A 100-Year Tale Of Guns, Shackles And Salvation: The Nigerian Media And Good Governance. (1) – Dafe Akpedeye, SAN, OFR, FCI. Arb.

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The history of the struggle for good governance in Nigeria from the inception of colonization to the present era cannot be effectively narrated without x-raying the role of two critical sectors: media and law. The journey towards good governance has not only been bumpy, it has been fraught at times with uncertainties at extreme human cost. This discourse seeks to x-ray the effectiveness of the utilization of media and law in the attainment of the most sought after “ornament” today by Nigerians -good governance. The utilization of the existing laws by media practitioners in this quest has been remarkable and commendable.
The media (electronic, print and in recent times online) is regarded as the 4th estate of the realm. An effective media serves as a watch-dog of the activities of the Government as well as the barometer for measuring the pulse of the society. The media not only enlightens the citizenry of the activities of government, but more importantly, it triggers discourse aimed at proffering solutions to contemporary socio-cultural, economic and political challenges. The effect of this laudable role is that a veritable platform is provided for Nigerians to contribute to policy direction of government and to make their existence count.

Historically, Nigeria has been blessed with a robust and vibrant media, which dates back to the colonial times. Nigeria today, enjoys the status of the most free and outspoken media in Africa. This feat was not attained on a platter of gold but through consistent dogged struggle by practitioners, which in some cases led to the payment of the supreme price. Although, the struggle reached its crescendo during the military era, I am not unmindful of reports of harassment of media practitioners during civilian dispensations even in the present administration. Media practitioners in Nigeria have been harassed, tortured, imprisoned, exiled and murdered. Late Elder Statesman, Chief Anthony Enahoro had a rough time during the colonial administration. Dele Giwa, ace journalist and founding Editor-in-chief of Newswatch magazine was murdered with a parcel bomb in his home on 19 October 1986. The assassination occurred two days after he had been interviewed by officials of the State Security Service (SSS).

Philosophically, the history of human existence is one of struggle between oppressors and the oppressed. The Nigerian colonial experience depicts the height of this struggle; the colonialists imported laws aimed at muscling free speech in Nigeria. The laws mainly took the shape of sedition and defamation with the attendant stiff penalties. By these laws, any publication (whether written or spoken) considered by the colonialists to be offensive is visited by penalty of imprisonment.
In 1909, a law, Seditious Offences Ordinance of 1909 (which like the later Decree No. 4 of 1984) criminalized the publication of false reports or statements that exposed a government official or the government itself to ridicule or contempt. It was published in September 1909 in the official Gazette and reprinted in an extra-ordinary issue of the Government Gazette dated October 1, 1909. The Seditious Offences Ordinance under Sections 3 and 5 provided that:
“Whoever by words, either spoken or written brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt the government established by law in Southern Nigeria, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years or with a fine or with both imprisonment and fine. Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report, with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause any officer of the Government of Southern Nigeria or any person otherwise in the service of His Majesty to disregard or fail in his duty as such officer or servant of His Majesty . . . shall be punished”
The above provisions clearly show that Section 1(1) of the 1984 press law was modeled after the 1909 Newspaper law. Section 6 of the Seditious Offences Ordinance empowered the police, magistrates and district commissioners to check seditious publications in their areas of authority by requiring suspected offenders to execute a bond, to be of good conduct for one year or for such a period as the police, magistrate or district commissioner would be satisfied with the alleged offender’s behaviour and conduct.
The event that precipitated the 1909 newspaper law was Herbert Macaulay’s publication of a pamphlet titled, “Governor Egerton and the Railway.” The pamphlet leveled charges of maladministration against the Governor and drew attention to allegations of corrupt practices in the Egerton administration. Basically, this was the law under which Herbert Macaulay would be sent to prison six years later for writing an article considered offensive by the colonial government. Under our current Criminal Code, sedition is punishable by imprisonment of up to seven years or a fine, or both with the burden of proof on the defendant.
At the attainment of independence in 1960, Mallam Tafawa Balewa assumed the mantle of leadership as the Prime Minister while Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe became the ceremonial President. Still learning the ropes associated with self-rule, there were numerous problems in the polity and politics of the nation; intolerance to opposition, clampdown on press freedom, official corruption et al. The stage was set for a perfect excuse for the military putsch of 1966.
Prior to the 1966 coup, the government utilized the existing laws and enacted more to curtail the activities of the media. Nigeria had a press law The Obscene Publications Act, 1961, which was against pornography; it was justified as being “for the public good”. The Seditious Meeting Act, 1961, placed a ban on meetings of more than 50 people on any sitting day of the House of Parliament within 1 mile radius. That Act may still be in the statute books, and could be used if all or some of the media houses chose to gather or meet at a location within a mile radius of the National Assembly.
The brevity of General Aguiyi- Ironsi’s regime in 1966 did not give room to the nation to assess his media friendliness or otherwise. The regime was in a reasonable measure welcomed by Nigerians due to the disappointing experience of the First Republic which was characterized by politicians who made sumptuous promises during Nationalist struggles but failed to deliver on them.

