By COLLINS Ughalaa
Last year when the video of the Governor’s disgraceful Charttam House event went viral, there was one man who was seen doing bodyguard for the Governor of the state in faraway London. When I inquired why such a person could go so low as to make himself the bodyguard to the Governor, someone whispered to me that his job depended on it. I asked what job. “You must be a fool”, he retorted. “Don’t you know that face? Don’t you know that body frame? Do you mean you don’t know that that man could lose his Deputy Speakership if he did not protect the Governor?”
“You are the fool here. How come you expected me to know everybody with their body frame in that kind of ladies-lature? And how did you imagine that I could know why the Deputy Speaker’s job depended on his being bodyguard to the Governor in London? By the way, how on earth could the work of a lawmaker depend on his servitude to the governor? Is tgat one lawmaker? You see that you have lost it.”
The news was everywhere. It was on the road. It was on the keke. It was on the bus, on the rooftop, in the kitchen, in the room, even in the other room, that the lawmaker had become the governor’s bodyguard. Anyways, as far lawmaking is concerned in Imo State under APC, lawmakers are glorified housemaids. That is why they chase rats and allow the bigger things to die. Like ungrateful stewards they turn round and become tormentors to their fellow stewards.
But that is gist for another day. The Igbo say that when a child does not want to work he looks for a fight. That is true of what is oozing from the kitchen of what is left of Imo State House of Assembly, where the only business that seems attractive to some idle minds is to try to create chaos and enslave the people the more. What the heck was Deputy Speaking Ugonna Ozurigbo thinking when he stumbled on the bill to re-enact and repeal newspaper law in Imo State? The answer I can lay my hands on is in the statement that “idle mind is the devil’s workshop”. Had OZB been busy with more cogent legislative duties he would not have found the luxury of time to try to muscle the press in the state. It is only despots and dictatorship that revel in muscling the press.
If OZB was looking for something to do, he should look back at his community where for the past six years there is no social amenity in the area. The closest people OZB represents have been sleeping and walking in darkness and bad roads all the days of his membership and deputy speakership of the House, and they have no other recourse than to appeal to more community spirited individuals to provide electricity to OZB’s community and family. Before the end of April, OZB and his family would be enjoying electricity in his community courtesy of a transformer a good son of the soil would be donating and connecting. But instead of finding something worth the while to do, the Deputy Speaker would rather destroy the democracy he never fought to bring, and does not know how it cane about. And perhaps, he does not understand the meaning of democracy and the press. If OZB knows a little that the press, no matter how insignificant, is the life of any democracy it would have done us a world of good. Apart from being the life of any democracy, the press holds the development of the people in its two hands. But this is what OZB is scheming to destroy, because some people like him think that the press is becoming more emboldened by the day, and thus something must be done to destroy it. And the best way to destroy the press is to introduce what OZB thinks, and then hand the press over to the government to control. Tell me what happens in a clime where the press is regulated or controlled by the government? It would become a jungle.
OZB’s claim of wide consultation with critical stakeholders in the press is at best hogwash. If that were true, the Imo State Newspapers Publishers Association (INPA) won’t be threatening fire and brimstone. OZB’s motive in proposing the anti-press bill is sinister. It has nothing to do with improving the standard of the practice in the state or any part of the world. And of course, the idea or sentiment that the existing law was old and needs repeal is at best self-serving, because, if that were to be the case, what of the law creating Imo State? Is the law not old? Is Imo State working as it should? Should we now enact another law to repeal Imo State? Some laws are foundational and meant to protect the society and the people and the government. They are not to be treated with some kind of disdain.
OZB needs to be reminded that he is entering a strange forest and should be warned lest he killed an animal he does not know. According to a press release from his office, OZB said that “the bill is expected to drive the booming newspaper sector of the state by properly ensuring that specific requirements are met before a newspaper is published or sold within the state.” The Deputy Speaker should know that the newspaper industry in the state which is the single largest employer of labour in the state today outside the government, will only thrive when the right policies are put in place by the government, especially economic policies. The OZB Law will send the press in the state to its untimely grave. Imo people do not want that. He should realize that the attitude of the government and its officials are the major problems that confront the press in the state. If these enslaving attitudes are removed, then you would see that the press in the state is one of the most vibrant in the country.
OZB’s search in the bill is what he thinks would favour the government in terms of revenue generation, as he complained that revenue that should have accrued to the state government now go to the federal government. That is imbecilic thinking. “You can’t imagine that in the current law registration fee is a mere fifty naira, an amount that when reflected in the current financial and economic scale is visibly frivolous and unrealistic”, OZB said. But he did not say how much the civil servants earn and how unreasonable it is when put in the scale of current economic development in the state.
