Between Press Freedom and Irresponsibility: Interrogating the Media Amendment Bill

The move by the House of Representatives to amend the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) Act Cap N128, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1992, has been generating heated reactions from stakeholders in the media industry. The attempt is part of government efforts to curb the spread of fake news and misinformation in the public domain. The NPC Amendment Bill is sponsored by Hon. Olusegun Odebunmi.

Odebunmi doubles as the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values, which handled the recent public hearing on the contentious bill.

It is worthy of note that down the ages and across cultures, information has occupied a very crucial space in the life of any society. Today, the internet is playing a major role in information dissemination. This has left media houses, especially the large ones, with the burden of competing with alternative media. Media producers also abuse the privilege of liberal democracies, and the rate of false information continues to grow.

The act of manipulating information has existed long before the advent of social media. It is an active feature of history before the coming of modern journalism through established rules of integrity. Facts affirming the above can be traced to early incidents in ancient Rome when Antony met Cleopatra. His political enemy, Octavian, launched a smear campaign against him with “short, sharp slogans written upon coins in the style of archaic “Tweets.”

Fake news is currently an issue of global interest. This century sadly has seen the use of information as a weapon on a rather unprecedented scale.

The exploitation and falsification of content have simply become rather easy with the presence of the powerful new media technology. The internet has given easy rise to the use of social networks in intensifying the rate of falsehoods in a rather very dramatic fashion.

Some states, politicians, deceitful corporate entities, and individuals go about sharing false stories. The misinformation is perpetrated with the intent of seeking financial gains, or to achieve some selfish aims or interests.

The fake news phenomenon is prominent on the internet. This is so because the internet is the people’s choice for its speed and accessibility.

Thus, those who provide content on the internet are eager for the traffic that comes with high revenue. Some of them do not mind doing any and everything to boost consumer traffic.

So many journalists are left in an unreasonable competition for attention, where they are forced to publish information first and then verify the authenticity of their contents later. This hunts today’s world badly. Fake news stories are usually thrilling in nature and by this factor, are very likely to spread quickly.

At the same time, it is important to mention here that the monetisation and rapid circulation of ‘news’ through the use of digital platforms, especially the social media, is responsible for such widespread and effective forms of media manipulation. Disturbed by the menace of fake news and hate speech, the Federal Government is deploying its resources to amend the NPC Bill.

However, at a public hearing which was held on June 17, the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), an umbrella body comprising the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), opposed the Bill and asked the lawmakers to drop it, saying a suit challenging the Bill was pending at the Supreme Court.

In the same vein, media rights groups and critical stakeholders in the sector who were present at the hearing spoke against the move to infringe on press freedom through the proposed amendment of the NPC Act.

In its presentation, the International Press Centre (IPC), alongside Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Centre for Media Law and Advocacy (CMLA), and the Premium Times Centre For Investigation Journalism (PTCIJ), kicked against moves to infringe on press freedom and media independence in the country.

However, Odebunmi insisted that the committee would proceed with the amendment, as it was not meant to gag press freedom but to remove bottlenecks that are retarding the optimum performance of the NPC, as well as sanitise media practice in the country. He said the NPC Amendment Bill was initiated with an independent mind to transform and make the Council move with the current realities in the media industry.

According to him, the proposal for the establishment of a ‘press code’, as proposed in the Bill, was to protect and guide the Council to checkmate and reduce quackery, fake news, and tackle hate speech. Notwithstanding the foregoing assurances given by the sponsor of the Bill, there are controversial clauses in the Bill that are still of concern to stakeholders in the media industry.

One contentious area is that the Bill seeks to give more powers to the Minister of Information to control the conduct of print media houses and media practitioners. Section 3 (c) said: “with the approval of the Minister of Information, there will be a national Press Code and standards that guide the conduct of print media, related media and media practitioners.

“(d) Approve penalties and fines against violation of the Press Code by print media houses and media practitioners, including revocation of license.

“(e) Receive, process, and consider applications for the establishment, ownership, and operation of print media and other related media houses.

“(f) With the approval of the minister, grant print media and other related licenses to any application considered worthy of such.

“(g) Monitor activities of the press, media and other related media houses to ensure compliance with the National Press Code for professional and ethical conduct, including the Nigerian Union of Journalists”.

There are concerns that the above clauses in the amendment would give the Minister of Information undue influence to regulate the media houses and media practitioners in the country, thus jeopardising free press and independent journalism practice in the country.
For instance, Section 3 (d) said that with the approval of the Minister, the council can penalise media houses, including revocation of licences.

Other contentious aspects of the amendments are clauses that stipulate various punitive measures against media houses and journalists that violate the National Press Code, to be put in place by the Council, with the approval of the Minister of Information.

There are also concerns over the aforementioned clauses in the amendment which seek to mete out harsh punitive measures against erring media houses and journalists. The implication is that many journalists and media houses would lose their independence and operate at the whims of the government, for fear of being penalised. 

Besides the heavy fines stipulated above, the Council could also stop erring journalists from practice and also withdraw licences of media houses.

Another contentious aspect is that which seeks to criminalise the operations of media outfits that are not registered with the Council. Section 33 (1) of the amendment said: “Any person (s) who, without documentation with the council owns, publishes or prints a newspaper, magazine or journal, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of five million naira or a term of three years imprisonment or both and to an additional fine of twenty thousand naira for every day the offence continues.”

The above clause implies that the council would wield an overwhelming influence in deciding which medium to be registered to operate and which to be denied registration. Thus, muzzling of the press is imminent, should this Bill become law.

Besides the above, subsection 2 of 33 also criminalises vendors that circulate any newspaper, magazine, or journal that is not registered with the Council. They are liable to pay a fine of N250, 000 upon conviction, and a term of one year imprisonment or both. Another contentious section is that which seeks to criminalise fake news purveyors.

Section 33 (3) said: “Any person who carried news established to be fake news thereafter, commits an offense and is liable on conviction to a fine of five million naira or two years imprisonment or both and compensation of two million payable to the person (s), group(s) corporate entity (s), government, or any of its agencies to who the news was carried”.

There are equally concerns over these cited sections, as there is no clear definition of what constitutes fake news and who determines what fake news is.

It means that the government and powers that be could hide on the guise of fake news to clamp down on print media houses and journalists that carry news that does not promote their interests or which they consider or adjudged to be “fake news.”

Besides, the heavy fines of N10 million and compensation of N20 million to be slammed on erring media houses, as stipulated in the Bill, are believed to be grand designs in high places, to put media houses under pressure from holding the government accountable, as enshrined in the constitution of the country.

For the press to hold the government accountable as the watchdog of the society, it must be free and independent to operate, without encumbrances from the government and its allies.

To this end, there are genuine concerns that some of the clauses inserted in the NPC Amendment Bill, if passed into the law, would infringe on free and independent journalism practice in the country, as pointed out by media rights groups and other stakeholders in the sector during the public hearing.

Critical as these concerns are, no responsible government will be indifferent to the menace of fake news that is currently ravaging not only government, but also the citizens of Nigeria and entire fabric of the nation. Government should explore the middle ground between protecting the citizens of the country, the institution of government, and the sovereignty, unity and peace of the nation, on the one hand, and the ethos of a free and responsible media on the other.

Categories: Features