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Cover Choice, POLITICS

The Fog Over Press Freedom Under Buhari

Posted: May 3, 2015 at 12:00 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

By Ekene Okoro Snr. Correspondent, Lagos

When the security team attached to Nigeria’s President-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari, turned back journalists from Africa Independent Television (AIT), from the courtesy visit of the Cuban Ambassador to him at the Defence House, Abuja recently, little did they know that it would generate much uproar as it has done since the news first broke out and put their principal on the spot.

CoverChoiceThough Buhari’s media team and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) have been making attempts to explain what transpired, the singular incident has left a scar which might take a while to heal.

Not even the belated reason given by Buhari’s media aide, Mallam Garba Shehu that the AIT crew was restricted from the event due to what he described, as security and family concerns, has done any good to douse the fears in the public space especially among the media.

In Shehu’s words, “AIT has been asked to stay aside based on security and family concerns. In addition, Buhari has decided that they will have to resolve some issues relating to issues of standard and ethics.

“We will be talking with them to try and resolve the matter, but for now the station has been asked to stay aside, because like I said there are some family and security concerns. They have been asked to step down their coverage until we resolve the matter with them on ethics and standard”.

If for nothing else, political observers feel that the move has set a dangerous precedent for the incoming administration which Buhari is set to preside over in a matter of weeks.

For critics of the President-elect, the implication of the supposed ban of AIT does not only foreclose what might become a norm during Buhari’s government, but might as well be suggesting a return to an era where the media is gagged made famous by past military governments, including Buhari’s within 1983 and 1985.

They are also quick to remind the President-elect that by provision of the constitution, under a democratic dispensation the media is protected by law to carry out its duties without any form of intimidation or oppression.

Section 22 of the Constitution clearly states, “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people”.

But some have also queued behind the decision, alluding to the posture of AIT during the election campaigns where it aired several documentaries on the President-elect and his family, some of which many describe as offensive.

Others feel AIT were doing the bidding of particular political party and thus turned blind eye to the consequences of broadcasting such documentaries which has now been tagged as ‘hate campaign” against Buhari, hence a ban on covering the activities of the president-elect was a punishment they deserved for their “sins”.



Genesis of Buhari-AIT Face Off

During the electioneering campaigns prior to the just concluded 2015 general elections, there were several controversies generated by some documentaries which was aired by AIT and also the Nigeria Television Authority.

 Dokpesi Buhari

Dokpesi                                Buhari

AIT in a 55-minute documentary which aired severally, some allegations levelled against Buhari were said to be inaccurate and a calculated attempt to tarnish the image of the APC presidential candidate before the elections.

Among the several claims made in the documentary was that the Maitatsine riots started during Buhari regime.

But some political analysts who faulted AIT on this issue recall that the Maitatsine riots started in 1980, and the riots in which over 3,000 people died actually occurred from 1975 -1982, many years before Buhari came to power.

The said documentary also claimed Buhari expelled Ghanaians from Nigeria, but yet again Buhari’s supporters who were fury about the allegation said it was late President Shehu Shagari who first expelled over 1,000,000 Ghanaians in 1983 in the infamous ‘Ghana-Must-Go’ inicdent, as some sort of retaliation for what the Ghanaians did to Nigeria in 1969.

In the heat of the campaign, Buhari and the APC had threatened to sue AIT over the said documentary with the latter sending a letter to the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) to call AIT to order.

Dr. Ope Banwo, a lawyer and business consultant described the AIT documentary distasteful saying that though AIT as a privately-owned TV station is entitled to advertise or air anything it wants, it is a serious offence to broadcast falsehood.

According to him, “it should be a criminal act for a nationally-licensed TV station to broadcast falsehood against a contestant in an election and pull the wool over the eyes of unsuspecting Nigerians who trust his station to report the news to them daily”.

Bothered by the trend, the NBC few days before the elections, moved to sanction erring stations who flouted regulations concerning broadcasting election related materials. AIT and NTA were among the television stations listed in NBC’s black book.

NBC’s Director of Public Affairs, Mr. Awwalu Salihu, also listed other television and radio stations that were indicted for various offences committed in the coverage of the 2015 general elections.

NTA was also indicted for contravening rules on sensibilities while AIT was also indicted for contravening 24-hour advert prohibition rules.

Salihu said, “The contraventions include breaches of the rules on the broadcast of sponsored electoral campaign materials, which must conform to the standards of truth, decency and good taste, and requiring the sponsor to be clearly identified.

“Other breaches included the airing of campaign materials or programmes that promoted political parties or candidates within the 24-hour prohibition period, as well as unauthorised networking by a group of stations.”

The NBC spokesman said all the stations had either been queried or sanctioned according to the provisions of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code.




