Journalists should seek a comprehensive review of laws regulating the press, argues Bolaji Adebiyi

Those opposed to government regulation of the media must have felt a sense of relief at the removal, on Thursday, of Francis Nwosu, the executive secretary of the Nigerian Press Council. The Fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors had earlier in the week reopened the debate on the sensitive issue of regulation of the journalism profession, telling Muhammad Idris, minister of Information and National Orientation, who came to visit his headquarters that it had become necessary to certify those who practice journalism.

Nwosu, whose job was to oversight the print media industry, had been steadfast about the need for increased regulation of the media, recommending to the National Assembly a few months ago that newspapers needed to be registered and pay registration fees periodically as a way of raising funds for the council, which the President Bola Tinubu administration has listed as one of the government agencies that would be self-financing from the 2024 budgetary circle.

The executive secretary had explained to his minister that journalists needed to be certified to practice so that the industry could be professionalised, suggesting that a licensing regime should be put in place where only those who have been formally trained and have attended a finishing school, preferably, the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, can practice.

Although Nwosu, whose tenure was cut short by a year and a half, now has no more official platform to push his advocacy for a regulatory regime, the antagonists must realise that the contentious matter he has raised will remain alive for a long time, and given the widespread complaint about the perceived excesses of the media and the need for legislative intervention, stakeholders in the industry will need to chart a concrete and realistic way forward.

The matter of regulation, coming against the background of media reports that the Tinubu administration intends to introduce legislation on a bill to regulate social media, indicates the growing unease with what critics term the growing excesses and professional misconduct across media platforms. It would have been understandable if the government was the only one complaining. The fact of the matter is that reasonable members of the public also think that journalism is failing and needs to be knocked into shape.

For long, the media has resisted government regulation on the ground that it would stifle not only the freedom of the press but also the freedom of opinion and expression. In this resistance, they have been aided by the civil society community that fears that once the media is put under control it would be a matter of time before its own freedom would be curtailed. Without a doubt, this is a genuine concern as the government has the tendency to limit freedom of expression that scrutinises its activities, particularly in times of economic hardship that attract widespread critique of its mitigating policies.

While the perennial failure of government over the years to guarantee basic necessities of life makes it difficult for citizens to trust the government to moderate their basic freedoms, particularly that of the press, this resistance is weakened by the 1999 Constitution as altered, which empowers the government to limit civil rights through reasonably justifiable laws in aide of good governance.

Yet, it is not the case that there is no regulatory regime in place. The print and broadcast media are regulated by the Nigerian Press Council Act 1992 and the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission Act 1992 respectively. But while the NBC has been very active, though widely perceived to be groaning under the control of the government, the NPC has been largely comatose and reduced to organising ineffectual seminars and workshops. Both acts state clearly in several sections the roles of the two agencies as regulators of the profession of journalism with powers to maintain professional standards, including determining the qualification, training, and registration of professionals.

The substantive issue, therefore, is not whether there should be regulation but the intent and quality of the prevailing regulatory regime. The government, and perhaps the public, is complaining that regulation is weak and unable to tackle new trends that show lowering standards of practice and is pushing for tighter legislative reviews. Journalists on the other hand, under the mistaken belief that there are no regulations, are resisting the emplacement of further rules they perceive will limit their latitude to practice.

There is a middle ground though. Journalists need to appreciate the constitutional power of the government to govern and moderate rights, while the government needs to understand that the antidote to mischief is transparency and good governance. Therefore, the way forward is a conversation on what regulations would serve the overall interest of the people. Were the media properly organised, it would have agreed among its stakeholders on the set of regulations it could live with and negotiate it for legislation.

The media moved close to this earlier in the year when the Nigerian Press Organisation, comprising the Nigeria Union of Journalists, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers, the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria, and the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, approved a reviewed code of ethics for journalists and impaneled an Ombudsman. However, the challenge with that is not only its voluntary compliance nature but also the fact that it placed emphasis on professional ethics and standards without any mention of the business ethics that would complement the implementation of the code.

Not a few analysts feel that voluntary compliance has not worked and that it would be more appropriate for the codes to be given the force of law to make it more effective. What ought to happen though, is a comprehensive overhaul of the laws guiding the journalism practice to bring them in line with not only the aspirations of the professionals for a conducive environment to practice without undue hindrance but also the quest of citizens to express themselves freely.

Adebiyi, the executive editor of Western Post, is a member of the Editorial Board of THISDAY Newspapers

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