Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Press Council to dilute Decree 4

by Ben Mensah

After the jailing of two journalists the Military Government has announced the formation of a Press Council to act as the watchdog over the ethics of journalism. The significance of the timing of the announcement should not be lost on Nigerian journalists or analysts of the intentions and policies of the military towards the media.
Even before Maj-Gen Halidu Han-naniya was officially announced as Nigeria's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, the Diplomatic Correspondent of The Guardian had a story that he was to be replaced by another person.

Tunde Thompson and the paper's assistant news editor Nduka Irabor were each jailed for two years on July 4 under Decree 4 which held that the publication was false.

A day later, July 5, the abortive kidnap of Alhaji Umaru Dikko, the former Nigerian Minister of Transport, took place in London and Maj-Gen Hannaniya who had arrived as High Commissioner only two weeks later was caught in a whirlwind of events that have meant his recall to Nigeria.

And according to the British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, the return of Maj-Gen Hannaniya to London would be inappropriate - diplomatese for he should not return.

The jailing of the journalists even though crucial to the practice of journalism in the country, was overshadow- ed by the news of the discovery of the crated Umaru Dikko at Stanstead Airport. But the strange twist of events culminating in the return to Lagos of Major-Gen. Hananiya, the subject of the journalists report has focussed attention not only at the provisions of Decree 4 but immediately at the plight of the two journalists.

Was the recall of Major-General Hananiya to Lagos, possibly never to return to his post the wish of somebody high above us mortals who together with the millions of Nigerians, are dissatisfied with Decree 4?

And as things are now, will Chief Rotimi-Williams who diligently defended the two journalists in court and other legal brains in Nigeria find a basis to successfully appeal against the jailing of the journalists under Decree 4?

Decree 4 titled 'Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree 1984' provides for the jailing for two years without the option of a fine, of any journalists found guilty of false publication.

Its promulgation after the Nigerian journalists had cooperated with the military rulers after the overthrow of the constitutional administration carried the ironic message of indictment over the journalists' performance and focussed on views expressed that the media did not do much to perfect and sustain democratic rule in that country. This view was for instance restated in Radio personality a programme, 'Meet the Press' by the man regarded as doyen of journalism in Nigeria, Alhaji Babatunde Jose who is also the chairman of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA).

Does the failure of journalists in most third world countries to discipline their members who contravene their ethics lie in the suggestion that there is no criterion for categorising journalists and non-journalists as prevails in other professions such as law and medicine?

Alhaji Jose said in the programme in Abeokuta that the 'print media in Nigeria performed far below expectation, and displayed a high degree of irresponsibility during the Second Republic". He regretted that it was unfortunate that the press, charged with the responsibility for monitoring the performances of public office holders, the executive, legislature and the judiciary did not discharge that function.

Alhaji Jose elaborated, 'state and government-owned newspapers saw nothing wrong in the policies, programmes and activities of the party. controlling that government, while private newspapers were only reflecting what the party or the owners of the papers were doing'.

After the jailing of the two journalists, the military government has announced the formation of a Press Council to act as the watchdog over the ethics of journalism. The significance of the timing of the announcement, coinciding with the widespread expression of disquiet over Decree No.4 should not be lost on the Nigerian journalists nor analysts of the intentions and policies of the military towards the media.

The Nigerian journalists, having gleefully published copious allegations made by the military about the malfeasance of the ousted politicians some of which have later been proved to be untrue, such as the allegation by Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon, Chief of Staff that three Ex-Governors had con- fessed to their involvement in a corruption case, and in the process helped the soldiers to consolidate their authority over the country are now calling for the repeal of Decree No.4. Their fury over this decree is such that it is threatening to blind them to the merits in the estab- lishment of a press council.

The ideal of a press council for Nigeria with government involvement dates back to 1978 when the govern- ment of General Olusegun Obasanjo promulgated Decree 31. In the view of the Minister for Information, Emeka Omeruah expressed in response to the reaction to his government's proposed press council, members of the Nigerian press had consistently not shown enough seriousness over the matter.

