For the second time in two months, the intervention of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) in the media, particularly its imposition of fines ranging from N2 million to N3 million against three private television stations, is an attack on free speech and press freedom in Nigeria. The commission’s action again calls to question the professionalism in performing its statutory duties, vis-à-vis its own unhelpful fixation as a willing tool for a media-sensitive establishment.
This is certainly a time to challenge the commission on the propriety of its workings as both a regulator and an arbitrator. More importantly, is the commission cognisant of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom to receive and impart information without interference granted all Nigerians? Although the commission was set up through a military decree, are its officials unmindful of the fact that the country is now in a democracy and as such, the NBC cannot routinely descend on the media over mere suspicion of being anti-government?
The regularity of the commission’s unsavoury intervention is becoming worrisome. In August this year, the NBC imposed a fine of N5 million on Nigeria Info 99.3 FM Radio Station, an action that was condemned locally and internationally. The latest action on October 26, 2020 extended the dragnet to three media houses. The Acting Director General of NBC, Prof. Armstrong Idachaba accused Channels Television, Arise TV and AIT of transmitting footages obtained from unverified and unauthenticated social media sources which “stimulated anger and heightened the violence” that was witnessed during the crisis that followed the EndSARS protest in the country. Apparently unsatisfied with mere accusation, the NBC proceeded to apply sanctions of payment of fine of between N2 million to N3 million with a dark hint of possible “shut down of the industry” and “withdrawal of licence.”
Not surprisingly, widespread condemnation has greeted the NBC’s action. The Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) told the NBC to withdraw the fine and put an end to the “contempt and disrespect for the media by NBC.” The union noted that actions like this only bring back unpleasant memories of the long tenure of military rule and the established culture of intolerance against the industry.
The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) condemned the fines which it described as unconstitutional and illegal. Other Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), media institutions and other well-meaning Nigerians have also condemned the NBC.
Coming against the background of attempts to conceal the possible human rights violations that attended the disruption of the EndSARS protesters at Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos, NBC’s action would seem to be part of wider scheme to intimidate the media and frustrate attempts to hold government accountable to the people. Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) charges the media to monitor governance and hold government accountable to the people. The media should pursue this responsibility without fear even in the face of attempts to muzzle them.
Rather than stoke the fire of suspicion between government and the media, NBC must be cautious in carrying out its regulatory function. The responsibility of NBC is, first of all, to the people and not necessarily to any reigning government or its officials. They must not give any impression of being used for partisan ends.
For some time now, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed whose ministry supervises the NBC has not hidden his desire to regulate social media through one form of legislation or the other under the guise of fighting fake news and hate speech. In this age of digital media, it is a wild goose chase. Rather, he should work with his principals to deliver good governance and proper orientation of the youth through examples and not precepts. That will obviate the need for any draconian regulation. In any case, there are laws in the statute books already to deal with any real infraction. The Libel/Slander law, Cyber Act 2015 are part of them.
As noted by SERAP, the legality of the sanctions has been called to question both in the Nigeria Info case and the recent one on the three television stations. Does the constitution grant the power to the NBC to accuse, try and sanction the media without recourse to the law courts? Where is the constitutionally guaranteed right to fair hearing? Who determines whether an item is offensive or it is within the ambit of free speech and the right to know?
The attempt to link the purported social media message to the violence is, at best, spurious. Should the NBC operate in disregard of the climate of discontent that was rife in the polity owing to government’s failure to discharge its responsibilities to the citizenry? The impunity of police and other security forces was a known fact that sparked off the protest from the youth. The attempt to hang this on the media cannot stand. On the contrary, the media owes it a duty to society to report both the achievements and failures of government.
Surely, the NBC’s action is highhanded and must be reversed. In a more litigious society, the law courts would have been brimming with cases against the NBC. Beyond rejecting the sanction, the concerned media houses, the umbrella body of journalists and civil society organisations should concert efforts to challenge the constitutionality and legality of NBC’s action with a view to putting an end to this odious development.
Reference has been made to the military era during which the freedom of the press was trampled upon incessantly. The country cannot return to that era in this democratic era. Significantly, the first coming of General Muhammadu Buhari as Head of State was a challenging period for the media during which draconian anti-press laws were enacted and journalists were jailed. The NBC should not give fillip to the impression that the country is back to those dark days.