Chapter 2: The Print Media in 1998

GENERAL ENVIRONMENT

For the media, 1998 could be divided into two eras; the media during General Sani Abacha and the media after Abacha.

Such categorization, was made necessary by the fact that before the sudden demise of the former Head of State, General Sani Abacha, on June 8, last year, the media was walking a tight rope with fears that the late dictator would unleash a final solution to the irritation that the media had, in his opinion, which was shared by his security operatives, become.

Such a line of action for General Abacha became inevitable because apart from the media, all other sectors of the civil society had been emasculated. Vocal individuals who had not been assassinated had been driven underground or into exile.

The fears preceeding 1998 remained, resulting in the systematic corrosion of the powers of the media. This was done by the promulgation of anti-media legislation or the outright arrest and detention of journalists. When they were not being arrested and tried, some restrictive legislation that had not been used for decades were brushed up and invoked whenever it was convenient. And this was done regularly.

For instance the Newspaper Decree No. 43 of 1993 was constantly mentioned by successive information ministers under the Abacha administration as a legislation that would "check the excesses of the press and promote professionalism".

When repressive legislation failed to effectively muzzle the press, General Abacha positioned his security operatives to attack and abduct journalists that defiled the indecent environment to practice their profession.

Besides the fact that journalists became an endangered species, the over 130 publications in the country also lived on borrowed time. General Abacha's ambition to transform himself into a civilian president made it so in the early months of 1998 when activities by Abacha's supporters to make him transform himself into a Civilian President had been put on high gear. And journalists who were not taken in by the dictator's initial hesitation had mounted a vigorous opposition which exposed them to myriad and novel forms of persecution.

Most of them became victims of several anti-press legislation including Decree No. 2 of 1984, Decree No.43 of 1993, Decree No.107 of 1993, Decree No.35 of 1993, Decree No.29 of 1993, Decree No.14 of 1994 and Decree No.1 of 1986.

For example, it was with Decree No. 1 of 1986, that Niran Malaolu, editor of The Diet newspaper was tried along with officers and civilians accused of taking part in the phantom coup of 1997. He was sentenced to life imprisonment which was later commuted to 15 years jail term following public out cry.

Before General Abacha's sudden death on June 8, of 1998, the government was owing media houses and journalists over N28 millions being judgement debts over illegal closure of newspaper houses and detention of journalists.

The choking environment under which the media operated in 1998, did not deter it from being innovative and vibrant. Although some media houses were driven underground, they still published newspapers and magazines that fed the reading public faithfully.

New media houses sprang up including those involved in specialized publishing like News Times, Health Mate, Motoring World, Evening Express, The Evening Star, Weekend News, Hale and Hearty, Status, Just and Hallmark newspapers.

Vernacular publications also flourished in 1998. Publications like Alaroye and Akede, Asiri, Iroyin Alaroye and Ayekooto, hit the news stand.

The prohibitive cost of publishing also took its toll on some publications. Constantly changing economic policies made printing materials expensive and publishing a high risk business. Newsprint that is taken for granted in many other countries became very expensive especially towards the last days of Abacha.

Colour production became the vogue in 1998, just to move with the trend in other parts of the world and satisfy the thirst of the advertisers and readers that are increasingly getting sophisticated. But this could not be sustained on a daily basis because of the expensive nature of the production materials.

Some publications that did not have the regular injection of funds operated fitfully in the first half last year. For instance, Sketch newspaper which depends heavily on the government for its survival, operated epileptically for the better part of 1998, until it finally went off the streets for about two months. It emerged towards the end of the year promising not to go off the newsstand anymore.

Also hit by the choking publishing environment was the Plateau Publishing Company, printers and publishes of the Nigerian Standard newspaper. It was established in 1972, and was among the second generation of State-owned newspapers in the country.

The general manager of the company, Mr. Ani Joseph, said the company had difficulty raising N2 million it needed monthly to produce and circulate the paper effectively to all the nooks and crannies of the state and its catchment area including Lagos and Abuja.

Mr. Ari said the company required over N12m to pay up cumulative court judgements against the company.

In Port-Harcourt, Sun Ray newspaper had to go off the news stand because of financial constraints induced by the economic downturn.

Nigeria's largest and oldest government newspaper, Daily Times, was not left out of the heat that engulfed the print media. On at least two occasions during the year under review, the workers embarked on an industrial action to press for the payment of salaries. Before then, the management of the company had retrenched some of the workers in a bid to shore up its fortunes.

