NASS new accreditation guidelines and Press freedom in Nigeria
Media stakeholders, last week, resisted an attempt by management of the National Assembly to introduce some contentious guidelines for the accreditation of journalists covering proceeding in both chambers.
Many view the new guideline as a move to systematically shield the ninth National Assembly from public scrutiny by censoring what is reported.
The revised ‘media accreditation guidelines’ signed by the Director of Information at the National Assembly, Mr. Emmanuel Agada, listed 20 conditions including evidence of incorporation of the media organisation, two-year tax certificate, proof of membership of the NUJ with registration number and the code of certification from the National Library of Nigeria.
Other requirements under the new guidelines are circulation of at least 40,000 newspaper copies daily with evidence to support the claimed figure, or evidence of 50,000 daily views in the case of online media.
For fresh accreditation, media houses are required to show evidence of membership of professional bodies, a functional bureau in Abuja with staff strength of not less than five editorial staff publishing daily and on weekend.
Although said to be suspended for now, the new guideline can be considered the latest attack on the Nigerian media, as it clearly contravenes the provisions of section 22 of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
This section stipulates that “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
The section also empowers the media to hold public officers accountable to the people at all times. “The media are empowered at all times be free to uphold the fundamental principles of governance.”
The freedom of the press is clearly spelt out here with the key words being “all-times” and “free.” The constitution allows the media freedom to seek, gather, analyze and interpret, disseminate information pertaining to the governance without prior restraint or constraint by the government or any other interest.
Despite the above provision of the law, article 6 of the new media accreditation guidelines, attempts to limit the freedom of the press, as the National Assembly said it will issue temporary accreditation to media houses/Journalist to enable them access into the “National Assembly for specific coverage not exceeding one week in the first instance and not more than twice in a month.”
Similarly, section 39(1) of the 1999 constitution allows every Nigerian the right to freedom of expression, “including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
While we understand that national assembly should not be an all comers affair, the managers of both chambers must respect the fact that section 39(2) permits citizens the right to own or operate any medium. The section states that, “Without prejudice to the generality of subsection(1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinion.
It is therefore unacceptable for the National assembly to state that “only television stations with national coverage and specific independent producers with current running programmes on National Assembly will be allowed access into the Chambers on a permanent basis.”
Since the NASS gave no reason for the introduction of the new guidelines, one is forced to ask if the NASS Press Corps constitute any security threat or nuisance to the functioning of the National Assembly.
Over the years, the Nigerian media has been ranked top among African countries with vibrant media. The Nigerian press is however, struggling to survive the series of excruciating attacks by institution of government.
For instance the 2019 ranking of press freedom conducted by Reporters Sans Frontières, Reporters without Borders, saw Nigeria drop a place from 119 in 2018 to 120, among 180 countries.
RSF reports that journalists in Nigeria experience obstacles when reporting stories that had to do with politics, terrorism and financial embezzlement.
Cases abound of journalists detained or forcefully removed from beats by security agents who were not satisfied with their reports on government activities. The case of Jones Abiri, publisher and editor of the Weekly Source newspaper, who was detained by men of the DSS for two years, easily comes to mind.
Recall that men of the Nigeria Army also invaded the Maiduguri and Abuja offices of the Daily Trust in January, over reports on some of its activities in the north east.
At a time when the global community is enacting laws that uphold press freedom, the National Assembly have in the last four years introduced contentious bills such as the anti- social media bill, sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah.
In March 2018, Senator Sabi Abdullahi also came up with the obnoxious “Hate Speech Bill” which carried a death sentence for offenders.
In July 2018, there was yet another attempt to gag the press with the introduction of the “Press Council Amendment Bill 2018, to regulate the news media and ‘assist’ in registering journalists in Nigeria.
Though no official statement released yet, it is believed that the management of the National Assembly has suspended implementation of the controversial guidelines, due to the public outcry and outrage it generated.
The Senate President, Bukola Saraki, had immediately distanced himself from the contentious media accreditation guidelines, explaining that he was never part of the decision that led to the new guidelines.
Saraki, through his Special Assistant on New Media, Olu Onemola, promised to investigate the issue while affirming his commitment to press freedom.
He said guidelines did not emanate from either the Senate President or the Speaker, and will be promptly investigated.
The Nigerian Union of Journalists, NUJ, through its National President, Mr. Christopher Isiguzo, said the action of the National Assembly was against the spirit of free press.
The Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE, in a statement, by its General Secretary, Mary Atolagbe, said the guidelines are a clear affront on the letter and spirit of the Nigerian constitution which empowers journalists to freely practice their profession without any gag, muzzling and restriction.
As institutions of the society, government and the media are inseparable. The media, as the fourth estate of the realm however has the responsibility of ensuring that good governance is enhanced in the country.
While we understand that there has to be some form of regulation in every organisation, the National Assembly must be careful so as not be seen as stifling the media.
Its managers should rather come up with reasonable guidelines that would not impede or frustrate journalists and media outfits from covering the legislative arm of government.