Femi Gbajabimila, Speaker of the House of Representatives, has said that no bill seeking to gag the press will be passed on the floor of the House.
There has been a recent move by the lower legislative chamber to amend laws establishing the Nigeria Press Council and Nigeria Broadcasting Commission.
However, in June, the Nigerian Press Organisation, an umbrella body of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, Nigerian Guild of Editors and Nigerian Union of Journalists kicked against the amendment and argued that some of its provisions threaten press freedom.
NPO said almost half of the 39 clauses in the bill contained unconstitutional regulations capable of stifling the practice of journalism in the country.
Speaking at a press event in Abuja on Monday, Gbajabiamila clarified that there have been no efforts to gag the press, but there have been attempts to regulate the media.
Gbaja’s statement read, “Let me say this. I will not be part of any bill that will seek to gag the press. I want to say it loud and clear if that will be of any consolation. No bill will come to the floor of the House that seeks to gag the press, because the press is supposed to be the voice of the people.
“However, I hold very strongly to the view that there is press freedom and there is freedom of expression. There has always been and there will always be.
“Freedom of expression is limited to the extent that it does not affect the other person’s freedom. Freedom of expression is not absolute and that is made abundantly clear in the constitution itself.
“If you go to section 45 of your constitution, it tells you how the government is allowed to limit that freedom for the sake of health and security and this is written in black and white.
“Whilst I will not allow gagging of the press, I worry when at every time when the National Assembly tries to promulgate a law with the best of intention, everybody descends on the National Assembly. For some, it is immediate reaction. Some just jump on the bandwagon without knowing the details or the issues.
“I am using this press council bill as an example. I called the proponent of the bill and ask him, ‘what is going on? What have you done and what is in this bill?’ He tried to break it down. I have not read it myself and I will confess to that. But I will read it in detail in the next couple of days. I just have a general idea of the content. He told me that he had a meeting with all the stakeholders. I wasn’t present at the meeting. He said what they wanted was not acceptable to him.
“Whatever provisions that are in that bill that is inimical to the operations of the press, remove it and replace it with something else so that everybody will be happy.
“From my understanding, the issue was not about gagging, but that they don’t want to be regulated. That gives me concern because it has gotten to a point in this country where nobody wants to be regulated.”
Gbajabiamila said the National Assembly was expected to make laws for citizens, adding that institutions cannot be allowed to operate without regulation.
He said, “Everybody just wants to have a free reign. What is government there for if not to regulate for good governance? We talk about good governance, but we don’t want to regulate and achieve good governance. Regulations are a key and essential elements of good governance. We can’t just allow every institution to run amok,” he said.
“I have seen marriages break up; I have seen businesses destroyed; I have seen countries ruined; I have seen children hang themselves because of content of information that is irresponsible. We must not be shy to tell each other the truth. For it to be clear, let me emphasise that I will not, as Speaker, allow any bill that seeks to gag the press. It will not happen.
“There is a difference between regulation and gagging. Let us try and separate the two. I don’t know how you will feel if the legislature says they don’t want to be regulated. You will be the first to jump on us.
“Let us do a rethink. Let us take another look at the provisions of the bill and ensure that there are provisions in that bill that will sustain the autonomy and independence of the press because that is not negotiable.
“Is the media regulated in other parts of the world? If the media is not regulated in other parts of the world, then we have to do a rethink because perhaps, this bill will be dead on arrival.”