The Speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, has said that while he would not be part of any bill that seeks to gag the press, he noted that no institution, especially the press, would be allowed to run amok.
The Speaker stated this on Monday during the annual dinner and award of excellence with the theme: ‘Reorganising Good Governance and Legislative Excellence in the Face of Adversity.’
Gbajabiamila’s comment was a sequel to the backlash from media owners, journalists, and other stakeholders on the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) sponsored by Hon. Segun Odebunmi.
According to him, “I will not be part of any bill that will seek to gag the press. No bill will come 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.”
The speaker said he was of the strong view that there is press freedom and freedom of expression and there will always be, noting that there was nowhere in the world where freedom of expression is absolute.
He said freedom of expression is limited to the extent that it does not affect another person’s freedom.
He pointed out that freedom of expression is not absolute, saying it was made absolutely clear in the constitution that everyone claims so much.
The Speaker said Section 45 of the constitution guarantees freedom of expression but added that the government can limit that freedom for the sake of health and security, which he said is written in black and white.
He stated: “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, what have you done and 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 speaker said from his understanding, even though he doesn’t know how true it is, the issue was not about any provision, the issue was that the press does not want to be regulated at all.
Gbajabiamila said the fact that no institution wants to be regulated gives him concern.
“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.
The speaker wondered what the function of government would be if not to regulate for good government.
He added: “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 guarantees the independence of the press, it is non-negotiable.
Gbajabiamila further said in the last two or three weeks, he had been inundated with the issue of Electoral Amendment about the alleged smuggled Section 59(2).
He insisted that neither himself nor members of the House Committee on Electoral Act are aware that any of the provisions as agreed on by the committee had been tampered with.
However, speaking with THISDAY in a telephone interview yesterday, Odebunmi said the bill is at the second reading stage.
The lawmaker added that any Nigerian who thinks there’s something in the bill that’s not friendly should submit a memorandum on it.
Odebunmi said at the moment the bill has been stepped down for further deliberations.
He said: “The little thing I can say is that we are at the public hearing, which means the bill is at the stage of the second reading where you have to engage the stakeholders. Any Nigerian who thinks there’s something in the bill that’s not friendly should submit memoranda.”
Odebunmi said the National Assembly is in the process of making a law, adding that nobody would force any law on anybody.
He said: “This is just a process, the stakeholders will look at it and whatever you think is not good, they have the right to call on the attention of the committee. The memoranda will be the document that we will work on.
“Presently we’ve already stepped it down for more consultations on it. I’m a Nigerian and I know the importance of the press to the system. I will never ever join anybody to gag the press.
“But you know, the major thing we are talking about is an existing Act. Had it been somebody somewhere has moved for the amendment of this existing Act, we couldn’t be talking about this Act at this age now.
“Since 1999, nobody has amended the Act, that’s why we are talking about the Act. So, if the stakeholders can now come together to amend that act, why postpone every day while you can work on it and get a clean copy of whatever we think can suit democracy.”
Earlier, the Chairman of Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), FCT Chapter, Mr. Emma Ogbeche, said regulating the media space may not augur well for our democracy.
He said: “Mr. Speaker, you have experienced the beauty of the best democracies and what freedom of the press can do to deepen democracy in those climes. Nigeria cannot be an exception. Each and every one of you in this hall has been beneficiaries of the struggles against dictatorship in this country.
“When politicians fled, the journalists had nowhere to run, they stayed back to brave the odds. We went underground. Media houses were closed. Some of us paid the supreme price so that democracy can thrive. If we survive dictators in the past, I’m persuaded that we will survive every attempt to stifle, repress, or to gag and to place a stranglehold on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press in this country.”
Those given awards are Borno State Governor, Prof. Babagana Zulum; Kano State Governor, Dr. Abdulahi Ganduje; and Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, among others.
Adedayo Akinwale and Udora Orizu in Abuja