Three years ago, I concluded that there are more threats to the profession of journalism in an essay on “Nigerian journalism and the Cybercrimes Act, 2015” in which I raised the alarm about the danger the Act posed to the profession. The Cybercrimes Act 2015 poses a threat to journalists because of its provisions concerning the protection of personal reputation. It turns civil libel into a criminal offence, contrary to existing legislation in the statute books.
Libel and slander fall within the tort of defamation. Under defamation law, libel arises when a published material causes damage to the reputation of a victim. The offended party takes the offender to court. He earns an apology, reparation or fees for damage.
In Part Three, Section 24, the Cybercrimes Act steps into the territory of libel, otherwise captured in extant laws. It criminalises “message or other matter” sent using computer systems or network by anyone.
The offence happens when “he knows to be false”. It also qualifies the motive as “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, destruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill-will or needless anxiety to another.”
Offences that contain a threat to harm the property or reputation of the addressee would attract incarceration for a term of 10 years andor a minimum fine of N25m.The Cybercrimes Act 2015 creates a situation of double jeopardy. There are now two laws in the Statute books on defamation, one civil and the other criminal.
There was no response to the Cybercrimes Act from the Nigerian Press Organisation and its constituent bodies of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria, the Nigerian Guild of Editors and the Nigerian Union of Journalists. There is still no formal suit challenging the obnoxious provisions of that Act. It is thus refreshing that on the matter of the Nigerian Press Council Act 1992 (Repeal and Enactment Bill 2018) the Guild of Editors has risen to voice critical objections. Well done, in the belief that the complaint was a formal notification to the National Assembly and did not begin and end with a press statement.
The NGE objection is the same as in the past. Nigerian journalists have fought the existence of a Government-sponsored Press Council from time but mainly from 1978. The complaints held despite the Council having within its leadership respected journalists such as late El HadjAladeOdunewu, Prince Tony Momoh. Godwin Omole, a senior journalist, was Executive Secretary.
The NGE raises issues with these aspects of the Press Council Bill. They are its attempt to “criminalise journalists and journalism practice”, to constitute the Council into a court, and to serve as a regulator of both journalism and journalism training, aspects of which lie within the purview of the National Universities Commission and the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission.
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Objection noted. Now what? The Nigerian media continues to allow a vacuum in media regulation that provides an opportunity for others to intervene. There should be advocacy, negotiation and all the tools in the handbook to shoot down the Press Council Bill. What happens after that though remains the question.
There are many threats to the media and the profession of journalism. There are economic threats. There are threats from obnoxious legislation, existing or proposed, and from various angles from Federal to State and Local. Then there are internal threats arising from the poor management of issues around the media, one of which is the ethical environment of practice.
Media regulation is imperative. There has always been a need for some form of control. Across the world, the media have taken on self-regulation as the best approach to the challenges posed by its power and influence. Codes of conduct developed in response to this need.
In the digital age, media have become even more pervasive, powerful and influential. The potential for damage has grown. Citizens are increasingly in awe nay dread of the capacity of the media to cause harm to persons, institutions, careers and lives.
According to a UNESCO study, Codes of ethics serve several functions. They are an essential instrument of media self-regulation. Codes of ethics guide journalists on their role, their rights and obligations and how they can best perform their job.They present a standard against which to assess the work of journalists.Codes are useful for publishers and owners of media outlets, for their protection against legal claims and critics. Codes contribute to the accuracy, fairness and reliability of information, therefore also benefiting readers in general.
Codes need enforcement to work.
In 1998 in Ilorin, the Nigerian Press Organisation and its bodies developed the Code of Conduct of Nigerian Journalists. The Ilorin Declaration outlined 15 points as ethical bases for the practice of journalism in Nigeria. It urged the organisations in the media to ensure observance and enforcement. That code continues to suffer institutional and individual breaches. The institutionalviolation of the codeis more insidious and has become a permanent feature of the profession that makes a mockery of the criticism of the “brown envelope” in Nigerian journalism.
Beyond the objection, the Press Council Bill raises issues of concern within the profession. Who is regulating entry into the business? Does the NGE believe journalism should remain an all-comers affair, allowing for the current tarring of the trade with a brush of black paint for all and sundry? Is anyone interfacing with the NUC on the matter of training of new entrants? The NUC is proposing specialisation in journalism training at undergraduate level. Is any of the bodies in the media working with it to determine the curriculum for this new direction? Is it a desirable direction? What is the profession doing to ensure enactment of legislation that supports its ability to thrive as many such as Law, Accountancy, Insurance and even Secretarial Practice have done carving economic slices for themselves in the law? Check CAMA.
Communication and media are now imperatives for modern management. Due to the lack of advocacy, these areas often suffer neglect in various edicts and acts, causing severe economic loss. At a recent seminar, I advocated the creation of a Directorate of Communication to join four others created for other professions in the enabling Act of one of our leading regulatory organisations in oil and gas. There are several others where the omission exists.
The Nigerian media must now develop and enthrone a media accountability system that depends on moral suasion and peer recognition as is the practice globally. There should be more rigour and introspection as well as more activism to tackle the many threats and challenges that the media faces in today’s practice environment.