Herdsmen ultimatum: West Africa media lawyers knock NBC, harp on press freedom

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Factual Pursuit of Truth for Progress

The West Africa Media Lawyers Association (WAMELA) has frowned at the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) over its warning to media houses on the coverage of the crisis between some indigenes of the south-west and Fulani herders.

WAMELA, in a statement on Friday, said the broadcasting regulatory body released its noose to hang over media houses to prevent them from disseminating information that every Nigerian is entitled to.

The group recalled how the NBC sanctioned some television and radio stations for covering the EndSARS protests last year.

According to WAMELA, a free press is necessary especially in this day and age where information is key to survival and security.

The West African media lawyers, therefore, called on the NBC to review its Broadcasting Code, which it said has become a tool for repression and suppression of the press.

While reminding the Nigerian government that Constitution guarantees Nigerian’s rights to receive information, the group urged the National Assembly to protect the press.

Read full statement below.

The West Africa Media Lawyers Association, WAMELA, notes with concern the rising and persistent repression of the press in Nigeria. In a news report dated 26th of January, 2021, it was reported that the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) by a letter to media houses, issued a warning with respect to the factual crisis occurring in Western Nigeria between indigenes and herdsmen. It directs in the letter as follows:

“The National Broadcasting Commission wishes to bring to your attention emerging trends of national concern like the herdsmen crisis in Ondo and Oyo states and related issues which could spiral out of proportion if not properly handled…The commission, therefore, seizes this opportunity to admonish broadcasters on the need to exhibit professionalism and observe required caution in the coverage and presentation of the quit notice to herdsmen and related issues.” The NBC reminded broadcasters of the rules governing coverage of crisis as well as the constitutional need to not only promote and protect the corporate existence of the country but the economic well-being of the Nigerian state. It quoted Sections 5.4.1 (a b&f) and 5.4.3 of the broadcast code.

It is obvious that the NBC has once again, released its noose to hang over media houses to prevent them from disseminating information that every Nigerian is entitled to. There’s no doubt that this warning is a direct but subtle threat of censorship.

We are aware that over the years and more alarming in 2020, there was an increased censorship of the press from the NBC based on its amended Broadcasting Code which WAMELA has previously described as inconsistent with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution.

We remind the Nigerian government of the importance of a free press especially in this day and age where information is key to survival and security. An independent press is one of the key foundations of a democracy. The protection of the press is fundamental for preventing secret government, authoritarianism and tyranny, which are all antithetical to a democracy. The press also serves the essential role of allowing multiple voices to be heard and highlighting social problems which needs urgent solution. A free press indirectly contributes to human development by encouraging government’s responsiveness to public concerns. The crises that are being reported in Oyo and Ondo States are of great concern to Nigerians and rather than for the government to address the issues by heeding the calls of its citizens, it seeks avenues to shut the people up and more dangerously, to shut their sources of information. This is highly unfortunate and WAMELA strongly condemns this trend. Where information is censored before dissemination, it becomes a huge threat to our already wobbly democracy in Nigeria. This, more or less, amounts to prior restraint which has been held in international courts to be clearly unconstitutional.

Globally, the press is recognised as the fourth estate of the realm in a democracy, and this is so because it plays a crucial role in balancing power in government. Without this fourth estate, a democracy weakens and finally crumbles. It is also globally acknowledged that one of the core functions of the mass media is to inform the society on all ranges of issues, not even to the exclusion of national security issues. The mass media has a role to play in ensuring that all possible shades of opinions are given access to the media platform

We therefore call on the National Assembly (NASS) to urgently protect the press and its integrity as there is an attempt by the executive arm to completely diminish its relevance in Nigeria. The NASS needs to take cognisance of the salient role the press plays in a democracy, to influence the political system for the good of all Nigerians. WAMELA suggests that in the review of the Constitution, a provision should be inserted under section 39 of the 1999 constitution as follows:

“any law or regulation which seeks or abridges the freedom of speech or of the press is unconstitutional”

WAMELA therefore calls on the NBC to review the Broadcasting Code, which has become a tool for repression and suppression of the press. The Nigerian government should be reminded that the Nigerian Constitution guarantees Nigerian’s rights to receive information. In this instance the news coming from Oyo state and Ondo are clearly necessary for Nigerians to be informed so they can take adequate caution in securing their lives and properties.

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