He chose to look the other way, like they do in the face of evil, and stand facts in the head. In making the above statement OZB portrayed himself as someone who does not understand the media. This, no doubt, suggests the quality of his person and the quality of service and leadership he has provided or helped to midwife in the state assembly. And if the House was a true assemblage of man his being the deputy speaker of Imo House of Assembly would have been in the dream. He gave himself out as someone who is at best naïve in the problems he wants to solve, because he should have known that those who made the law at the time it was made knew that the price was small, and that it could be more. But they chose to leave it that way the media had so much social work to, such as engineering social changes that affect the life of the people positively, in fact more positive than what OZB has done as a lawmaker in six years. They knew that the press was not set up primarily for profit making, that the press was so important that it is the Fourth Estate of the Realm. If you would want the press to become so profit oriented and ignore its social contract with the people; if OZB would stop the press from being the watchdog of the society, then the press should be divested of its social engineering work, so that it could be run like any other business venture.
Has OZB asked why some bigmen like him shy away from establishing media outfits? The reason is that you hardly make the profit, despite the huge investments. It takes a newspaper longer time to break even, even though the investment is bigger than in most other outings. And as such some investors take to their heels before the business breaks even, leading to the closure of most media businesses. The reason is that such people thought that the press is like other business outings where your investments are expected to give you the dividends in short time. Not so with the press. And if OZB thought that the press in Imo State is doing very well, apart from the regular publications which are done at so much sacrifice and pain from the publishers, then he needs a refresher course on media management.
What the Imo State press needs is not the OZB Law but patronage, not the regular handouts the governor gives to the publishers during press briefings, which do not exceed N40,000 per publisher. The government should spread some media contracts to the publishers in Imo State. For example, the governor should as a matter of economic policy give adverts to the media in Owerri on the same cost he does with the national media, or at least, 75%.
When I was the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor of Nigeria Moment newspapers, one of the issues we took up with officials of the state government at every opportunity was the need to stop the capital flight and patronize the “local media”. That is what we need, and not OZB Law, which will strangulate the media and the people. To make the media in Imo State competitive is not to have the OZB Law, but empowerment, not by dashing the publishers money, but by doing business with the media organizations. When they have money enough to do their publications, they would be grateful paying taxes, pay the workers who also would pay taxes. Empowering the media by doing businesses with it will not only strengthen the Fourth Estate of the Realm, it will also take so many youths out of the unemployment room, since the media is the single largest employer of labour in the state, outside government.
Therefore, it is not the existing law that is obsolete but OZB’s law, because its principles only correspond with those of the stone age in the 21st century. What else can show OZB’s ignorance and ulterior motive in the proposed OZB Law other than this claim: “It’s unfortunate that for years now newspapers have been registering in Abuja thereby depriving the state of accruable revenue from the process”. OZB should tell us where he registered his own businesses, whether in Abuja or Imo State.
But let me help OZB: Newspaper companies are registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), which is a federal government agency, with offices in Owerri and other state capitals. I hope that OZB Communication was also registered with the CAC at their Owerri office and not Abuja. Should we now ask that Imo State should have her own CAC? Is it not infantile to expiate that by registering with the CAC OZB Communication has denied the state government its revenue stream? Anyone thinking so would only look like an imbecile, because such issues are settled in the constitution. Then, OZB should know that what the National Library does for the newspapers is to issue them with the Internal Standard Serial Number (ISSN). And of course, the National Library has its office in Owerri, where everyone from the South East and South South goes for such dealings. Would it be logical to conclude that my cousin who came from Port Harcourt to register his National Alert newspaper in Owerri with the National Library has denied the Rivers State Government a revenue stream? And by the way, I paid more than N50 when I registered one. So which other registration is OZB talking about? Again, OZB seems to be ignorant of the fact that the National Library does not register only newspapers for ISSN. The federal government agency also registers books, magazines and journals for ISBN.
What OZB means is that those authors who have registered with the National Library have deprived the state government of its needed revenue. If OZB was correct, what it means is that both IMSU, FUTO, Alvan, etc, and their lecturers and professors who have written one book or done one publication or the other and registered them with the National Library have done great disservices to the state. It also means that Association of Nigerian Authors should be handed over to the state government. Is OZB not using the benevolence nature has given him? From little business holding in Owerri to lawmaking, OZB should not forget that he whose palm-kernel the gods cracked should be grateful.
OZB is on a deliberate mission to destroy the Fourth Estate of the Realm by handing it over to the state government. And of course, Nigerian government did not leave the press unregulated. We have the NUJ that is ever up and doing. And if there are issues with the practice, it is not peculiar with the press. It is a process, whereby, like other professions, the press continues to wean itself of undesired elements. Just like other agencies or professions are not relenting, the press is not. There are ongoing efforts to always reposition the press, but to hand it over to the press would also mean to suggest that the legal practice, Medicine, Building, Accounting, etc etc, should be handed over to the state government because they have issues.
The state government should not buy into OZB Law. It is anti-media. It is retrogressive. It is a death pill, and we should not swallow it. The NUJ should rise against this bill. INPA should continue to push against OZB Law. The Editors should not look at it and smile. And moreover, the public and other organizations in the state should rise and stop this drift. The Chief of Staff, Ugwumba Uche Nwosu, should not buy this deal of a bill, because it can kill.
What does OZB want? And where is he coming from? OZB should be careful not thread where the gods dread.