PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari’s engagement with State House correspondents last Monday was an unprecedented encounter being the first time a sitting president in the Fourth Republic would have a parley with his media constituency.
By Dapo Akinrefon
In his first coming as a military leader, Buhari won a reputation for his hostility to the press. That hostile relationship was climaxed by the jailing of two prominent journalists, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson for alleged violations of that junta’s media law, Decree 4.
Indications of Buhari’s new birth were first given by the rapport between him and Mr. Thompson who now ironically in his elderly years was one of the media handlers of Buhari’s success at the presidential elections held on March 28.
Since their inauguration on May 29, Buhari had used the Defence House, Abuja, as his base for operations pending the renovation works at the Presidential Villa.
So it was remarkable that on his first day in the villa, that the president met with State House correspondents.
Interestingly, since the advent of the Fourth Republic in 1999, no president ever had that kind of interaction with the State House Press Corps.
Perhaps, the reason for that failure may have been the inability of the media handlers of the former presidents to provide the necessary environment for such.
The decision to meet with the reporters was facilitated by two seasoned journalists, Messrs Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu respectively (Special Adviser Media and Publicity and Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity).
•(l-r) Mallam Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, President Muhammadu Buhari and Special Adviser to the president on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina during Buhari's meeting with State House Press Corps.
•(l-r) Mallam Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, President Muhammadu Buhari and Special Adviser to the president on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina during Buhari’s meeting with State House Press Corps.
Recall that during the regime of Buhari in 1984, the military and the press were engaged in a cat and mouse game, which eventually led to the gagging of the press following the enactment of Decree No. 4 of 1984, which was tested only once.
Decree 4, which was termed: ‘The Protection Against False Accusations Decree, was considered by analysts as perhaps, the most repressive press law ever enacted in Nigeria.
Section 1 of the law provided that “Any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, report or statement, 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 offense under this Decree”.
The law further stated that offending journalists and publishers will be tried by an open military tribunal, whose ruling would be final and could not be appealed in any court and those found guilty would be eligible for a fine not less than N10,000 and a jail sentence of up to two years.
The decree was tested only on The Guardian Newspaper and two of its editorial staff (Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson).
Monday’s meeting with journalists has indicated the prospects of a good working relationship between the president and the press.
It happened after a meeting with the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Godwin Emefiele. Following the two meetings, Buhari paid courtesy call on journalists covering the State House.
He was reported to have spent a total of 25 minutes with the State House correspondents.
Besides the interaction, the president shook hands and had a photograph with each journalist in the hall as they introduced themselves and their media organizations.
Asides this, the president told the journalists his government would need their help to succeed.
Also, he sought understanding of the media in navigating the present challenges facing his administration.
He said, “we really need your help to protect us from people before they march on us.”
The president, however, spoke about the prospect of his administration coming under severe attacks from the media.
Perhaps referring to the barrage of media attacks meted out to his predecessor, Buhari said he got some of the best hands as his media aides, referring to Adesina and Shehu.
According to him, “It’s not by accident that I got the best of you to be the special adviser, one of the 15 aides I had to get clearance from the Senate . He is one of the best presidents of the (editors’) guild. I brought one of the best of you so that he can consistently defend me against you.”
“Whether his (Adesina’s) job is a difficult one or easy is up to him, but I’m here to thank you in advance for what good and ill you are going to do to me. I had to quickly come to see you and welcome you to this place. I hope what happened of recent between the former president, and one of you will not happen between me and you,” he added, pointing to the recent expulsion of a State House reporter.
Adesina, the immediate past managing director of the publishers of Sun newspapers, is a tested professional who before then worked in Vanguard Newspapers and is praised for his professional integrity and forthrightness. He was until his appointment also the president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE.
Mallam Shehu is also another trusted media practitioner, who steered what is said to be the most vibrant media team for any politician, in the shape of the Atiku Abubakar Media Office before his engagement with the Buhari Campaign.
Shehu was also a president of the NGE.