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By NBF News
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Keen followers of trading activities at the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) recently received with shock, news of indefinite closure of its press centre and the barring of journalists from live coverage of transactions on the floor of the exchange. The order allegedly came from the sole administrator of NSE, Mr. Emmanuel Ikazoboh.

Head of Corporate Communications, Mr Sola Oni, who communicated the development to the media, said journalists have not only been barred from covering the trading activities at the capital market, they have also been stopped from seeking news clarification or interviews from relevant staff of the exchange.

According to the NSE spokesman, any journalist or media outfit seeking any information would henceforth be required to apply through the 'proper channel and wait for adequate clearance.'

The restriction on press freedom at the NSE is strange. For an exchange that once thrived on transparency, the order from the Ikazoboh-led management amounts to gagging of the press and restriction of access to information.

The NSE, in a justification of its new position stated that no capital market anywhere in the world throws its gallery open to the public, including the media. The exchange will, henceforth, invite journalists only when it needs their services.

This is the first time that such action has been taken against media professionals covering the capital market. It is a complete breach of the press freedom enshrined in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The leadership of NSE had earlier accused some journalists of focusing on individual stakeholders in the capital market instead of reporting on the trading activities of the exchange.

The reason given by the NSE for its onslaught on the media is untenable. Its position is autocratic, high-handed and downright self-serving. The justification for wielding the big stick against the media is both lame and inexpedient to the economy and the business interests of investors, who depend so much on information from the media to make informed decisions on the capital market. Also, the reason adduced may have a boomerang effect. It has given the impression that the NSE leadership may have something up its sleeves, which it does not want to become public knowledge.

Following the series of crises at the exchange over the past year, which resulted in unprecedented depreciation of stock prices and the subsequent change of leadership by the regulatory body, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the last thing expected from the interim management of the institution is denial of access to information necessary for journalists to do their work.

What the exchange needs more than ever before is free flow of information on all trading activities, including unbiased reportage of key operators of the market. Freedom of information and access to market intelligence are a sine qua non for transparency which the capital market is in dire need of now.

This development is another reason why there should be speedy passage of the Freedom of Information Bill, which guarantees access to information for all Nigerians, but has been stalled at the National Assembly for some years now.

We urge the management of the NSE to reverse this decision without any further delay, in its own interest and that of investors. Failure to reverse the order could reinforce the wrong signal that has already been sent out that stock prices might be manipulated in the absence of the media, which has been a watchdog of the exchange. This will be unfortunate, considering that the furore generated by such action last year is yet to abate, and the matter has even become a subject of court action.

The claim by the NSE management that the institution is a 'private initiative' begs the question. In reality, the stock exchange is a public institution, driven and sustained by public funds and confidence. This public trust that is so critical for confidence in the exchange can only be won through transparency in stocks transactions.