PDP, AIT Link Ban to Infamous Decree 4

If there were concerns about the restriction of AIT from covering the visit of the Cuban delegation, it might have been fuelled by what was law in the military era.

Lai Mohammed

Lai Mohammed

Infact, in that era, private owned stations like AIT were non-existence and could not have operated in an atmosphere where the government of the day was intolerant of the media.

Newspaper outfits which were operational then faced series of intimidation and harassment from the military junta, forcing some to close up shop while others soft pedaled on their coverage of the government of the day.

Several miliarty regimes promulgated its own Decrees targeted at controlling what the media let out to the public and considered reportage of issues directly placing the government at loggerheads with the people as a crime.

Buhari’s regime was not exempted.

General Buhari-led military government as customary to Nigeria military government political culture introduced series of draconian Decrees to curtail press and others who appeared as antagonists to Nigeria Military Government’s desire.

In 1984, Decree No 4 of 1984 also known as the Public Officers {Protection against False Accusation} Decree 1984 was introduced.

The Decree made it an offence for a Newspaper or any Wireless Telegraphy Station in Nigeria to publish or transmit any message, rumour, report or statement which is false in particular that any Public Officer has in any manner corruptly enriched himself or any other person.

The Decree also made any person found guilty of this offence to be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years without the option of fine.

In the case of a corporate body to a fine not less than N10, 000. Not only that, the Decree also prohibited the circulation of any Newspaper that may be detrimental to the interest of the federation or any part thereof as well as empowered the Federal Military Government to revoke the license granted to such Wireless Telegraphy Stations under the provision of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1961 or order the closure or forfeiture of such Newspaper to the Federal Military Government.

It will interest you to note that the same Decree provides that where the offence is committed by a Corporate Body, every person who at the time of the commission of the offence was the Proprietor, Publisher, General Manager, Editor, Secretary or other similar Officer of the Body Corporate or was purporting to act in any such capacity shall be deem to be guilty of that offence unless he proves that the offence was committed without his consent or connivance and he had acted to prevent such an offence.

The Guardian Newspaper was the first and the last newspaper to be caught by this trap as a result of which two journalists Mrs. Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson were jailed and the paper was ordered to pay N50, 000 as fine.

The regime of General Buhari was brought to an end on 27th of August 1985. General Ibrahim Babangida led administration which in its inception released Messrs Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor that was jailed during Buhari’s regime.

This recent case, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) says is reminiscent of the era.

The party took a swipe at Buhari, describing the clampdown on AIT as unacceptable and totalitarian.

A statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Chief Olisa Metuh, the party noted that as a converted democrat, Buhari should make himself amenable to the basic principles of democracy by following due process and seeking redress in court, if not comfortable with any action taken against him.

The party said the APC and the President-elect may have one or two lessons to pick from President Goodluck Jonathan, who though was the most maligned and abused President in the history of the country, even by APC, allowed his actions to be sufficiently guided by humility, tolerance and the rule of law.

Metuh, in the statement said: “After carefully studying the defence posited by General Buhari’s campaign spokesperson and the smokescreen statement by APC to cover and mitigate his anti-media posture, PDP and indeed all lovers of democracy are persuaded that the action was not only unjustifiable, but also unconstitutional and completely against the spirit of liberty and the rule of law in a democracy.

“We ask, is this a beginning of the feared erosion of the freedom and personal liberty the media and Nigerian citizens have been enjoying in the last 16 years under PDP led-administration?

“Perhaps, we need to remind General Buhari that part of the challenge of his new position, even as President-elect is that he has lost his private life which is now subject to public scrutiny and media interrogation, as required of the custodian of the mandate of the Nigerian people.

The management of AIT is also not taking the issue lying low. According to the media outfit, any attempt to restrict it from covering the activities of the president-elect will be tantamount to stepping on press freedom which has thrived in the last 16 years.

Raymond Dokpesi, Proprietor of Daar Communications PLC, likened the restriction to an attempt by the former military Head of State to bring back the era of Decree 4.

Dokpesi is standing his ground that the President-elect Buhari lacks the power to stop the AIT from covering his activities, as doing so would amount to breaking the law.

In his words, “I am sure that the President-elect needs to be reminded of Decree 4, and he should be clearly reminded that section 32 of the constitution makes it mandatory for the media to hold public officials accountable to the people.

“The president-elect said that he does not want to be covered by AIT, but AIT has a responsibility to the Nigerian public to report the things that are happening,” he said.

“There are three national networks available for national coverage in Nigeria, the NTA, AIT and Silverbird. You cannot stop a foremost private station from reporting in Nigeria, it brings us back to Decree 4 era.”

