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Cheta Nwanze: The Law And Nigeria’s Media #HistoryClass

The Nigerian media has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent times, especially because of the Chibok girls. Today’s History Class is about the media and the law in Nigeria. Simply put, we MUST understand the environment in which our journalists operate, lest we place the bar of expectations way too high.

The question before us is, how does the law affect the media in Nigeria? How does our environment affect journalists? These are things we can’t run away from. So, just how does the law affect the effectiveness of the media in Nigeria? There are two schools of thoughts that are important here: “Legal positivism” defines the law as “the command of a sovereign”, “natural law” judges legality against a universal moral order.

Most of our laws are legal positivist, many of such laws either pre-date independence, or were enacted by various governments from 1960 until 1999. There are different laws which currently regulate the media in Nigeria, including the sedition, defamation, and freedom of information.

What is sedition? Sedition is the act of promoting discontent or inciting people to insurrection against the government. In 1909, a law was introduced by the Egeton Administration which gave magistrates the right to imprison anyone for sedition. Burden of proof was on defendant. Basically, this was the law under which Herbert Macaulay would be sent to prison six years later for writing an article against the colonial government. Under our current Criminal Code, sedition is punishable by imprisonment of up to seven years or a fine, or both. Burden of proof, with the defendant. Section 50(1) of the Criminal Code makes it clear that any publication that causes contempt of the FG will be considered seditious. The impact of this law on sedition can be seen in the a 1961 case, DPP v Obi, which went to the Supreme Court. Obi lost because “public order had to be preserved”. However we must note that a publication which is only sent to the person who is the subject of it cannot be regarded as seditious until it enters the public domain. There is also no liability for publications which are made in the public interest, but the defendant has to prove that such a publication is in the public interest.

Defamation is the publication, either orally (slander) or writing (libel), of material which damages the reputation of a person. Under section 375 of the Criminal Code, defamation is punishable with either a fine, or imprisonment, or both, and the complainant may seek compensation.

The FOI Act, which was enacted in 2011, however establishes the right of anyone to access public information from any government body. Under the Act, wrongful denial of information attracts a fine of NGN500k, but if it can be proved that the information is a security risk, it can be denied. However, and to my knowledge, the activist Gbenga Sesan for example has been denied FOI requests for no reason, and no one has been punished for this deliberate flouting of the new law.

An overview of the laws regulating media in Nigeria show a tendency to curb the freedom press, especially to prevent criticism of government activities. One case was the arrest of Osazume Osagie, in 1986, for a cartoon which depicted a soldier who was standing on the skull of dead people with a book on SAP Formula. Another was the proscription of Newswatch magazine in 1987 because the newspaper had published the report of the Cookey bureau before government.

The use government might to curtail the activities of the media is not restricted to successive military governments in Nigeria though. Nigeria had a press law against pornography enacted in 1961. The defence was if ‘justified as being for the public good. The Seditious Meeting Act, 1961: placed a ban on meetings of more than 50 people on any sitting day of the House of Parliament within 1 mile. To my knowledge, that Act is still in the statutes, and could be used if ALL the media houses chose to gather on the same day as the National Assembly. The Emergency Powers Act, 1961: this means government can take over any property (press or otherwise) for peace, order & good government. This particular law is still active today as a sub-section of the the Land Use Act (1978). If 234Next had gone way overboard, the cavalry could have been sent in. As recently as 2006, under the civilian administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, three structures belonging to AIT were demolished in Abuja. El-Rufai’s FCT administration claimed that AIT had contravened planning regulations, AIT said it was punishment for its coverage of the 3rd term debate.

The Newspaper (amendment) Act, 1964: made it compulsory for newspaper editors to publish their names and RESIDENTIAL addresses on the back page! A modified form of this is still active today. Newspaper editors MUST publish their details on the editorial page. This makes them easy to target.

This list of laws is by no means exhaustive, and there are many more laws from the era between 1966 and 1979 which are dormant, just waiting to be used when the time is right. All of this should begin to give an insight into what the Nigerian journalist faces from the first line, from the government.

It must be pointed out that there are other problems facing the Nigerian media, such as funding, and a genuine lack of educated journalists.

However, with laws such as this, it is clear that a Western style democracy has NEVER stood a chance in Nigeria, from day one up until now. Changing or repealing these laws are vital because the media, the fourth estate, is an important tool if we want our democracy to survive and thrive. An educated populace is critical to democracy, and the media is the first line of educating that populace.


Cheta Nwanze writes from Lagos


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