General Yakubu Gowon who succeeded General Aguiyi-Ironsi was quick in his contribution towards stifling dissent when he promulgated the Emergency Decree of 1966. The Decree made arrest and detention of citizens without warrants lawful and also empowered the Inspector General of Police and other Officers of the same or higher rank to search any Newspaper Office or Premises in Nigeria without warrant or notice. On the strength of this Decree, the Daily Times office {Weekend Times} was searched by the Police in 1968. The Decree was severely criticized by Nigerians, notable amongst them, was Alhaji Lateef Jakande {1974} who observed that the Military’s Emergency Decree of 1966 was sufficient to turn the Nigerian Press into a captive press.
The administration also proceeded in 1967 to promulgate another Decree, the “Newspaper Prohibition of Circulation Decree, 1967”. The Decree empowered the Head of Federal Military Government to restrict from circulation any newspaper in Nigeria if he is satisfied that it is detrimental to the interest of the federation or any state thereof within the federation. The restriction may subsist within 12 months and could be extended by the Head of State. A refusal to comply is punishable with 6 months imprisonment and/or N500 fine. As if this was not enough, Trade Disputes {Emergency Provision} Amendment Decree No 53 of 1969 was also promulgated which made it an offence for any person to publish in a newspaper, television or radio or by any means of mass communication, any matter which by reason of dramatization or other in the manner of its presentation was likely to cause public alarm or industrial unrest.
The major motive for these decrees was to prevent media practitioners from discharging their primary role as watchdogs and vanguard of nation building. Added to this, is the instilment of fear aimed at diverting their mind from playing the noble role which had characterized the Nigeria media since the colonial era. A role that motivated a commentator like Williams Hachten {1976} to praise the pre-1965 Nigerian Press thus: “….the best example of libertarian press in Africa have been the ebullient and iconoclastic newspapers of Nigeria before 1965 … .”.
Prior to these laws, The Newspaper (Amendment) Act, 1964, made it compulsory for newspaper editors to publish their names and residential addresses on the back page! A modified form of this is still in force today; newspaper editors must publish their details on the editorial page.

General Murtala Mohammed/General Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration brought General Yakubu Gowon’s Administration to an abrupt end in July 1975 and the most interesting fact about this administration is that instead of departing from his predecessor’s behaviour, they towed similar lines with more gusto. The New Breed Magazine was prohibited from circulation in July 1978 in accordance with the Newspaper Prohibition from Circulation Decree 1967. The administration further promulgated a decree on 8th April, 1979 entitled the Newspaper Public Official Report Decree, which provided that any person who published or reproduced in any form whether written or otherwise any statement, rumour or report alleging that a public officer has in any manner been engaged in corrupt practices or has in any manner corruptly enriched himself or any other person being a statement, rumour or report which is false in any material particular, shall be guilty of an offence and be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years without option of fine.
This decree generated outrage not only from media practitioners but also from the general public. Alhaji Lateef Jakande, the then Managing Director of Nigeria Tribune observed thus
“… the decree would stifle criticisms and offer protection to corrupt officers…. Suppose a reporter comes to know that certain a Minister purchased a row of buildings {with public money} in a particular street. If he {the reporter} prints that and it just happens that the Minister used his wife’s name to disguise the purchase, the reporter would be liable under this law…The only way is not to publish it at all”.

The media remained ever robust and vibrant during Alhaji Shehu Shagari’s government. This period witnessed monumental abuse of public trust by elected and appointed officials of government. The media took the government to task on diverse national issues. Although, no new anti-media law was enacted, the existing laws were effectively utilized by the government to stifle press freedom and make operating environment difficult for media practitioners.

As is customary in Military regimes, this administration introduced series of draconian decrees to curtail the freedom of the press and others who were considered antagonistic to the regime. In 1984, Decree No 4 of 1984 otherwise known as the Public Officers {Protection against False Accusation} Decree 1984 was promulgated. 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, and in the case of a corporate body, to a fine not less than N10, 000. The decree 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 is interesting 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 deemed 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 Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson were jailed and the publishers of the newspaper was ordered to pay N50, 000 as fine.

