In this interview with KAYODE OYERO, former Editor-In-Chief of Newswatch Magazine and Chief Executive Officer of MayFive Media Limited, Ray Ekpu, narrated his encounter with Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), in 1984 and how the ex-military head of state vowed to tamper with press freedom.
Aside the recent suspension of social media platform Twitter, the Federal Government is currently pushing for the amendment of the Nigeria Press Council Act and the National Broadcasting Commission Act in the National Assembly to ‘regulate’ the press. What are your thoughts on these moves?
The people who are doing these have never followed the history of the Nigerian Press from pre-colonial days up till now. If they followed that history, they will see how the press, particularly the print media, fought the colonialists to a standstill to get independence. Both military and civilian governments that we’ve had in the past tried to muzzle the freedom of the press and the press has always fought valiantly. The people who are doing this have no idea of the historical significance of the struggle for press freedom and free speech in this country.
What is happening is not strange because President Buhari is not a democrat even though he claims that he is a born-again democrat. I was one of three persons – the others were Dele Giwa and Yakubu Mohammed – who interviewed Major General Muhammadu Buhari on February 6, 1984, and we were shocked when the man said, ‘I will tamper with press freedom. I will tamper with press freedom’.
When we came out of the interview from Dodan Barracks, Dele Giwa said, ‘We are all in trouble’. I said, ‘Yes, we are all in trouble with this man’. And he (Buhari) has not changed. He has not changed. He now has a Minister of Information (and Culture, Lai Mohammed), who is vigorously anti-press; he wants Nigeria to be like China. If it is a question of making money like China, let him show the way but if it is a question of going to borrow money from China, we are not ready. There is nothing in terms of freedom of democracy that we can borrow from China because we’ve had our China here – many years of military rule, that was China and we fought the military to a standstill.
I don’t know whether they know the history of the press council. General Yakubu Gowon (retd.) tried it, ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo tried it, we blocked it, General Ibrahim Babangida (retd.) tried it, the first one we shut it down, the second one, they reviewed it, we were managing it, we made some input and we said, ‘Okay, it was alright’.
Later, some people said to General Abdulsalami Abubakar (retd.): ‘Let’s revive this thing’ and General Abubakar said we should look at it. The Nigerian Press Organisation sat down and we had a meeting. We had several meetings of the NPO and we came up with our own position which was acceptable to the generality of the people in the media and the civil society groups. The mischievous people within the government went and tinkered with it and introduced punitive measures but we kicked and rejected it. We went to court. The NPO led by Ismaila Isa, Sam Amuka, Ray Ekpu, Nduka Obaigbena, we brought in a few other people and went to court; we took the Federal Government and the Federal Ministry of Information to court and won. The case is at the Supreme Court now and we are waiting for the last ruling.
Would the struggle for press freedom be over after the Supreme Court ruling?
There is a long struggle to the issue of press freedom. I won’t kid myself and say that the struggle for press freedom is over. These people in the National Assembly, these people in the Buhari government were never part of the struggle, so, they don’t know that we fought every inch of the way to gain freedom for Nigerians and freedom for the press. Journalists must be ready for the fight. It hasn’t ended, there are very mischievous people, and there are anti-democratic people in government.
In 1984, Decree 4 was introduced. Who made the Decree 4 and what was it about?
It was Buhari’s decree. He is now bringing it back in a democratic form using people like Lai Mohammed who has been talking about China – ‘In China you can’t use your phone, in China, you can’t do this and that’ but are we in China? We were in China before, for many years during different military governments but that is no longer the case.
After Decree 4 came out, the first casualties were Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson, they were working with The Guardian and they were jailed for one year. They wrote a story on the appointments of ambassadors. It wasn’t even a false story but Decree 4; a very mischievous and obnoxious law, says that if you publish anything that affects the reputation of the government or government officials, you will go to jail. That is to say that Decree 4 was out to punish the truth. I have never heard of that anywhere in the world. That was how mischievous and obnoxious Decree 4 was and those behind it.
They jailed Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson and the whole media was aghast. About two weeks to the end of their tenure in jail, we said we would give them a hero’s welcome because they are heroes of press freedom but about 10 days before the official date, they released them to avoid the hero’s welcome that we wanted to give the two men. Nobody was detained or sentenced to court after that. We destroyed Decree 4 and did everything we needed to do to show that Decree 4 was dead. So many people committed offences that Decree 4 should have jailed them but the government could not do anything. That tells you the nature of our fight against an obnoxious law.
Were Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson only the victims of Decree 4?
Aside from the two journalists, Decree 4 was made and then backdated and three persons were executed for smuggling drugs. There was a national uproar. After that, not one person was executed for smuggling cocaine or other drugs.
Was there any semblance to Decree 4 after the Buhari regime in August 1985?
Under the late Gen Sani Abacha, there was a mass media law and if you publish a newspaper in Lagos, you cannot distribute it out of Lagos; you can’t pass the boundary of the state where you are publishing it from. Another aspect of it was press court – court to try only press people. We brought out a 17-point agenda. I drafted the agenda and the Nigerian Press Organization approved it. We distributed it all over the place. That was how we fought and defeated it.
We fought all these battles. These people in government today do not understand the history of the struggle for press freedom in this country. It is a pity that the National Assembly, the people who should be expanding the frontiers of press freedom in this country, expanding all kinds of frontiers of freedom for Nigeria are the ones trying to constrict and narrow the space of freedom available to Nigerians. They didn’t tell their constituents when they were looking for votes that when they get into elective offices, they would constrict our freedom. If they want to enact the law that constricts press freedom, let them go and seek the consent of their constituents. If the people approve, let them come back and do it. They must not assume that because people voted for them, whatever nonsense they want to do, people would accept it. No. Alternatively, let them wait till 2023 when they would come back to canvass for votes. Let them tell the people that they would constrict press freedom and see whether the people would vote for them.
What’s the way forward?
The way forward is to continue to fight. Media leaders in the country are working out some strategies which would be made known soon.