On the controversial documentary, Dokpesi insists that AIT did no wrong in airing the content, explaining that it was not only factual but did not in any way fault the rules of broadcasting.

“What is obviously very clear is the fact that AIT believes that the historical information about the President-elect that were ran, were factually correct. Nothing was done to defame him or impinge on his character or integrity.”

He said although the documentaries were produced outside of Daar communications, “We take responsibility for the running of these items and I as an individual is satisfied because due diligence was followed in ensuring that the things that are contained were factually right”.




APC, Buhari Disown Ban

Piqued by the criticisms that trailed the purported ban, the APC moved swiftly to douse fears of Buhari blacklisting any media house from covering his activities.

Metuh Falana  Sagey

Metuh                              Falana                          Sagey

The party has assured that all accredited media organisations in the country, including AIT, are free to cover the activities of Buhari, whom they said would not discriminate against any media organisation, irrespective of its role during the campaign period.

National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed who spoke on behalf of the party however enjoined all media organisations to observe the highest level of professional standards in carrying out their duties.

APC said, ”There is a Code of Ethics guiding the practice of journalism in Nigeria, and this demands every journalist to ensure a strict adherence to the highest levels of ethics and professionalism in carrying out their duties.

”There must be repercussions, within the realms of the law, for media organisations which have wantonly breached the Code of Ethics of the journalism profession and turned themselves to partisans instead of professionals. But such repercussions will not include barring any accredited media organisation from covering the activities of the President-elect.”

The man in the eye of the storm has also come out to exonerate himself from what transpired between his security officers and AIT.

Not only did he deny ordering the restriction, he has also given instructions to ensure such incident does not repeat itself hence an instruction has gone out to all his staff, including the personnel attached directly to him, to steer clear of all dealings with the media, and leave all media affairs to his official media team.

Buhari in a statement by the Directorate of Media and Publicity of the APC Presidential Campaign Council, Buhari aligned himself with his party’s position explaining that his security details acted out of their own impulse and not on his order.

The president-elect added that his media team should be left to continue to deal with their media colleagues in the best possible way.

According to the statement, Buhari was neither consulted nor informed about the AIT barring, and only became aware of the matter after the public uproar it generated.

“I would like everyone to henceforth stay within his/her defined area of responsibility. The time of change has come and we must avoid making the same mistakes that the outgoing government made”, Buhari was quoted in the statement.

Vice President-elect, Professor Yemi Osinbajo took to his twitter page to also reaffirm the commitment of an APC government at the federal level to ensure free press during the course of their administration.

He wrote, “Gen. Buhari’s administration will encourage free press and its role in aggregating the people’s views & presenting them lucidly to govt.”

Nigerians take different sides

Some observers and political analysts however seem divided on the issue. While some feel the ban is a step in the right direction; others are quick to remind the President-elect that the nation moved away from military rule 16 years ago.

Afenifere leader, Chief Ayo Opadokun, described the face-off between AIT and the President-elect as unfortunate reminding that “the media has the constitutional responsibility to inform, report and equally entertain the masses.

“I feel concerned about this development, but my simple advice is that both AIT and the President-elect should forget what transpired in the past and move on.”

On his part, Lagos lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, said though AIT threw caution to the wind, the President-elect should handle the matter as required by law.

“It is no longer a family matter. Although the ban has been lifted, AIT may be prosecuted for promoting a campaign of hate and incitement, contrary to the provisions of the Electoral Act,” Falana said.

Human rights crusader and lawyer, Mr. Ebun Olu-Adegboruwa described the decision as draconian and dictatorial.

He reminded that under section 39 of the 1999 Constitution, every person, including AIT, has a right to freedom of expression and that of the press.

He argued that despite the clear position of the Nation newspaper, TV Continental other Nigeria’s online media against President Goodluck Jonathan’s policies,”he did not cultivate the habit of denying any media outfit access to cover his events.”

He said that the best thing for the President-Elect is to approach the court if he feels aggrieved over any news item aired by AIT.

But legal luminary, Professor Itse Sagay (SAN) disagreed with Adegboruwa insisting that the ban was in order.

“I agree absolutely with Buhari on the issue. AIT is not fit to be a practical organization in Nigeria. An organization, which worships money and would sell its soul to the devil for money, and would abandon every ethics of its profession, should not exist. If I were in Buhari’s position, I would be harsher.” Sagay said.

While Buhari and the APC have come out to disassociate themselves from the supposed ban, observers feel that any attempt to gag the media could prove costly to Buhari’s quest to realise his quest to reposition Nigeria,

All eyes will be on the incoming administration to see how it relates to the media, especially outfits that seemed to have spearheaded the hate campaign against him.