On media regulation, Gbajabiamila just didn’t get it
15 July 2021
Until Tuesday, there were two media-muzzling bills before the National Assembly: one is the Act to amend the Nigerian Press Council Act 1992, and the other is the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission Amendment Bill. Properly speaking, both should have been aptly re-labelled “Decree 4.” Sponsored by one Olusegun Odebunmi representing Surulere/Ogoluwa Federal Constituency of Oyo State, they contained draconian provisions. They were the latest installment in the obsessive attempt of the Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime to shrink free speech and constrain media freedom. Since 2015, no other ambition has consumed this regime more than constricting democratic space, and they will stop at nothing to achieve this shameful objective.
On Monday, when the House of Representatives Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, reacted to the pushback against the bill by the Nigerian media houses, he also lamented how Nigerians keep resisting attempts at any regulations they advance. According to him, each time lawmakers propose laws, even with “the best of intentions,” Nigerians oppose them. He thinks the constant rejection of regulatory attempts is symptomatic of a larger problem because everybody — from religious bodies to the NGOs to social media, to tertiary educators to regular folks— wants “free reign.” That was the point in his speech Gbajabiamila should have stopped talking and started introspecting. Because he does not get why people have developed an antipathy towards their legislative efforts, I offer him an answer for free: we are not simply a lawless people; we are hyper-wary of an abusive regime that serially acts in bad faith.
This is not a problem of cultural pathology, neither are we are being frivolous. We are just tired of being over-legislated by a regime that wilfully drains all the conditions that will motivate compliance with the law and then viciously punish for not obeying it. We have had it with a bunch of people who will take away the motivation to be a law-abiding citizen and still seek to robotise the polity with an array of stringent laws. Coming from this current set of legislators, a gang of do-nothings who have passively watched as Nigeria descended into a nightmare of benumbing violence and dehumanising hunger, we know that those pernicious bills could not have been coming from a place of “the best of intentions.”
Gbajabiamila was almost right when he stated that the three arms of government are subject to regulations, and therefore, other institutions that play a role in facilitating democracy should be similarly controlled. Like a typical Nigerian politician, however, he forgot to mention that the fact that there are laws and statutes meant to standardise the activities of the arms of government does not mean even the regulators themselves respect them. Has he seen regulations stop the government from power abuse? Have the existing regulations ever held back government officials at all levels from circumventing the laws meant to curb their excesses whenever it suits them? Have the lawmakers themselves been accountable to the populace because some regulations bound them? Has the present regime not serially spurned the rule of law whenever it pleased them? So, why is he surprised that people are rejecting any further attempt at regulation? Of what use are laws that operate only one-sidedly?
We are not naïve to think that a regime that fined a television station a whopping N5m for airing an interview a mere two months ago has any other intention with these bills than clamping down the rights of Nigerians. For instance, the proposed NBC Amendment bill will not only empower the government to regulate their broadcasts, but they can also control the media houses’ social media content. The bill to amend the NPC is particularly a tragedy of Orwellian proportions. When you have a law that allows the government to determine what they consider “fake news”; revoke publishing licenses; impose professional ethics; arrest vendors; investigate and punish journalists and their media proprietors with fines, jail terms, or outright closures; and even define the truth, you might as well just establish the Ministry of Truth! It is a good thing that they are spiking those bills now, but NASS must know that we will persist in rejecting bad faith legislation that are not only abjectly thoughtless, but are also a gross abuse of legislative processes.
First, for all the alarmism, the bill sponsor could not convince us that anything was broken that needed to be fixed with such draconian propositions. Where do the present laws that govern the media and social interactions fall short that this proposed law seeks to intervene? What exactly has happened that is so disastrous that it necessitated this legislative fascism? Media houses in Nigeria are peer organisations that are capable of enacting and instituting internal controls amongst themselves. The public itself is discerning and capable of exercising some controls on media organisations in various ways. Nobody needs bills that will criminalise journalistic efforts that do not toe the line of state-issued diktats. Ironically, those bills, supposedly geared towards moderating the alleged recklessness of the media, are themselves quite reckless. If the lawmakers have run the limits of their ability to improve Nigerian lives, they should save us time and money by shutting down their leaky NASS complex.
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Second, while this present regime has been manically fixated on crushing democratic rights through restricting freedom of expression, the truth is that they do not have the technological resources, the administrative savviness, or the bureaucratic coordination to manage the scale of the measures they are proposing. Since 2015, this regime has not demonstrated that they understand even the elementals of governance, and that is why they have yet to manage a single thing successfully. If they carry their plans to regulate the press and free expression, we can be sure the result will be consistent with their signature incompetence. They will not succeed in the regulation itself, but they will destroy many important things in the process of trying. Just look at how they handled the Twitter debacle. First of all, they banned the microblogging site; then realised they could not ensure collective compliance, and then started fumbling. Now, they are at a loss. They cannot end the war they started, and they have no face-saving way of getting out of a shameful situation especially since Twitter, Inc. does not seem willing to negotiate with them. Unfortunately, their ill-thought-out approach to issues has cost many Nigerian small businesses their livelihoods, but do they even care? Their myopia and arrogance are compelling reasons never ever to allow them regulate the media. Otherwise, they will collapse the house on our collective heads.
Third, their mania about media regulations is less about anticipating a crisis that the media can activate. It is —and has always been about —how much they can legally confiscate out of the public purse to pursue the enforcement of the unnecessary regulations they are promoting. They are trying to create a problem so they can be paid to solve it. That is why they budgeted a princely sum of $12m to monitor WhatsApp, phone calls and SMS. That was their intention all along. It is only a matter of time before they set up a Ministry of Media Monitoring that will be staffed by their half-educated clansmen and political party jobbers. Those for whom media surveillance will eventually become a job and a guaranteed means of getting bloated contracts from cronies in the FCT will not only exacerbate middling issues, they will not hesitate to commit atrocities in order to justify their pay.
Finally, the truism that democracy dies in darkness should serve as a prophetic call and prompt us to stay wary. This one is dead, but they will likely resurrect another. From day one, everything Buhari’s regime has done has been to turn on the darkness. They want to—and Buhari needs to—kill democracy because they cannot flourish in the brilliance of its sparkle. They keep coming up with more means of curtailing the freedom with which Nigerians remind them of the social progress they promised before they were elected. Since they cannot fulfil those obligations, they insist on speaking in repression, the only language they understand.