The death of Chief Moshood Abiola, apart from affecting the political environment also adversely affected the media industry.

Besides being the publisher of Concord Group of Newspapers, the late Chief Abiola was a frontline supporter of media causes in Nigeria. His death, in detention, was a devastating blow to Concord Group of Newspapers and its manager who were hoping that his release would provide for the company added impetus that would boost its chances in the competitive newspaper industry.

The coming of General Abdulsalami Abubakar, gave journalists the needed fresh air and room to practice effectively for the remaining part of the year.

When General Abubakar assumed office on June 9, 1998, the polluted environment General Abacha left for journalist that made the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to declare that Nigerian journalists suffer the worst form of censorship, was cleared.

His first demonstration of good faith was the release of journalists jailed by Abacha regime on the spurious charges of being "assessories after the fact of treason". These include Kunle Ajibade, editor of The News magazine, Ben Charles Obi, editor of the defunct Classique magazine, George Mbah, senior assistant editor of Tell magazine and Chris Anyanwu, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Sunday Magazine (TSM).

Also, properties of Independent Communications Nigerian Limited (ICNL), seized by the Abacha regime, were returned.

Talks were even initiated by the new Information Minister, Chief John Nwobodo (Jnr.), with media practitioners represented by Nigerian Press Organisation on how to repeal anti-media laws. One of such sessions took place in October at the National Arts Theatre Iganmu, Lagos in October 1998.

The Nigerian journalist personally in 1998, did not fair badly. Despite the largely sufforcating working environment he had to endure in the year under review, he managed by sheer dint of hard work and perseverance, to excel in his onerous responsibility even at great cost to himself and family.

Recognition came from far and wide and in large doses. The awards started early in the year with the 1998 UNESCO / Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Price going to Chris Anyanwu publisher and editor-in-chief of The Sunday Magazine (TSM) who was then in jail for the offence of being "accesory after the fact" of treason.

She was nominated by the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) in Arlington, US, and the Paris-based free expression group, Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF). The prize money was $25,000.

Next was The Guardian photo journalist, Ray Onwuemegulem, was won the Judge's Special Recognition Grant of the Mother Jones Fund for International Documenatry Photography. He was the first Nigerian to win the award.

In August, two Nigerian journalists were among four Nigerians who won, along with 40 others from 18 countries, the year's Hellman / Hammentt Grants. The award is given to people who as a result of expressing their views or because of their political association, are presecuted and are in financial need.

The journalists were Bayo Onanuga, editor-in-chief of The News, Babafemi Ojudu, manager editor of the same magazine. The other Nigerians winners were Abdul Oroh, executive director of the Civil Liberties Organization and Mrs. Bose Agbe-Davies Mbah, wife of assistant editor of Tell magazine, Mr George Mbah, who was released along with other detained journalists by General Abubakar, current Head of State on assumption of office.

On September 16, 1998, a senior correspondent with The Punch newspaper, Chinwe Ogbuka, along side 23 other journalists from 18 countries world-wide, received the 1998 International Catholic Union of the Press (UNP) Media Awards. The award took place at the headquarters of the UNESCO in Paries, France.

It was the turn of Kunle Ajibade, editor of The News, who was released alongside Mbah in July, to be honoured when he was named winner of the 1998 Feuchtwanger Fellowship for being "a distinguished writer and journalist".

So also did the magazine's Managing Editor, Babafemi Ojodu, once again received another award, this time the Canadian Journalists for Free Expressions (CJFE) International Press Freedom Awards.

The recognition did not end there as Akin Adesokan, an author and arts correspondence with the Post Express newspaper, won the Freedom to Write Award instituted by the PEN Centre, USA.

On the home front, the applause was loud and steady. Several media awards sprang up while the older ones were qualitatively waxing stronger.

Media merit awards of various catigories and catchment areas and by various organisations held with much fanfair and aldulation to the Nigerian journalist.

The Nigerian Media Merit Award which started in 1991 was one of such organisations which honoured the Nigerian Journalist. For 1998 award, it had 20 prizes in all including The Guardian Prize for Investigative Reporter of the Year, Abubakar Imani's Prize for Newspaper Features Writer of the Year, NAFCON's Prize for Entertainment Repoter of the Year.

Others were the Ernest Sesei Ikoli Prize for Newspaper Reporter of the Year and Lateef Jakande Prize for the Political Reporter of the Year.

Also, in this category of journalistic excellence rewarding venture was the Diamond Award for Media Excellence (DAME). During the year under review it roled out drums for journalists and media houses.

