The Press, The Cage, The Hang Rope

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Every bony hand owned by men in power loves to reach for the scrawny neck of the press.

This unholy ambition has a long history in our country.

It began only three years after Lord Lugard did what not every Nigerian today thinks was all that wise.

The Newspapers Ordinance of 1917, itself a dust up on the same law enacted in 1903, became the first shot in the battle to cage the men and women who make it their business to inform, educate and keep the people entertained lest personal frustration morphs into depression – and the grave offers a warm hand of welcome.

The Nigerian press, under any and all forms of government, has been the most regulated social institution in our fatherland.

A few years down the road, Prince Tony Momoh, editor, media manager, columnist, lawyer and former minister of information, compiled a disturbing evidence of official hostility towards the Nigerian press.

According to him, there had been 51 anti-press laws in the land since 1917 as at the time he compiled them.

I am sure the number must have since inched up, seeing as I am not aware of the emergence of a new generation of press lovers in the corridors of power in our country.

If you look at each of those laws as a rope in search of an editor’s neck, you would have a fairly good idea of what the press has been up against.

You may wonder why these people find the editor’s neck so attractive.

I can think of no neck less attractive than that of an editor.

It always appears to me like a cross between the neck of a turkey and that of the starved vulture. No insult intended.

Any way, the effluvium of time being what it is, few of us would remember that the first open legislative battle against the press was the Newspapers (Amendment) Act, 1964.

It was the first time the big men tried to impress on the Nigerian press that they had no qualms in making editors and their reporters walk the tiny rope across the River Niger.

That is, if they dared to publish stories that made the breakfast of the important men taste like a ten-day old saw dust.

The law caused an uproar in and outside parliament. Section 4(1) of the law showed that its intendment was not to encourage good, professional journalism in our country but to narrow the frontiers of journalistic enterprise.

That section provided that “Any person who authorises for publication, publishes, reproduces or circulates for sale in a newspaper any statement, rumour or report knowing or having reason to believe that such statement, rumour or report is false shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine of two hundred pounds sterling or to imprisonment for a term of one year.”

The ostensible objective of that section of the law was to ensure that people were not made victims of rumours circulated in the press.

In other words, it was intended to stop Amebo and her children from being the new face of our journalism.

Sounded reasonable; except that its rationale was badly tainted.

In truth, it had a more sinister objective. It was to ensure that the press was kept on a short leash.

That obnoxious provision gave birth many years later to two other equally obnoxious laws under the generals.

One was decree 11 of 1976 of the Obasanjo military administration and the other was decree 4 of 1984 of the Buhari military administration.

You see, obnoxious laws do have this nasty habit of giving birth to more obnoxious laws.

What is remarkable is that thanks to the gut and the gumption of the Nigerian press the 51 anti-press laws had the life of a mosquito.

Their nuisance value, like the buzzing of the mosquito in your ears, soon ran their course and were heard no more.

But the anti-press men and women have not given up.

The battle has now shifted to the senate of the Federal Republic where a bill with an innocuous title of Nigerian Press Council Act 1992 (Repeal and Re-enactment Bill 2018) is the new weapon in the unending anti-press war.

There is no sign of a let up in sight.