The face-off between the President-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari, and African Independent Television, AIT, has again brought to fore one of the issues that were on the front burner throughout the recent electioneering campaign. Critics of General Buhari had warned Nigerians that the retired military officer has not changed from the dictator that sacked the democratically elected administration for former President Shehu Shagari and clamped down heavily on the media with the draconian Decree number 4 of 1984.
The obnoxious Decree 4 known as Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree promulgated on March 29, 1984 was the most dreaded, most repressive and the last press law enacted in Nigeria. The law was drafted to punish authors of false statements and reports that exposed the Buhari administration and or its officials to ridicule or contempt.
Section 1, sub-sections (i), (ii) and (iii) of the law – the most formidable section – provided that: “Any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, report or statement, being a message, rumour, statement or report which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offence under this Decree.
“Any station for wireless telegraphy which conveys or transmits any sound or visual message, rumour, report or statement, being a message, rumour, report or statement which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Government or the government of a state or a public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offence under this Decree.
“It shall be an offence under this Decree for a newspaper or wireless telegraphy station in Nigeria to publish or transmit any message, rumour, report or statement which is false in any material particular stating that any public officer has in any manner been engaged in corrupt practices or has in any manner comiptly enriched himself or any other person (Gazette, 1984). The law also conferred on the Head of State the power to ban a newspaper and to revoke the license of a wireless telegraph station in any part of the federation 61 if such action was construed to be in the interest of the nati on.
The Decree No 4 made it an offence for anyone to accuse a public officer of the government of any wrongdoing, even if the allegation is true. Unfortunately, two Guardian journalists, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Iraboh, who carried stories on diplomatic postings of certain Nigerian envoys, were caught in the web of the draconian law.
The duo were tried and convicted for stories they published in the Guardian. The stories one of which had the headline: “Haruna replaces Hannaniya” were not denied by Buhari’s regime neither was the newspaper asked to retract the publication.
Throughout the 2015 campaign period, Buhari used every available opportunity to inform Nigerians and members of the global community that he was a changed person and a reformed democrat. When Buhari appeared in Chatham House, London in February he devoted substantial time to dismiss references to his past as a military dictator, saying that he is a, “converted democrat” who has submitted to the rigours of democratic elections four times.
Buhari, who delivered a lecture titled Prospects for Democratic Consolidation in Africa: Nigeria’s Transition, remarked that dictatorship was necessarily an indivisible part of military rule, even as he took responsibility for actions taken during his tenure as Head of State.
His words, “I have heard and read references to me as a former dictator in many respected British newspapers including the well regarded Economist. Let me say without sounding defensive that dictatorship goes with military rule, though some might be less dictatorial than others. I take responsibility for whatever happened under my watch,” he stated.
Speaking further, he said, “I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future. So, before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms and is subjecting himself to the rigours of democratic elections for the fourth time.”
Despite Buhari’s claim in Chatham House that he is a reformed democrat his critics insisted that he has not changed and like the leopard not amount of rainfall can change his spot. Worried by the persistent claims of his opponents that democratic ethos cannot run through his veins, Buhari again used the opportunity of an interactive session with media gurus to dispel reports that the dictator in him runs deep.
During interactive Session with the Nigerian Press Organisation, NPO in Abuja on 17 March, Buhari not only acknowledged the role of the media, he also gave assurance that if he wins the presidential election his administration will not trample with the freedom of the press.
According to Buhari, “Without a robust and thriving media, the masses would have no voice. The electorate would also not have sufficient information to make sound decisions, such as deciding to vote out a clueless government and vote in change.
“Secondly, I want to give you my full assurances that in this democratic dispensation, I will ensure that the Nigerian constitution is upheld. This includes respect for the media, respect for the right to free expression and freedom of speech. You are aware of Decree 4 of 1984, which was heavily criticised. I have said elsewhere that I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future.
“Dictatorship goes with military rule as do edicts such as Decree 4. However, I am a former–former, note the emphasis on the word ‘former’–military ruler and now a converted democrat, who is ready to operate under democratic norms. I am not only subjecting myself to the rigours of democratic elections for the fourth time, but even after being elected, I will continue to promote the consolidation of democracy in our great country, Nigeria, by guaranteeing that the media’s freedom is not compromised in any way.
“I give you my full assurances that the Nigerian media will be free under our APC government. I also want to use this opportunity to appeal to you to use your media outlets in shaping positive public discourse and eschew hate speech mongering and slanderous political rhetoric which heat up the polity for the sake of peace and stability of our dear nation.”
The media and his teeming supporters celebrated Buhari’s assurance that he has turned a new leave.
However, barely one month after he won the presidential election, the in-coming president shocked Nigerians and the global community when he gave an insight into what lies ahead for press freedom when he takes over the reign of government. In what may has tagged as vengeance mission, Buhari ban the AIT for covering his activities for reasons many Nigerians considered puerile and petty.
Giving reasons for the AIT ban, the APC’s Presidential Campaign Organisation spokesman, Mallam Garba Shehu, explained in details the reason for the ban.
According to Garba, “AIT has been asked to stay aside based on security and family concerns. In addition, Gen. Buhari has decided that they will have to resolve some issues relating to standard and ethics,” he said.
