An Overview of NGE Town Hall Meeting – Iyobosa Uwugiaren

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  • Posted by: Imoh Robert

 Your Excellency, the Ambassador of United States of America in Nigeria, President, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Past Presidents of the Nigerian Guild of Editors – present, Lead Speaker, Femi Falana, SAN, Comrades, Great Nigerian Students, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen

Let me join the NGE President – in welcoming you to this historical event. Mr Mutapha Isah has already explained to you the importance of this event. I just want to quickly give you an overview of the programme.

The programme is designed to promote and sustain free press environment for democratic consolidation and good governance in Nigeria being funded by the government of the United States of America (USA), it is to facilitate activities aimed at strengthening the capacity of members of the Nigerian Guild of Editors to understand, appreciate and deliver on their constitutionally assigned responsibility to hold government to account on behalf of the people, to promote synergy and improve the cooperative spirit between the NGE and other professional associations within the media.

And these associations include, but not limited to, the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON), the Online Media Practitioners Association of Nigeria (OMPAN), the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Non-Governmental Organisations, particularly those focused on supporting media freedom and improving the environment for freedom of expression.

NGE: For those not very familiar with the mandate of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), it is the umbrella body of all senior journalists that have attained the highest strata of working and the exalted position of editors in the journalism profession in the print, electronic and online media outlets in Nigeria. The NGE was established in 1961 to advance the interests of the profession, deepen editors’ relationships with their various publics ranging from the media itself, to governments, and other professional and civil society groups.

It is non-governmental, non-partisan, and non-profit. The aim is to preserve the traditions and standards of practice of journalism in Nigeria by canvassing in co-operation with other journalistic bodies, a strict adherence to the Code of Ethics of the profession as well as defend the rights of the press and its access to unhindered flow of information.

I hope I will not be blowing our trumpet too loud if I say that but for the Nigerian media and organised civil society groups, Nigeria would have remained a bastion of military dictatorship. In 1999, the country exited a long spell of military dictatorship and returned to civilian democracy. Despite the victory, ruins of dictatorship still remain with us today. The last six years, in particular, has seen the greatest onslaughts against civic space and media freedom.

Whereas Section 22 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 provides: “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”, and Section 39 (1) of the constitution protects the freedom of expression by providing:

(1)   Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”, and  

(2)   (2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions…,” there has been a tide of growing restrictions on free speech, association and assembly rights and general civic space in the country – since the last six years.

The restrictions have been both overt and covert, and essentially through the following:

1) The use of legal regime such as criminal libel and bills seeking to amend the Nigeria Press Council and the National Broadcasting Commission Acts to criminalize journalism practice; Bill Prohibiting Frivolous Petitions – popularly known as the anti-Social Media Bill – and NGO Bills which under nebulous “national security and national interest”, phrases propose to establish a regulatory body that would undertake periodic registrations of NGOs and criminalises unregistered NGO);

2) Overbroad application of existing laws such as the 2015 Cybercrime Law and a plethora of laws that threatens free speech and by which state agents have arrested, detained and put on trial several journalists, activists, bloggers, and CSOs for alleged cybercrime and other grievous offences such as terrorism, criminal defamation, treason instead of simple misdemeanours), and

3) Non-legal forms of restrictions, such as the ban on Twitter, labelling, the deliberate use of negative rhetoric that stigmatises and smears the media and sections of civil society with the consequences of a declined public trust and confidence that increases their vulnerability to public ridicule, isolation or and stigma, failure to promote access to information despite the existence of a legal framework for doing so. High cost of import duties on media inputs.

The apprehension of media stakeholders and most Nigerians is not without cause. It dates back to when President Buhari was military Head of State in the 80s and he promulgated the notorious Protection Against False Accusations Decree Number 4, in 1984. Under it several journalists were jailed over reports considered unfriendly to the military regime.

And most scholars consider Decree No. 4 by far the most repressive press law ever enacted in Nigeria. In its Section 1 it provides that “Any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, report or statement […] which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offense under this Decree”. The law further stated that offending journalists and publishers will be tried by an open military tribunal, whose ruling would be final and not open to appeal.

The bright side of this tug-of-war is that media stakeholders, with the NGE in lead, are determined to press ahead with stopping the government from railroading new restrictive media laws.

Therefore, the programme goal, include:

•         Support efforts of progressive Nigerians and the mass of the people to enjoy the dividends of democratic rule.

•         Help the promotion of good governance, transparency and deepening of democracy through objective media practices that effectively demands accountability from those in authorities towards advancing the socio-economic well-being and rights of the people, promote and enrich their cultural practices, and human rights, in line with the values expected of a modern democratic state.

•         Facilitate a media that can help set social and political agenda in support of a better society, helping to build visions of hope, nudge Nigerians and Nigeria on the path of development, social reengineering and renaissance.

Project Objectives:

In response to the criminalisation of freedom of expression and onslaughts against the media for holding government to account as mandated by the constitution, this programme is being initiated to deliver the following objectives:

•         Support the NGE and the identified groups to commence conversations around a home-grown framework for self-regulation which would easily find legitimate subscription by members to deepen journalism practice, as opposed to the proposed framework being promoted by the Nigerian government with its patently restrictive provisions and vexatious inspiration.

•         Work for an on and off-line media environment that promotes civic engagements crucial to democracy and civil society operations that are transformative and catalytic for social and political change.

Programme Activities:

1.  Capacity Building Conference for Editors and Senior Political Correspondents on Press Freedom and Town Hall Meetings in the six geo-political zones

Expected impact

•         At the end of the project, we expected to see a pool of Nigerian editors, senior journalists and media managers who are galvanised and be committed to the highest ethical standard and taking robust actions to ensure same;

•         Mobilised pool of editors and senior journalists committed to the promotion and protection of the right to independent press, freedom of expression and the deepening of democratic space;

•         Mobilised pool of editors and senior journalists constantly projecting issue-based governance in defence of the mass of the Nigerian people in line with Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

•         Improved synergy between the professional associations in the media and civil society organisations working to promote press freedom, freedom of expression and transparency and good governance.

Programme Methods and Design:

The programme is designed in such a way as to promote collaboration among key stakeholders in the media and free expression space, mostly from the professional point of view, to dialogue and reach a consensus on the challenges faced by the media profession and the larger question of the state of freedom of expression that is aptly protected by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which said rights and obligations are increasingly facing malignment from authorities in pursuit of their individual and narrow interest as opposed to public good.

The programme looks to galvanise the key stakeholders to act responsibly and deny the authorities the moral authority to take punitive actions against the media for performing their constitutionally assigned role to hold the government to account, and to the general citizens, the right to hold and voice their opinions on the conduct of public officers.

Today, we are starting the programme in the South-west, Lagos with a Town Hall Meeting, which will be followed by a two-day capacity building for Editors.

I thank you all for honouring our invitation.

Author: Imoh Robert

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