at a very stormy time in the nation’s history. He said: “This amendment is coming at a very stormy time in the history of Nigeria because of the policy of the government regarding twitter. I believe that dialogue between stakeholders in the media, the Executive arm of government and the legislature would be a better platform for negotiation before amendments are effected. It is also the way out of the litigation now before the Supreme Court.”

On the composition of the board of the council, Zorro, a former member of the House of Representatives, said: “The board of the Press Council ought to be a Professional Board and not a political board. We can actually copy from the Press Complaint Commission in Great Britain which is the model of the Journalism we practice in Nigeria or many sister African countries to enrich this conversation. In the past, the appointment into the Press Council of an Accountant and actually a dead person did not only truncate the operationalisation of the council, but ridiculed it and was a great embarrassment to all of us. The issue of licensing that the press council is supposed to undertake is one of the issues that are better negotiated because these organisations are primarily business organisations registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission. So, if the Press Council were to withdraw the licenses of newspapers, and other news organisations, I am sure you will agree with that it will be seen as a misnomer.”

A former Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Press Council, Bayo Atoyebi, believes that the provisions contained in the bill would make Nigeria a laughing stock before the international community as it will be seen as a way to muzzling the media.

Atoyebi told the Committee that “the world over, wrongs by journalists are dealt with not be trial, but ethical review. That is why members of the Council are having experiences in journalism. If you have a wrong, the journalist will appear before their peer and they will tell him where he has gone wrong and the punishment is a warning, a suspension or at the highest level, the name is deleted from the register of members of the NUJ and not imprisonment which some others have described as criminalising Journalism. If you do that, the whole world will scream at you saying Nigeria is muzzling Journalist.” He criticize provisions contained in section 28 of the proposed amendment which seek to collect a percentage of annual income of newspapers, payment of licensing fees and payment of penalties.

He aligned with the former President of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Mallam Sani Zorro that a negotiated settlement is the only way out with on the issue of code of professional of ethics. He said: “The contention has always been that those representing the government on the Council of the board should not be more than the stakeholders. Until you take are of this, you will continue to have rejection. Professional code is designed by members of that profession and not by a third party. The code we are talking about I supposed to be used in the context to regulate the industry. That is the code of the NUJ that was declared in 1988 at Ilorin. Incidentally, the NUJ championed a review of that code in 2013 and sponsored by the United Nations Development Fund. The NUJ has signed on to it and it has been passed onto the stakeholders to endorse it. If they do, it is an instrument that the Press Council can use to regulate the print media in Nigeria. Just as Journalists hold all of us accountable, so also can the Press council hold Journalists accountable with the code of ethics”.

Speaking on behalf of a group of civil society groups working in the media space, Executive Director of International Press Centre (IPC), Lanre Arogundade, while regulations are needed especially in this era of fake news and hate speech, such regulations must not erode media independence or freedom and should not unduly punitive. The CSOs are International Press Centre (IPC), Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Centre for Media Law and Advocacy (CMLA) and Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ).

“It is in this regard that we are worried that the proposed amendment to the Nigeria Press Council Decree falls far short of these expectations and standards”. He said further that “the provision of 3 (d) constitutes a potential threat to press freedom and media survival as it does not provide for judicial intervention before highly punitive measures are handed down by the council and indeed could be used as a political weapon against the media. Also, the provisions of section violates section 39 of the constitution, while the penalties for offences as stipulated in 3 (3) i & ii including fine of five million Naira or three years imprisonment are too punitive and will constitute threat to media independence and freedom. The provision of 21 subsection 5 (a) as proposed for amendment is such that a journalist can be punished by the Council even after he/she might have been found guilty by a court of law and without the Council going back to the court to report continued infringement.”

He argued that the provisions of section 33 (3) and (4) of the law does not give room for retraction or apology where a fake news is mistakenly published but recommends a blanket sanction of up to ten million naira or closure for a period of one year or both.”