“We will be talking with them to try and resolve the matter but for now the station has been asked to stay aside because like I said there are some family and security concerns. They have been asked to step down their coverage until we resolve the matter with them on ethics and standards.”
He added, “Yes you can quote me that I said that we have asked them to step aside and that we are resolving the issues of ethics and standards with them.”
Nigerians reacted angrily to the ban on AIT by Buhari and expressed fears that Nigeria is moving back to the dark days of military dictatorship. Afenifere leader, Chief Ayo Opadokun, described the face-off between AIT and the President-elect as unfortunate because “the media has the constitutional responsibility to inform, report and equally entertain the masses.
“I feel concerned about this development, but my simple advice is that both AIT and the President-elect should forget what transpired in the past and move on.”
President, South-East/South-South Professionals of Nigeria, SESS, Mr. Emeka Ugwu-Oju, said: “We have to take it as an overzealous act by some people around the President-elect, because he is a public figure who should be accessible to the media.
“This is a democracy and the media should have unhindered access to the President-elect. He is not a private person.”
Mr. Tayo Oyetibo (SAN), said Buhari “should tread softly and be tolerant of criticisms because PDP is presently going through a process of political annihilation, by reason of which it might not be able to provide effective opposition.
“Buhari should expect very stiff, scorching and scathing criticisms from civil society groups and activists.”
Also, frontline rights activist and constitutional lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, lambasted the Buhari, saying the ban was totally unacceptable, unpalatable and dictatorial, and had no place in the new Nigeria.
He argued that by virtue of Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution, every person, including AIT, has a right to freedom of expression and the press, and that the position was further restated in the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.
Also, a human rights group, the Centre for Human Rights and Social Justice, CHRSJ, condemned the ban, accusing the President-elect of having a hidden agenda in the governance of the country.
The Centre’s Executive Chairman, Comrade Adeniyi, Alimi Sulaiman, in a statement in Lagos said Buhari goofed with the decision to ban the media station from covering his activities.
The rights group, however, said Buhari should be tutored on the act of governance in a democratic era, adding that democracy was new in the President-elect’s dictionary and strange to his nature because of his military background. It stressed that the Freedom of Press is one of the basis of entrenching democracy in the world.
The group urged genuine pro-democracy Nigerians to be ready to defend our current democratic experiment before anti-democratic forces returned the country to the dark days of military era where freedom of expression was withdrawn through the draconian Decree of 1984. It described the ban as undemocratic, illegal, evil, ungodly, anti-masses and anti-development which should not be allowed to stand in a democracy.
He said that Buhari lacked the moral right and constitutional justification to ban any media outfit from covering his activities since he has been elected as the next President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria for a period of four years.
In their own reaction the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, mocked the President-elect saying they thought he was now a democrat as he told Nigerians in the heat of the electioneering campaign.
Speaking through its National Publicity Secretary, Chief Olisa Metuh, PDP said “APC and the President-elect may have one or two lessons to pick from President Goodluck Jonathan, who though was the most maligned and abused President in the history of the country, even by APC, allowed his actions to be sufficiently guided by humility, tolerance and the rule of law.
Metuh, in the statement said, “After carefully studying the defence posited by General Buhari’s campaign spokesperson and the smokescreen statement by APC to cover and mitigate his anti-media posture. PDP and indeed all lovers of democracy are persuaded that the action was not only unjustifiable, but also unconstitutional and completely against the spirit of liberty and the rule of law in a democracy.
“We ask, is this a beginning of the feared erosion of the freedom and personal liberty the media and Nigerian citizens have been enjoying in the last 16 years under PDP led-administration?
“Perhaps, we need to remind General Buhari that part of the challenge of his new position, even as President-elect is that he has lost his private life which is now subject to public scrutiny and media interrogation, as required of the custodian of the mandate of the Nigerian people.
“We had thought that having declared to be a converted democrat; he would make himself amenable to the basic principles of democracy by following due process of the law on any circumstance.”
Rattled by the spate of public outcry over the move to clampdown on independent press, the APC moved to overrule Buhari on the ban on AIT. In a statement issued in Abuja by its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the party said the incoming Buhari administration would not discriminate against any media organisation, irrespective of its role during the electioneering campaign leading up to the recent polls.
It however enjoined all media organisations to observe the highest level of professional standards in carrying out their duties.
”There is a Code of Ethics guiding the practice of journalism in Nigeria, and this demands every journalist to ensure a strict adherence to the highest levels of ethics and professionalism in carrying out their duties.
”There must be repercussions, within the realms of the law, for media organisations, which have wantonly breached the Code of Ethics of the journalism profession and turned themselves to partisans instead of professionals. But such repercussions will not include barring any accredited media organisation from covering the activities of the President-elect,” APC said.
Political observers, however, picked holes in APC statement, which sought to justify why Buhari banned AIT. They argued that if the president-elect or even the party felt there is any breach of the law by any media organisation or individual they should approach the court to seek redress rather than resorting to self-help. They advised APC to take another look at the suggestions of Centre for Human Rights and Social Justice, CHRSJ, which advised that Buhari should be tutored on the act of governance in a democratic era since democracy was new in the President-elect’s dictionary and strange to his nature because of his military background. Those on same page with CHRSJ are of the view that if all the recently elected members of the National Assembly are subjected to intensive orientation programme it might not be out of place if similar orientation exercise is equally organised for the president-elect.

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