Media scholar, veteran journalist and human rights lawyer have slammed the subtle attempt by President Muhammadu Buhari
‘s administration to resurrect Decree 4 of 1984 in apparent ploy to muzzle the press and stifle freedom of speech in the country.
The Former Commissioner for Information in Anambra State and the first female professor of Mass Communication in Nigeria, Chinyere Okunna said that the proposed amendment of Nigeria Press Council Act and the National Broadcasting Commission
Act is like a resurrection of either the entire Decree 4 or part of it.
She said that anything that curtails the freedom of the press in a democracy should not be allowed to happen.
The Media scholar in an interview with reporters said: “Decree 4 passed during the military regime of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) in 1984 was a military contraption and we remember how everyone suffered under that decree, such that when it was lifted, there was jubilation everywhere. For them to try to bring it back through these proposed media laws, it feels like a resurrection of either the entire Decree 4 or part of it. I think part of the Nigerian Press Council Bill will limit the press drastically. For me, anything that curtails the freedom of the press in a democracy should not be allowed to happen. It is popularly said that the press is the oxygen of democracy and like oxygen, if you stifle the press and curtail press freedom, democracy can never thrive”.
She said that things are progressively getting worse in the country.
According to her, “Sometimes, I wonder what is going on because the Freedom of Information Act was a landmark victory for the press. Before then, there was the Official Secrets Act that limited access (to certain information) – one could not speak to a government official. If one asked them anything, they were not allowed to speak to the press. So, when the FOI Act came, it was a victory for everybody because it guaranteed access to government-held information. Amending anything that denies journalists and even ordinary Nigerians access to information held by the government working on their behalf is condemnable”.
She lamented that she cannot tell why Lai Muhammed is doing what he is doing and saying the things he is saying.
On his part, a veteran journalist and former Editor-In-Chief of Newswatch Magazine, Ray Ekpu in a another interview with a reporter said that the people who are doing these have never followed the history of the Nigerian Press from pre-colonial days up till now.
“If they followed that history, they will see how the press, particularly the print media, fought the colonialists to a standstill to get independence. Both military and civilian governments that we’ve had in the past tried to muzzle the freedom of the press and the press has always fought valiantly. The people who are doing this have no idea of the historical significance of the struggle for press freedom and free speech in this country.
“What is happening is not strange because President Buhari is not a democrat even though he claims that he is a born-again democrat. I was one of three persons – the others were Dele Giwa and Yakubu Mohammed – who interviewed Major General Muhammadu Buhari on February 6, 1984, and we were shocked when the man said, ‘I will tamper with press freedom. I will tamper with press freedom,” he said.
He noted that Buhari is now bringing Decree 4 back in a democratic form using people like Lai Mohammed who has been talking about China – ‘In China you can’t use your phone, in China, you can’t do this and that’ but are we in China?
“We were in China before, for many years during different military governments but that is no longer the case. After Decree 4 came out, the first casualties were Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson, they were working with The Guardian and they were jailed for one year. They wrote a story on the appointments of ambassadors. It wasn’t even a false story but Decree 4; a very mischievous and obnoxious law, says that if you publish anything that affects the reputation of the government or government officials, you will go to jail. That is to say that Decree 4 was out to punish the truth. I have never heard of that anywhere in the world. That was how mischievous and obnoxious Decree 4 was and those behind it,” he said.
A human rights lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Femi Falana said that the timing is totally wrong as the atmosphere is currently polluted.
He added that the sponsors of the anti-media bills should have awaited the resolution of the ban on Twitter.
“However, the sponsors have not bothered to familiarise themselves with the struggle for freedom of expression in Nigeria and in neighbouring countries. The colonial regime promulgated the Official Ordinance which prescribed a 14-year jail term for anyone who leaked official documents on the exploitation of the resources of the colonial territory and thereby exposed the atrocities of the British Government.
“The Public Order Ordinance prohibited public protests against the alien regime. The Criminal Ordinance contained sedition which criminalised the publication, circulation or possession of any statement which exposed the colonial regime to ridicule, odium or embarrassment. Truth was not a defence under the law. The ruling class in the post-colonial regime decided to retain the obnoxious laws. The military junta enacted decrees to jail journalists, proscribe newspapers and close media houses for embarrassing any of the dictators,” he conclueded.