By G9ija

The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has asked the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Banjul, The Gambia, to “issue provisional measures to urgently stop the Nigerian government and National Assembly from supporting and pushing through two bills to gag the media, and impose arbitrary and harsh punishment on journalists, broadcast stations, media houses and media practitioners in Nigeria.”

In a statement on Sunday, SERAP said: “the complaint, addressed to the Chairperson of the Commission Mr Solomon Ayele Dersso, and Commissioner and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Ms Jamesina Essie L. King, is brought pursuant to Articles 55 and 56 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Rule 100 of the Rules of Procedure of the African Commission.”

The complaint followed the move to push through two repressive bills to amend the National Broadcasting Act, and to amend the Nigeria Press Council Act. The bills are reportedly sponsored by Chairman, House Committee on Information, Mr Segun Odebunmi (PDP, Oyo State).

Dated June 26, 2021, and signed by its Deputy Director Kolawole Oluwadare, SERAP said: “The push by the Nigerian government and the National Assembly to support and pass the two anti-media bills is unlawful, as passing the bills would be contrary to the country’s obligations to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the right to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom under articles 1 and 9 of the African Charter.”

According to the rights group, “these anti-media bills are the latest threats to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom in the country. The bills are not in keeping with the provisions of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, which supplements articles 1 and 9 of the African Charter.”

SERAP said: “the Commission has the power to request Provisional Measures from the Nigerian government and National Assembly under Rule 100 of the Rules of Procedure to prevent irreparable harm and threats to human rights including freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom as urgently as the situation demands.”

The complaint, read in part: “The bills include retrogressive provisions that threaten human rights, including freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom, and could criminalize reporting and give the government overly broad powers and oversight over journalists, broadcast stations, media houses and media practitioners.”

“If passed into laws, the bills would be used by those in power to intimidate and harass their critics, and to stifle freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom. The bills would have a chilling effect on the media thereby inducing some measure of self-censorship.”

“Media freedom, which is an aspect of the right to freedom of expression, is now generally recognised as an indispensable element of democracy. The mass media promotes the free flow of information, which enables citizens to participate in a meaningful and informed manner in the democratic process.”

“The actions by the Nigerian government and National Assembly are contrary to Articles 1 and 9 of the African Charter, and have thereby violated Nigeria’s positive obligation under Article 1 to recognise the rights, duties and freedoms and to adopt legislative or other measures to give effect to them.”

“SERAP regularly relies on the media to carry out its mandate in the promotion of transparency and accountability and respect for socio-economic rights of Nigerians.”

“The Nigerian government and National Assembly are directly responsible for pushing the bills that would gag the media and impose harsh punishment on journalists, broadcast stations, media houses and media practitioners in the country, action in violation of the African Charter, and therefore also in violation of Article 1 of the Charter.”

“Nigerians, broadcast stations, media houses and media practitioners in the country face a real and immediate risk of violation of their rights to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom if the anti-media bills are not urgently withdrawn.”

“The Nigerian government and National Assembly have failed to produce any evidence that the two bills are necessary or lawful, and in the absence of such, SERAP asks the Commission to order the immediate withdrawal of the bills by Nigerian authorities.”

“The media also serves as a watchdog by scrutinising and criticising public officials over the way they manage public affairs and public resources. In the performance of these functions, the media’s debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open. Speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government.”

“A free press is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, one in which journalists are both benefactors and beneficiaries of human rights and carrying out their professional duties to inform their communities and enable democratic participation.”

“Individual journalists cannot do their jobs if the institution of the press is compromised or if the legal protections for that institution are subject to approvals by political authorities.”

“The exhaustion of domestic remedies requirements set out in Article 56(5) of the African Charter has been met. There are no effective or sufficient local remedies available to the Complainant.”

“Nigerian courts do not entertain cases on the legality of anti-media and anti-human rights bills. Also, one of the lawmakers pushing the bills Mr Odebunmi Olusegun has reportedly boasted that ‘No court will stop us from passing the bills. Requiring SERAP to exhaust domestic remedies in such circumstances would be a mockery of justice.”

“Under the bills, the National Broadcasting Commission can shut down TV and radio stations “in the public interest” and the press code must be approved by the Minister of Information. The overly broad definition of public interest opens the door for the Nigerian government to crackdown on freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom.”

“The bills would also allow the Nigerian government to jail journalists, fine newspapers up to N10m naira ($20,000) or close them for up to a year if they publish “fake” news. Under the bills, journalists could be held liable for the offence committed by their organisations and can be made to pay heavy fines.”

SERAP, therefore, urged the commission to request the following provisional measures from the Nigerian government and the National Assembly:

1.Immediately withdraw the oppressive bills to gag the media. The first is the bill to amend the National Broadcasting Act, and the second, is the bill to amend the Nigeria Press Council Act.

2.Immediately end harassment and intimidation of journalists, broadcast stations, media houses and media practitioners in Nigeria, and to respect the rights to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom, Unless the African Commission urgently intervenes in this case, there is a risk of irreversible denial of the Complainant’s and Nigerians’ rights, which in turn will render nugatory the resolutions and declarations by the African Commission on freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom.

3.Give assurances that they will not support and pass the anti-media bills being pushed by Nigerian authorities. The Nigerian authorities should also give assurances that they will fully implement the resolutions and declarations on freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom in the country.

4.Undertake a prompt review of Nigerian legal framework and administrative practices on freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom to ensure their consistency and compatibility with the African Charter, and resolutions and declarations by the African Commission. Pending this, the Nigerian government should take concrete steps to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom, and ensure that journalists and media practitioners are able to carry out their work freely, without any intimidation and harassment.