NIGERIANS on Tuesday reacted angrily to speculations that the President Goodluck Jonathan administration was planning a major clampdown on media houses considered to be “unfriendly”.
Prof. Itse Sagay, SAN, a constitutional lawyer; Mr. Yusuf Ali, another SAN; Mr. Debo Adeniran, an activist leader of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, and others who spoke to our correspondents said the alleged plan to clamp down on the media was symbolic of a government desperate to hold on to power by all means.
Sagay said, “I won’t be too surprised if the government clamps down on the media because as you can see, there is lot of desperation coming from the government’s side; desperation and fear of losing the election that led to postponement and a lot of very undemocratic practices that have been going on.
“But the press should just do its work as they should under the law. At the end of the day, there is no army in this world that can conquer the press. The press is the most powerful organisation and its pen is a great weapon. Ultimately, nobody, no institution can conquer the press. The press should just do its work and be courageous.”
Sagay and the others spoke as the speculation about government’s plot against the media reached a climax on Tuesday, with the National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki, said to be the anchor for the government’s plan.
A ‘news alert’ on Tuesday that purportedly reported a discussion at a military meeting in Kaduna, leaked an anti-media action being championed by the National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.).
The nucleus of the plot, according to the alert, is the arrest of top management personnel of the mentioned media houses: The PUNCH, The Nation and Channels, a privately-owned television station.
Worse than the clampdown on the named media houses, the ‘alert’ revealed other dangerous anti-democratic steps the government is alleged to be taking even as the nation gets set for the general elections.
The alert, unedited, read, “News Alert: Once again am back here with some of the highlights of the Military meeting in Kaduna. Like I told you yesterday, the Military is doing everything possible to derail this democratic process. The representative of the Federal Government to the meeting today made it very clear that President Jonathan would never allow GMB to take over from him. Rather, the military body should be ready to take over govt on May 29.
“As preparation for this, the meeting came up with the plans to clampdown on some notable media organisations found to be crusading for the opposition. They specifically mentioned the Channels TV, The Nation and The Punch Newspapers as some of the media houses to be dealt with. He suggested ways to go about the clampdown including the arrest of notable management of these media organisations.
“The issue of Nigerian Sovereignty also came up in the light of an expected attacks and condemnation from international communities and organisation. To our surprise, IBB sent one Bob Caleb to the meeting to add some impetus. He came in around 12pm and left about 20 minutes later after holding some private brief with the NSA. The meeting continues tomorrow, but I can say that the country will witness some strange development in some weeks to come. Stay tuned.”
The Presidency on Tuesday debunked some of the contents of the ‘alert’. For one, it denied a report that the President would rather hand over to the military on May 29 than handing over to Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress.
Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, in an interview with The PUNCH said the report was a sign of desperation by some people with partisan interest.
Abati said Jonathan remained committed to democracy and the rule of law.
He said, “That (the alert) is absolute nonsense. It is nothing but a sign of desperation on the side of certain elements with partisan interest.
“President Jonathan remains fully committed to democracy and the rule of law. He is a man who believes in one man one vote; one woman, one vote; one youth, one vote and the right of every Nigerian of voting age to exercise their franchise.
“One of the major achievements of this administration had been the conduct of free, fair and credible elections at all levels since 2011 and it is a legacy of which he is proud and he has made it clear that his ambition does not worth the blood of any Nigerian.
“It won’t happen under his watch that the gains of democracy will be reversed. He remains committed to transforming Nigeria so that democracy can be further consolidated and the rule of one man one vote will continue to be strengthened.
“I am saying categorically that the story is not true and cannot be true. It should not be taken seriously by anybody.
“What is clear is that there are a lot of unpatriotic, partisan and deliberate elements who are determined to heat up the polity for their own narrow and selfish purposes.
“But we say to such people that they should realise that this country is bigger than all of us. President Jonathan continues to call on all stakeholders to come together and work together to put Nigeria first always.”
Given that most actions of the Jonathan government, especially in recent times, often started off as a speculation, reactions on Tuesday indicated that the speculations could be true and those who spoke warned the government against its alleged plan.
