SPEAKER of the House of Representatives Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila has argued that while he will not be part of any bill that seeks to gag the press, he does not subscribe to the media running amok.
Gbajabiamila said this while speaking at an event organised by the press corps of the Green Chamber in Abuja on Monday.
“I will not be part of any bill that will seek to gag the press. No bill will came to the floor of the House that seeks to gag the press, because the press, as it is supposed to be, is supposed to be the voice of the people,” he said.
“Once, I will never allow the gagging of the press. I worry where at every turn when the National Assembly tries to promulgate the law with the best of intentions and everybody descends on the National Assembly.
“Using this, as a sample, this Press Council Bill. I called the proponent of the bill, what is going on and what have you done? He tried to break it down. I haven’t read the bill personally myself, but I will read it in the next couple of days in detail. I just have a general idea of the context.
“He told me he had a meeting with all the stakeholders. I wasn’t present at the meeting. Because I said to him, I hope you are meeting with these guys, whatever provision they have problem with, whatever provision that is inimical to the development of the press or the growth of the press, remove it or tweak it in such a way that everybody will be happy.”
The National Assembly is currently seeking a bill to amend the Press Council Act such that journalists and media houses can be fined N250,000 and N10 million respectively for any infraction.
The controversial bill seeks to give more powers to the minister of information to control the conduct of print media houses and media practitioners.
According to Section 3 (c) of the bill, “with the approval of the minister in charge of information, establish and disseminate a national Press Code and standards to guide conduct of print media, related media and media practitioners.”
The minister will also approve penalties and fines against violation of the Press Code by print media houses and media practitioners, including revocation of license. The minister is to consider applications for the establishment, ownership and operation of print media and other related media houses.
The bill sponsored by Segun Odebunmi, a member of APC from Oyo State, has attracted widespread condemnation for seeking to gag the press from the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and media practitioners who have described it as draconian and unconstitutional.
Responding to the backlash, however, Gbajabiamila said he was of the strong view that there was press freedom and freedom of expression and there would always be, but that there was nowhere in the world where freedom of expression was absolute.
The speaker said from his understanding, even though he did not know how true it was, the issue was not about any provision, but that the press did not want to be regulated at all.
“We are getting to a point in this country, nobody wants to be regulated. The NGOs don’t want to be regulated, the religious bodies don’t want to be regulated, social media doesn’t want to be regulated, professors of universities go on strike because they don’t want to be on the same payment platform as everybody else,” Gbajabiamila said.
“So, regulations are a key component or essential component of good governance. We cannot just let people or any institution run amok. The executive is regulated, the judiciary, to a large extent, is regulated, the legislature is regulated, just name it. Institutions are meant to be regulated.
“There is no one institution that can be above the law, especially an institution that is meant to be the Fourth Estate of the Realm, whose utterances or writings can make it break even a government.”
The speaker said as long the provisions in the bill guaranteed the independence of the press, it was non-negotiable.