Tuesday, 17 November 2009

What is Abike Up To?

The plot against the Freedom of Information Bill is crystallising at the House of Representatives. Notonly has its passage into law been frustrated, a new bill aimed at curtailing press freedom and suppressing the practice of journalism has been freshly manufactured.

Unfortunately for Nigeria , the same journalist-turned- lawmaker who sponsored the FOIB is also the initiator of "An Act to Provide for the Repeal of the Nigerian Press Council Act 1992 and Establish the Nigerian Press and Practice of Journalism Council" at the House of Reps: Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa.

The bill seeks to create two new bodies - the National Examination Accreditation Board and the Media Practitioners' Complaint Council - to prescribe fresh conditions for journalism practice in the country. Before one could work as a journalist, one must be certified fit by the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ), not any degree-awarding institution in the world!

And, in case of an infraction, a media house has to pay a fine of N100, 000 while the journalist, a first-time offender, has to pay N50, 000 and risks being suspended for a maximum of six months. The fine could be upped to N500, 000 and N100, 000 respectively where the corporate body or individual refuses to comply with rulings.

Nothing illustrates the ignorance and idiocy of the bill's makers (including, unfortunately, Dabiri-Erewa) better than sections 35, 36 and 37 that provide for the salary and conditions of service of media people. Every media organisation must pay a minimum of 20 per cent more than the salaries paid by the federal and state governments as well as private companies "as the case may be".

In the case of any media house that covers up to two-thirds of the country, it shall pay not less than 120 per cent more. The bill adds, in section 37, that the salaries and conditions of service of journalists are to be negotiated collectively among the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) and the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON). And, for the avoidance of doubt, the agreed salaries and conditions of service shall be published in the Federal Government Gazette and made available to every journalist (section 39)!What is Dabiri-Erewa up to?

We are surprised that such a trained media person could permit her name to be appended to this bill that is only fit to remain in the trashcan. It is unworkable. It is distasteful. It seeks to reverse all the gains made from the practice of journalism in the country over the past 150 years. Needless to add, it is the product of some idle minds that have nothing meaningful to contribute to the media and to national development.

We are at one with the Nigerian Guild of Editors, which has advised the legislators not to waste its energy on shadow-chasing. It is not their duty to educate journalists on the ethics of journalism. And they are not competent to legislate on how the business of mass communication and indeed other businesses should be managed effectively. Already, the Nigerian media is on the road to better self-regulation - the birth of the ombudsman. "Veteran" journalists like Dabiri-Erewa ought to have sought clarifications from those who know.

Perhaps, no other profession absorbs as much insult from unlearned persons as does journalism in Nigeria . This bill offers a good example: It abhors the independence of the council to be created to regulate media practice, as its chairman shall work at the pleasure of the Nigerian president and the minister of information and communications (both of whom might know nothing about journalism). In fact, the council's members shall be required to swear to an oath of secrecy - an apparent contradiction to the Freedom of Information Bill that canvasses openness and accountability.

Yet, journalism is the only profession assigned responsibility by the Nigerian constitution: "The press, radio and television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter (Fundamental Objectives and Directive of State Policy) and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people." (Section 22) Where the government - the legislature, in this case - chooses to make rules to be used in holding it accountable and responsible to the people, it violates the supreme document of the land, and its rules are therefore null and void.

Our lawmakers would do well to make laws for the good governance of Nigeria before attempting to design a training programme for would-be journalists. It is to their eternal shame that Nigeria has become one of the most corrupt, most ungoverned, most discomforting nations in the world. Today, the easiest route to wealth is having access to public funds, not hard work or intelligence. When future generations shall probe into Nigeria 's ugly past, our current lawmakers' names shall be listed among those who acquired enormous wealth without doing any work.

The new bill sponsored by Abike Dabiri-Erewa is dead on arrival. Any time the house spends debating it is a waste. Instead, it should resurrect the FOI Bill which former President Olusegun Obasanjo refused to sign into law in 2007, which the current lawmakers are apparently afraid of, but which journalists, anti-graft agencies and the overwhelming majority of the Nigerian public have been yearning for.

All through the ages, tyrants have made vain efforts to gag the press. The army of detractors led by Dabiri-Erewa shall surely fail. If history is any guide, they should be educated by the third amendment to the United States constitution: "Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of expression.. ."

Courtesy: Leadership Newspapers

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