Veteran journalists, in separate interviews with KAYODE OYERO, examine moves by the Federal Government to amend media laws in the country. They conclude that the President Muhammadu Buhari is not a born-again democrat he claims to be.
Respected media veterans in Nigeria have said the anti-press laws and moves to stifle free speech by the regime of the President Muhammadu Buhari show that the ex-military head of state is not a born-again democrat as he claimed in his address before some world leaders at the Chatham House in London during his campaign in February 2015.
“Let me say without sounding defensive that dictatorship goes with military rule, though some might be less dictatorial than others. I take responsibility for whatever happened under my watch. I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future.
“So before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms and is subjecting himself to the rigors of democratic elections for the fourth time,” Buhari had said.
However, speaking in separate interviews with The PUNCH on Tuesday, former Editor-In-Chief of Newswatch Magazine, Ray Ekpu; Founder of TheNews Magazine, Bayo Onanuga; two-term President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Gbenga Adefaye; as well as NGE current President, Mustapha Isah; condemned the recent anti-media actions of the Buhari regime and the role played by Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed.
The Federal Government had announced the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria on June 4, 2021, citing “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”
Last week, Mohammed urged the House of Representatives to pass laws regulating internet broadcasting and social media in Nigeria.
The government also seeks to amend the Nigerian Press Council Act and the National Broadcasting Commission Act that are currently before the National Assembly to have more control over the press.
But speaking with our correspondent in a telephone interview on Tuesday, Ekpu said the moves by the government would fail, adding that the media would fight “valiantly” to resist the anti-democratic actions of the Buhari regime.
The septuagenarian said, “Both military and civilian governments that we 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.”
Ekpu also said with the actions of his government, Buhari was bringing back the infamous Decree 4 of 1984, enacted during the dark days of military rule.
“Decree 4 is Buhari’s decree; he is bringing it back in a democratic form using people like Lai Mohammed. He 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,” he said.
Ekpu further noted that the Nigerian Press Organization, comprising the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, the Nigeria Union of Journalists, as well as other media veterans in the country were meeting and would make their consensus and actions known soonest.
‘Lai Mohammed treading a dangerous path’
On his part, Bayo Onanuga, a former managing director of the News Agency of Nigeria said the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, was treading “a very dangerous path” by muzzling free speech and press freedom in the country.
He said, “The Nigerian spirit is stronger than any attempt by the government to gag the media. The government has never succeeded and I don’t see it succeeding now and I hope that people in the National Assembly would resist all these attempts to gag the media, either electronic or print and respect press freedom and every Nigerian has a right to freedom of expression because all attempts to gag the media will fail.
“Lai (Mohammed) may not understand what he has done but it is a great assault on press freedom; the freedom to freely say anything you want to say under a democracy because that freedom is guaranteed under the constitution.”
‘Never again will Buhari run Nigeria like one huge barrack’
Gbenga Adefaye, who is a former Editor-In-Chief of Vanguard Newspapers, said it was unfortunate that “we have people with bunker mentality in government; people who are obsessed with shrinking the public space and taking away the freedom we fought for with blood and sweat but I have the belief that they will not succeed.
“Shutting down Twitter and some clearly obnoxious laws are very frightening. Under no circumstance should any government do such. They want to return us to the Dark Age with the intended amendments.
“These are anachronistic moves that are reprehensible, condemnable and should be resisted and fought against. Those in government forget that they are in tenured appointment forgetting that their time will be up in 2023.”
Furthermore, NGE President, Mustapha Isah, said, “Presently, we are planning series of actions against the design to completely muzzle press freedom in this country and we will not allow it. We will not sit idly and allow them to do that.
“Freedom of expression is in our constitution. This is even beyond Decree 4 right now; what is happening is beyond Decree 4. In a democracy? This won’t be allowed. The NGE is already working with other organizations like the NUJ and other civil society organizations on actions.
“I don’t want to pre-empt our eventual agreement but we are not happy at all.”
The President on Tuesday approved the composition of a team to engage with San Francisco-based tech giant Twitter over the suspension of its operations in Nigeria.
The chairman of the team and Minister of Information and Culture, Mohammed, announced this in a statement today.
The government’s team include Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN); Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami; Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama; Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola; Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo; amongst others.
“This is with a view to charting a path forward,” the statement added.
Meanwhile, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, on Tuesday, restrained the Federal Government from prosecuting Nigerians using Twitter despite its suspension.
Malami had “directed the Director of Public Prosecution of the Federation to swing into action and commence in earnest the process of prosecution of violators of the Federal Government de-activation of operations of Twitter in Nigeria.” Many Nigerians still use the platform through Virtual Private Networks.
But Civil Society Organization; the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project; and 176 concerned Nigerians had filed a lawsuit against the Buhari regime at the ECOWAS Court over the government’s suspension of microblogging platform, Twitter.
The suit No ECW/CCJ/APP/23/21 was filed recently by Solicitor to SERAP and human rights activist, Femi Falana, SAN.
SERAP argued that the “suspension of Twitter is aimed at intimidating and stopping Nigerians from using Twitter and other social media platforms to assess government policies, expose corruption, and criticize acts of official impunity by the agents of the Federal Government.”
In the suit, SERAP and the concerned Nigerians sought, “An order of interim injunction restraining the Federal Government from implementing its suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, and subjecting anyone including media houses, broadcast stations using Twitter in Nigeria, to harassment, intimidation, arrest and criminal prosecution, pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit.”
But the court restrained the Federal Government after hearing arguments Falana and lawyer to the government Maimuna Shiru.
The ECOWAS court further stated, “The court has listened very well to the objection by Nigeria. The court has this to say. Any interference with Twitter is viewed as interference with human rights, and that will violate human rights. Therefore, this court has jurisdiction to hear the case. The court also hereby orders that the application be heard expeditiously. The Nigerian government must take immediate steps to implement the order.”
Reacting, SERAP tweeted, “The ECOWAS court ruling today means that no one would be sanctioned, harassed, intimidated, arrested or prosecuted for using Twitter in Nigeria. The ruling also means that tech companies must immediately restore people’s access to Twitter as a matter of human right.”
The substantive suit has been adjourned till July 6, 2021 for hearing.
Before his comeback in democratic form in 2015, Buhari was Nigeria’s military head of state from December 31, 1983 to August 27, 1985.
He had seized power through a coup on New Year’s Eve and took strong measures against the press, jailed journalists and intimidated many others.
On April 17 1984, the military Government issued a decree granting itself the power to close down newspapers, radio and television stations that are deemed to be acting in a manner detrimental to the interest of the Government. It also assumed the power to imprison journalists for inaccurate reporting or for writing articles that bring Government officials into ridicule or disrepute. PUNCH.