REPORTS in the media last week indicated a direct assault on press freedom by the House of Representatives. The assault was carried out at a public hearing on the vexatious Control of Infectious Diseases Bill organised by its joint Committee on Health Services, Health Institutions and Justice. The House barred all but two media organisations from covering the proceedings. Claiming to be acting strictly on official instructions, operatives of the Sergeant-at-Arms of the National Assembly prevented the Press Corps from entering Hearing Room 028, venue of the public hearing. The bill, which is jointly sponsored by Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila; the chairman, House Committee on Health Institutions, Paschal Obi and another member of the House, Honourable Tanko Sununu, seeks to repeal the Quarantine Act. It has been enmeshed in controversy, especially for conferring immense powers on the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in the management of infectious diseases and pandemics in the country in ways that could infringe on the fundamental human rights of Nigerians.
At the hearing, the Sergeant-At-Arm said only Sununu had the right to clear journalists to cover the event. However, the crew of the state-owned Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and the privately-owned Channels Television were allowed entry. The criteria for the choice of the two were not specified, although there were insinuations that it had to do with the observance of Covid-19 protocols. To be sure, that excuse was absolutely tenuous. Section 36 (1) of the constitution guarantees freedom of the press. It stipulates that: “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
And the same document further empowers the media in Section 22 to hold the government accountable to the people. In Section 16, it gives the media the right and freedom to ensure that governments uphold good governance and control the national economy in such a manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity.” In all material terms, the latest action of the House violated these constitutional provisions.
Simply put, the House’s action was an unwarranted assault on the Fourth Estate of the Realm. It violated the right of the citizenry to know whether or not their representatives were protecting their interests. It is objectionable that a tier of government undermined the rights and privileges of another strategic institution empowered by the 1999 Constitution (as amended) to guarantee good governance and transparency in a civil dispensation. The action smacks of suspicion and distrust in the way and manner the House deals with the media as an institution and integral part of governance.
Instructively, while declaring the hearing open, Speaker Gbajabiamila reportedly expressed concern that commentary on the proposed legislation had been ill-informed and malicious. He said: “There are those in our society who benefit from promoting the falsehood that every government action is cynical, and that every policy proposal must be the product of malignant influence. We must never succumb to the impulses that these elements represent, and we must reject them always as doing so is an act of excellent service to a nation we love and are beholden to.” If the Speaker had any grouse about public commentary on the bill, there were legitimate channels to vent such concerns. Falsehood can be combated without suppressing the media.
We take exception to the divide-and-rule tactic and the deliberate attempt to ride a roughshod on the citizenry and blackmail the critical mass in the media industry. Conscious of the awesome challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the House ought to have made contingency plans and taken realistic steps to accommodate all the media platforms accredited to cover events in the House, directly or through representatives chosen by the Press Corps themselves. It must immediately make amends and stop embarrassing the media, the nation and even the legislature itself.
On their part, media practitioners must learn to assert and protect their rights anytime they are under threat from any quarters. They must not allow divisions within their ranks. As professionals, they should realise that the essence of the provisions on the Fourth Estate of the Realm by the framers of the constitution is to ensure checks and balances in government, in the interest of the public. The hearing in question was a public issue and the venue was a public space, and so there should have been no secrecy about it.
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