The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development have filed a lawsuit against President Muhammadu Buhari and Mr Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture, over a new directive preventing broadcasters from reporting details of terrorist attacks.
The suit is asking the court to “declare illegal the gag order stopping journalists and broadcast stations from reporting details of terrorist attacks and victims, as the order violates media freedom and Nigerians’ freedom of expression and access to information”.
The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) is joined in the suit as a defendant.
The information was disclosed in a statement on Sunday by SERAP's Deputy Director, Kolawole Oluwadare.
The suit followed the directive by NBC asking journalists, television, and radio stations in Nigeria to stop “glamourising and giving too many details on the nefarious activities of terrorists and kidnappers” during their daily newspaper reviews.
In suit number FHC/ABJ/CS/725/2021 filed last Friday, SERAP and PTCIJ are seeking: “an order of perpetual injunction restraining the government of Buhari, the NBC, and Mr Lai Mohammed or any other persons from imposing fines or other sanctions on broadcast stations for carrying out their constitutional duties of reporting details of terrorist attacks and victims during daily newspaper reviews”.
In the suit, SERAP and PTCIJ are also seeking “an order to compel and direct the NBC and Mr Lai Mohammed to withdraw the directive asking journalists and broadcast stations to stop reporting details on terrorist attacks and victims, as the directive is unlawful and inconsistent with the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 [as amended], and the country’s international human rights obligations”.
SERAP and PTCIJ are also seeking “an order setting aside the directive on reporting of terrorist attacks and victims, for being inconsistent and incompatible with sections 22 and 39 of the Nigerian Constitution, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”.
SERAP said: “Unless the reliefs sought are urgently granted by this Honourable Court, the directive by the NBC and Mr Lai Mohammed would be used to impermissibly restrict Nigerians’ rights to freedom of expression, access to information, media freedom, and victims’ right to justice and effective remedies.”
SERAP and PTCIJ argue that “the failure by the government of President Buhari to direct the NBC to withdraw its directive on reporting of terrorist attacks and victims violates sections 5[a] and [b], 147 and 148 of the Nigerian Constitution, Code of Conduct for Public Officers [Fifth Schedule Part 1], and Oath of office [Seventh Schedule] of the Constitution”.
SERAP and PTCIJ are also seeking “a declaration that sections 5.4.1[f] and 5.4.3 of the National Broadcasting Code and their application to the daily review of newspaper headlines by broadcast stations are inconsistent with sections 22 and 39 of the Nigerian Constitution, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”.
The statement read in part: “The NBC directive fails to establish a direct and immediate connection between the reporting by broadcast stations and purported risks to national security and peace. The NBC is using ‘national security’ as a pretext to intimidate and harass journalists and broadcast stations, and to violate Nigerians’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information.”
SERAP and PTCIJ also argue that: “Factual reporting on the growing violence in some parts of Nigeria is a matter of public interest. National security considerations should be limited in application to situations in which the interest of the whole nation is at stake, which would thereby exclude restrictions in the sole interest of a government, regime, or power group.”
The suit filed on behalf of SERAP and PTCIJ by their lawyers, Kolawole Oluwadare and Opeyemi Owolabi, read in part: “The NBC and Mr Lai Mohammed lack the power and authority to restrict the ability of journalists and broadcast stations to carry out their constitutional duties and to unlawfully impose penalty such as fines and other sanctions on any journalists and broadcast stations for reporting on details of terrorist attacks and victims in the country.
“SERAP and PTCIJ together with several millions of Nigerians easily access information, news and form opinions on government policies through the daily newspaper reviews by journalists and broadcast stations in Nigeria.
“While the NBC has the powers to make rules to enable it to perform its statutory functions under section 2 [a] to [u] of NBC Act, such statutory powers ought to be exercised in line with the Nigerian Constitution, and the country’s international human rights obligations.
“The pertinent questions that arise from the directive are: Who determines what would amount to ‘too many details’, ‘glamourising’, ‘divisive rhetoric’, and ‘security issues’ during the daily review of newspaper headlines? What constitutes ‘divisive materials’ during the daily review of newspaper headlines by journalists and broadcast stations?
“In law, a regulation that is vague and loose in its scope cannot be used to take away constitutionally and internationally recognised human rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom.”
No date has been fixed for the hearing of the application for an interim injunction, and the substantive suit.