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Press Council bill 2018: Why stakeholders are protesting

A bill for an Act to repeal the Nigerian Press Council Act of 1992, and replace it with a 2018 version, has elicited angry reactions among media professionals and stakeholders in the country.

The bill, which was sponsored by Suleiman Adokwe, senator representing Nasarawa South senatorial district, has passed the second reading and is currently undergoing further scrutiny at the committee level, after which it would be read for the third time and passed.

On the face value, the bill is aimed at creating a Council whose duties would include, among other things, “monitoring the activities of the press with a view to ensuring compliance with the code of Ethics of the Nigerian Press Organization”.

However, those who should know seem to have smelt a rat. The Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) –  an umbrella body comprising several media associations in Nigeria, including the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE), Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON) – has kicked vehemently against the bill, asking that it be “consigned to the dustbin where it rightly belongs”.

Here are some of the reasons why:

POLITICIANS TO BE PART OF THE COUNCIL:

Section two of the new bill talks about the composition of the Press Council, and provided that members “shall be appointed by the Minister”. There was no mention of which minister would be responsible for the appointments, but one assumes the bill was referring to the Minister of Information.

Subsection 1(v) of the same section two, also provides that the Council will comprise “two representatives of the National Assembly” among other members.

Given that the job of the journalist is to hold the government accountable to the people, one wonders why the job of regulating journalists would be handed over to a government appointee – the Minister –, and also have partisan politicians as members.

ENACTMENT OF A JOURNALISTS’ REGISTER

“The Executive Secretary (of the Press Council) shall maintain and keep the register of accredited journalists,” reads section 17 (1) of the bill. It added that the register is to be compiled by the Nigerian Union of Journalists in collaboration with the Nigerian Guild of Editors.

Any person, according to the bill, who is not a “registered journalist”, but who practices as one or uses any description implying to be one, commits an offence and is liable, on conviction, to a prison sentence or a fine or both.

The above provisions appear to be an infringement on one’s right to freedom of association and to free speech. In essence, the Press Council bill is saying that for one to be a journalist in Nigeria, one must belong to either the NUJ or the NGE.

CRITERIA FOR JOURNALISTS’ REGISTRATION

Aside ‘criminalising’ the practice of journalism for ‘unregistered journalists’, the Press Council bill also stipulates criteria that one must meet in order to be registered.

One of such criteria is “attending a course of training (at an institution) recognised by the Council”, as well as acquiring “cognate experience recognised by the Council”.

Subsection 3 of Section 18 of the bill, also states that an aspiring registered journalist must be “of good character” and “above the age of 18”. Such a one must not have been convicted of any offense within or outside Nigeria.

Finally, such a one must have “basic requirements of information art leading to a qualification not less than a Higher National Diploma or first degree and where the person does not have a first degree in journalism, the person should hold a postgraduate qualification in mass communication”.

Summarily, the bill seems to be prohibiting persons who have no certification in journalism or mass communication from becoming journalists.

COUNCIL CAN DE-REGISTER JOURNALIST

Where a journalist commits a crime and is found guilty by a court, “whether or not such an offence is punishable with imprisonment”, or where a journalist commits an offence “which in the opinion of the Council is incompatible with the status of a journalist”, the bill authorizes the Council to suspend the said journalist for three months or request the NUJ to strike his name off the register.

Same punishment would also be meted out “if the Council is satisfied that the name of any person has been fraudulently registered”. Names of journalists so punished “be published in the Press Council Journal”.

In other words, the Council’s opinion is enough to prohibit one from practicing journalism.

Similarly, all institutions where journalists are trained must receive approval from the Council, without which they cannot operate. This approval may be withdrawn by the council “if it thinks it fit”.

CRIMINALISES HIRING “UNREGISTERED” JOURNALIST

According to the Press Council bill, any individual or corporate body that engages anyone as a journalist, knowing that such a one is not duly “registered”, “is deemed to be guilty of an offence and liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly”. On conviction, the penalty for such an offence shall not exceed N10,000 for a corporate body and N5000 for an individual.

COUNCIL DETERMINES QUALIFICATION OF EDITORS

Furthermore, the Press Council bill, 2018, stipulates the criteria for one to be appointed an editor in a media organization.

It states: “A person shall be qualified for appointment as an editor if he is a registered member of the Nigerian union of Journalists; and has, for a period of not less than 5 years served as a reporter or acquired working experience as a journalist in a reputable newspaper house, electronic news medium or news agency.”

It appears the proposed bill bequeaths enormous powers on the Press Council, hence the worry by stakeholders that such powers could be abused and used as an excuse to limit press freedom.

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