The Nigerian journalists however point out that they abhor a press Council which would be a substitute court with punitive powers as much as a government dominated council. The basis of their argument is that General Obasanjo's Decree 31 of 1978 gave too much power in the constitution to the government in its control over the council. This was borne out by the fact that out of the fourteen members to serve on the council only six were to be nominated by the journalists while the rest, including its chairman were to be appointed by the government.

In such circumstances the journalists felt that the government dominated press council presented a threat to their role as a watchdog over the peoples' interests.

This argument has been over-cited not only in Nigeria but in most dev- eloping countries where the need had arisen to control cases of irresponsible journalism yet the journalists in the developing world have not on their own initiated any measures to discipline members of their fraternity who are often guilty of irresponsible journalism. Due to this lack of initiative, people in government tend to decree repressive laws such as Nigeria's Decree No.4 ostensibly to control irresponsible journalism but in effect to prevent the prying minds of the journalists, from exposing their misdeeds.

The two journalists on the Guardian newspaper Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor who exhibited an excel- lent piece of journalism getting a scoop on the appointment of new ambassa- dors by the military government and which was described in court as accurate but goofed in their report on the replacement of Gen Hananiya as High Commissioner in London are classic victims of such press laws which are made to control journalists who on their own can't discipline their members.

Does the failure of journalists in most third world countries to discipline their members who contravene their ethics lie in the suggestion that there is no criterion for categorising journalists and non-journalists as prevails in the other professions, such as law and medicine?

Despite the wranglings among the journalists in Nigeria over which of the term". journalists union to enrol with, the problem of categorising journalism into a profession or vocation is lessened by the existence of an Accreditation Committee with Mr Tony Momoh, one time editor of the Daily Times as its chairman.

Again, unlike other developing countries where journalists have no other choice than to work on state owned media establishments and run the risk of being fired by government officials, Nigerian journalists have a choice of pursuing their career in one of the many privately owned press organisations. They need not survive on a government controlled paper by selling their conscience when they can easily quit to work for another paper whose views may appeal to them.

Above all, the spirit of competition generated by the existence of many newspapers in Nigeria requires the recruitment of good quality journalists to raise the image of a publication with good and 'exclusive' stories. Any paper that bases its recruitment on different criteria obviously has equally different objectives.

This being the situation, all the accreditation committee has to do, in consultation with the media propriet- ors, is to draw up a code for regist- ration which applicants must satisfy to be able to practise as journalists.

After this exercise, another council of experienced journalists and non- journalists should monitor the performance of the journalists, guided by the ethics of journalism. Any signs of infringement should be investigated and the culprit disciplined. The name of this council will be 'Press Council' which will be the only assurance not only to the public but also to members of a government that journalists are capable of guaranteeing responsible journalism in the country.

In this way too any press law or Decree to regulate the work of journalists will not only be, but patently seen to be superfluous. Until such measures are instituted by the journalists themselves members of a government will always exploit the vacuum and on the pretext of ensuring responsible journalism, effectively gag the press and cover up their own misdeeds.

Upper Volta Breaks With Past

The military leaders of Burkina Faso, known until last week as Upper Volta, celebrated their first year in power with a pledge to break with the country's colonial past and to feed its population. Burkina Faso "country of honest men' - also has a new national anthem and flag. A former French colony, it is one of the world's poorest nations. In a pre-dawn address, marking the first anniversary of the coup which brought him to power, the leader, Captain Thomas Sankara, told his seven million countrymen they were involved in an important revolution.

The paratroop officer said the National Revolutionary Council would strive to eliminate all traces of what he called petty bourgeois ideology. Top priority in the revolution would be given to agricultural and livestock production in an attempt to achieve self-sufficiency.

Captain Sankara said the revolution was open to all, including those who had opposed it. Political sources saw this as a reference to jailed officials of the former government whose sentences were reduced or quashed under the decree marking the anniversary.

Another decree freed from house arrest the country's first post-independence president, Mr Maurice Yameogo, and 10 former ministers.

Captain Sankara said, however, that the revolution would deal harshly with those who used violence to oppose it.

"We have been patient, very patient, but if violence is the only means the opponents understand, the NPC will apply it to them with all harshness".

Several plots to topple the regime have been uncovered and seven people were executed after the latest attempt seven weeks ago.

talking drums 1984-08-13 Commodities on the streets - Happy days in Ghana