Ali, who spoke to The PUNCH on the phone from Ilorin, Kwara State, described as dangerous any step to gag the media.
He said, “That is a very dangerous step to take. It is inimical to the nation; it is inimical to democracy and inimical to the rule of law. There is freedom of expression in our Constitution and any media house or other organisations whose rights are being infringed upon should approach our courts; the courts are open.”
Adeniran said, “It means the system has bared its fangs and they have decided to go all out to become tyrannical, but that would be resisted by the Nigerian populace because we rely on what the media, especially the conventional media, can dish out to us.
“So, apparently, the present system or government has a lot of things to cover up; it means they have things they don’t want the public to know, that would be the reason they want to do that. But I am not sure that they would go far because the international community is watching and the international community is ready to defend the ordinary citizen of this country. Even if they do it, they would only embarrass themselves but we pray that it is not true.”
The Executive Director, Civil Liberties Organisation, Ibuchukwu Ezike, said, “That would be undemocratic and the Civil Liberties Organisation will not support such an attempt.
“Already the President has signed the Freedom of Information Bill and it has become a law and this bill empowers the media to enquire into the activities of the government.
“Any attempt by the government to clamp down on the media is condemned and will be condemned and the Civil Liberties Organisation will resist it and lead the Nigeria people to fight against such impunity or lawlessness. We pray it doesn’t happen but it would be an opportunity for another Occupy Nigeria.”
The Independent National Electoral Commission on Friday announced a shift in the elections originally scheduled for February 14 and 28 with new dates now set at March 28 and April 11 for Presidential and Governorship polls respectively.
The shift had drawn the anger of many, especially the opposition, but the crux of the matter was that the postponement of election started as a mere speculation, just like the current speculation of a plot to deal with unfriendly media houses.
Perhaps in recognition of how mere a speculation under the present administration could take on a life of reality, the INEC chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, on Tuesday reacted to speculations that he would soon embark on a terminal leave, preparatory to the expiry of his tenure of office in June.
Jega said the condition of his engagement was different from the normal civil service practice and said he would serve till the end of his tenure on June 30.
The speculation that Jega would proceed on terminal leave before the commencement of the rescheduled polls came amid further speculations that the Jonathan administration had lost faith in the INEC boss and would want the election to be handled allegedly by a pliant INEC chairman.
Before the former Central Bank of Nigeria governor, Sanusi Lamido, was removed, there had been rumours that President Goodluck Jonathan was going to sack him for his whistle-blowing activities against the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. The Presidency had kept mum until it finally announced the suspension of Lamido in February 2014.
Meanwhile, anti-media actions are not new under the Jonathan administration.
In June 2014, armed soldiers seized and destroyed copies of newspapers, mainly The PUNCH, The Guardian, The Nation, Leadership, ThisDay, Daily Trust, Sun, Pilot, Newswatch and The Mirror.
The military authorities claimed then that the seizures were based on intelligence report that newspapers were being used to ferry arms into the country.
The action then drew the ire of Nigerians with the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project asking Frank LA RUE, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression to “urgently issue urgent appeal and measures to stop the government of President Goodluck Jonathan from continuing harassment and intimidation of several media houses and newspapers.”
Last year, according to the World Freedom Index, Nigeria was ranked 112 among 180 countries. The 2014 WPF index cited the negative impact of conflicts on “freedom of information and its protagonists.”
Nigeria was ranked 115 and 126 in 2013 and 2012 respectively.
The report linked the ranking of some countries like Nigeria to its government’s “tendency to interpret national security needs in an overly broad and abusive manner to the detriment of the right to inform and be informed.”
This trend, the Index noted, constituted a growing threat worldwide and “is even endangering freedom of information in countries regarded as democracies.”
The 2014 index underscored the negative correlation “between freedom of information and conflicts, both open conflicts and undeclared ones.”
It said further that, “In an unstable environment, the media become strategic goals and targets for groups or individuals whose attempts to control news and information violate the guarantees enshrined in international law, in particular, article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Protocols Additional 1 and 2 to the Geneva Conventions.”
WFI, however, noted that the upsurge in violence against journalists elicited a response from the international community.