This regime came to power in 1985. Reuben Abati {1998} stated that the Babangida administration began on a populist note. It wooed the press and pretended to undo the atrocities of the previous administration but within a year the dominant oppressive media/free speech gene in the nucleus of Nigeria military again manifested.
The regime proscribed the Newswatch Magazine for six months in 1985 and was alleged to be the brain behind the assassination of its Editor -in-Chief, Mr. Dele Giwa in October 1986 via a parcel bomb. Also the regime promulgated the Nigerian Press Council Decree No. 85 of 1992 which established the Nigerian Press Council to deal with complaints by members of the public against the conduct of journalists in their professional capacity. The peak of the regime’s clamp down on the media was attained on 9th April, 1992 by the promulgation of an ad hominem decree “Concord Group of Newspapers Publication {Proscription and Prohibition from circulation} Decree No 14 1992” As apparent from the titled of the decree, it specifically targeted the Concord Group of Newspapers which was then critical of the regime. The draconian nature of the decree extended to divest the courts from looking into any act done in compliance with the decree. It was repealed on 11th May, 1992 through the promulgation of another decree entitled the Concord Group of Newspapers Publication {Proscription and Prohibition from circulation}{Repeal} No. 17 of 1992. The administration also proscribed the publication and circulation of the following newspapers in 1993: Africa Concord Magazine, Weekend Concord, Sunday Concord, National Concord, The Punch, Saturday Punch, Sunday Punch, Daily Sketch, Sunday Sketch and Nigerian Observer.
From available records, this regime was very active in curbing media freedom and arrest of media practitioners. Any publication whether in words or photograph perceived by the regime as offensive was ruthlessly dealt with. A case in point was the arrest of Osazume Osagie for a cartoon in which he depicted a soldier who was standing on the skull of dead people with a book on SAP Formula. Another was the proscription of Newswatch magazine in 1987 because the magazine had published the report of the Cookey Bureau before the regime could doctor it.

A different and dangerous twist of silencing media freedom was introduced by this regime between 1994 and 1998. The regime from the onset made clear its disdain for press freedom. The regime did not pursue promulgation of more draconian Decrees to attack the press, but hatched a more effective and most inhuman method of accusing journalists of conspiring to overthrow the regime through phantom coup d etat. By this phantom arrangement which the regime utilized to the fullest, media practitioners were jailed, newspapers seized, newspaper houses proscribed, newspaper vendors harassed, and newspaper proprietors/publishers attacked. Palpable fear dominated the media practice during this dark era. Trial of media practitioners and perceived regime antagonists were conducted in utmost secret devoid of the least known ingredients of fair trial.
It is an historical fact that some journalists implicated and secretly tried along with General Olusegun Obasanjo and his erstwhile deputy late General Shehu Yar ‘Adua for involvement in the 1995 phantom coup were sentenced to life imprisonment. Some of these journalists (rare men of courage and valour) are: Kunle Ajibade, the then Editor of The NEWS Magazine, Ben Charles Obi former Editor of the defunct Classique Magazine, George Mbah, a Senior Assistant Editor with TELL magazine and Chris Anyanwu, former Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the defunct The Sunday Magazine (TSM). This was later extended to Niran Malaolu, former Editor of The Diet Newspaper in the 1997 phantom coup trial.

This government was slightly different from its predecessor who had proscribed The Guardian Newspaper and Guardian Weekly Magazine on 5th September 1994 through Decree No. 8 of 1994
However, the Abdulsalami administration amended the Nigerian Press Council Decree No. 85 of 1992 few days to the end of its life. A new decree entitled the Nigerian Press Council (Amendment) Decree No. 60 of 1999 empowered the Council to be in-charge of registration of journalists and newspapers as well as magazines, annually. It also provided for the imposition of heavy sanctions on the proprietors and publishers of any newspaper and magazine which fail to register, in accordance with the provisions of the decree. It is an anti-press freedom law which has as penalties for defaulters of its codes, payment of N250, 000 or imprisonment not exceeding 3 years and N100, 000 for publishers who fail to report their progress. The decree contradicted Section 7 of the former decree by providing that the Council shall adopt “the Code of Conduct of the Nigerian Union of Journalists to guide the Press and Journalists in the performance of their duties” and empowered the Council to require the Nigerian Union of Journalist to provide the “Code of Professional and Ethical Conduct” which shall be subject to the approval of the Council. The indelible footprint of this regime is that it ushered in the present political dispensation raising the hope of press freedom.

Dafe Akpedeye OFR,FCI.ARB.(UK) is of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).
(To be continued)

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Arthur Nzeribe, (1990) “Nigeria, Seven years after Shehu Shagari – Who Next?” Kilimanjaro Publishing House,London,
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Daily Sun Newspaper, 7 September 2009, p. 18
Ese Malemi, (1999) “Mass Media Law” Princeton Publishing Company, Ikeja Lagos,
Hachten A. William, (1976) “Muffled Drum” Lowa State University Press,
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Major-General J. J. Oluleye, (1985) “Military Leadership in Nigeria 1966 – 1979” University Press Ltd., Ibadan,
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Chima Ekuma Samuel (2012) ”Press Freedom in Nigeria: Run Down 1960-2012.”
Cheta Nwanze, (2014) “The Law and Nigeria’s Media.”
Chris Ogbondah and Emmanuel U. Onyedike: “Origins and Interpretation of NigerianPress Laws”
Suleyman bin Muhammad Odapu : An X-ray Of Press Freedom In Obasanjo’s Nigeria
Ronal Koven: “FREEDOM OF THE PRESS 2004 “A global survey of media independence”

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