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The pithy declaration of Walter Scott is a usually reliable handle for understanding some of the utterly confusing actions of the government. Poet and essayist Scott declared, “O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!”in the poem Marmion. New rules released by the National Assembly Monday, May 20 represent a complex and tangled web that hides its intendment in highfalutin requirements.
To underscore its deceptive nature, the two principal officers of the National Assembly on behalf of whom they issued it, have denied knowledge of them. Both Senate President Bukola Saraki and Speaker of the House of Representatives Yakubu Dogara say they have no hand in drafting them. They saw them in the public space as with other citizens.
Yusuph Olaniyonu, special adviser on media to the Senate President, stated, “It is perhaps a new policy that will be in force from June 11 when the new National Assembly will be inaugurated. In any case, I will still try to advise the relevant people on an issue which I consider as bordering on press freedom and access to information.”
“Show the light, so the people will find the way”, the West African Pilot (1937-1972) declared of its mission. Shining the light remains the mission of journalism everywhere, more so in a democracy. Darkness detests the light, though, and always seeks to block it from shining on the dark motives and actions of officialdom.
The National Assembly released out of the blues new regulations to correspondents and media houses on coverage of the National Assembly. The rules covered individual and organisational qualification, the number of persons to represent each medium, reach of the print and online media but not broadcast organs, and corporate governance issues such as tax clearance for two years, business registration and compliance with a professional association.
The statement by the Director of Information of the National Assembly Rawlings Emmanuel Agada requires interested media organisations to submit two years tax returns, prove that it circulates a minimum of 40, 000 copies daily and have a certificate of incorporation as well as registration with its professional body. There should also be a code of certification from the National Library. They should also have a functional bureau in Abuja with staff strength of not less than five editorial staff and at least experience of two years covering the National Assembly.
“All online media must have at least 5000 viewership per day. The site must have been in operation for five years and provide satisfactory evidence to this effect with clippings of the new utilised (especially parliamentary news). Only television stations with national coverage and specific independent producers with current running programmes on the National Assembly will be allowed access into the chambers on a permanent basis (all the production crew will be accredited as an entity.”
The statement said each medium would be allowed only one reporter and photographer, for both print and electronic.
The guidelines are full of internal contradictions and evidence of failure to think through. Someone loves the figure five, insisting that each medium must have five editorial staff of which it would send two to the National Assembly. Online platforms must have been around for at least five years as well. There is no rationale for these numbers as minima. The National Assembly starts again with new members for both houses but does not like new faces in the media. It requires that they have spent at least five years covering the National Assembly.
There is both mischief and confusion when the guideline dabbles into the matter of reach. It prescribes a minimum circulation of 40, 000 copies daily for the print media but no figures of reach for the broadcast organs. Why not 400, 000 copies? Sunday Times historically did 500, 000 copies in the past. Or 40million, ten million more than the legendary reach of NTA for many years! The notorious fact is that very few newspapers do such figures. Newspapers are emphasising their online platforms onto where the readers have moved. The industry now speaks of composite reach figures incorporating print run, online reach and social media numbers. What happened to broadcast media reach? Is the National Assembly satisfied with the 30 million viewers on NTA? What about the listeners of the about 500 radio stations and counting or the 160 television stations in Nigeria?
The Nigerian Guild of Editors has reacted appropriately to the vexation. It urged all media houses to “rise and reject this medieval intrusion into the media space in the 21st century, much more in a democracy which the Nigerian media doggedly fought for and for which some journalists paid the supreme price”.
Why does the new National Assembly want to exclude the media from covering its activities? Will the National Assembly become like the witches coven in Macbeth cooking up many storms? Remember one of those seeking a principal officer post declared his intention to canvass tenure elongation. What is the agenda of the upcoming Assembly? Whatever it is and whoever is beating the drums, they should withdraw the obnoxious regulations as unbefitting of Nigeria in the 21st century. Anti-press rules would no longer work and are undesirable in this era.