LEGAL ENVIRONMENT

Like a sphnix, the controversial Newspapers Decree No 43 of 1993, continued to rise from its ashes to haunt newspapers and magazins publishers during the year under review.

The decree, promulgated by the General Babangida Administration to regulate the independent press, was declared unconstitutional, null and void by an Ikeja High Court in Lagos on November 18, 1993. Still, the decree hangs like an albatross around the necks of print media owners and journalists.

Although, the decree has not been applied, the former Minister of Information, Dr. Walter Ofonagoro, had in July 1997, claimed that but for his intervention, security agents would have shut down The Guardian and the Daily Times newspapers in 1996, for non-compliance with the provisions of the decree, as a warning to other newspapers and magazines.

By Decree No. 43 of 1993, the Federal Militry Government radically altered the tradition of newspaper control and regulations in Nigeria and imposed stringent new registration and operational guidelines for newspapers and magazines.

Although released by the government on August 16, 1993, it gave the decree a retroactive commencement date of June 23, 1993. Persons intending to own, print or publish newspapers and magazines in Nigeria were given three weeks from the commencement date of the decree (June 23, 1993) to apply for registration (that is by July 14, 1993) after compliance with the pre-registration requirements.

The implications of this is that upon the release of the decree on August 16, 1993, all newspapers and magazines in Nigeria immediately became "illegal" and their owners, printers and publishers automatically became liable to be arrested and detained, prosecuted and convicted. This was even when the structures to effect the registration exercise had not even been established by the government.

By virtue of Section 7 of the decree, it is an offence, punishable with either a fine of N250,000 or imprisonment for a term of seven years or both, for a person to own, established or print a newspaper or magazine not registered under the decree. The registration of existing newspapers and magazines under previously subsisting laws, was extinguished by the decree.

The decision whether or not to register a newspaper or magazine is vested exclusively in the Newspaper Registration Board set up under the decree. Compliance with the formal pre-registration requirements stipulated in the decree does not guarantee registration of a newspaper or magazine as the Newspaper Registration Board has unquestionable discretion to decide whether the registration of a newspaper or magazine is "justified having regard to the public interest".

There are no procedures for challenging the Board's decision not to register a newspaper or magazine. Although the Board's decision whether or not to register a newspaper or magazine is subjective, exclusive and final under the decree, a person seeking to register a newspaper or magazine must, nonetheless, pay a "non-refundable" fee of N100,000.00

A person seeking to register a newspaper or magazine under the decree is also obliged to pay a pre-registration deposit of N250,000 which will, if the newspaper or magazine is registered, be paid into a fund to meet the amount of any penalty imposed on or damages awarded against the owner, printer, or publisher of the newspaper or magazine by a court of law in future.

As against the practice under the previously applicable Newspapers Act (now repealed by the decree), Decree 43 imposes an immediate penalty on persons seeking to register newspapers and magazines in anticipation of offences which have not yet been committed, which have not yet been adjudicated upon in a court of law, and in respect of which the persons have had no opportunity to defend themselves.

Guardian Newspapers Limited (GNL) filed a suit at an Ikeja High Court on October 15, 1993, against the Attorney-General of the Federation and Attorney-General of Lagos State, challenging the validity of the decree.

The court, presided over by Justice Samuel Omotunde Ilori, the out-going Chief Judge of Lagos State, first issued an interlocutory injunction on November 5, 1993, restraining the government form interfering with the printing and publishing business of GNL pending the final determination of the suit.

In his final judgement delivered on November 18, 1993, Justice Ilori held that the decree was null and void and of no effect, and by a perpetual injunction, prohibited the Government from giving effect to the provisions of the decree.

The Government has not appealed against the judgement, which has also not been over-turned by any appellate court. Yet, government officials continued to threatened the press with it in 1998, especially during the Abacha days.

In September 1993, Media Rights Agenda (MRA), lodged a complaint before the African Commission on Human Rights in Banjul, The Gambia, over the promulgated of the decree.

The Commission held in its decision, given at its 24th Ordinary Session held in Banjul at the end of 1998, that the decree violated Articles 7 and 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and requested the Nigerian Government to bring its laws into conformity with the provisions of the African Charter.

 The Commission ruled that the decree "invites censorship and seriously endangers the rights of the public to receive information."

The present Minister of Information, Chief John Nwodo (Jnr.), recently announced that the board has been disbanded. He was, however, silent on the status of the enabling decree.

 

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