FEATURE

Much ado about NBC fines and implication on free speech

The last has not been heard about the recent fines placed on three broadcast stations in the country by the regulatory body for ‘unprofessional’ conduct. ELEOJO IDACHABA examines it’s implication on free speech in the country.

The outrage and condemnations that trailed the imposition of three million naira fine on each of Channels Television, Arise TV and Africa Independent Television (AIT) by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) over the coverage of these stations of #EndSARS protests underscores the extent of public discontent with the action as well as its constitutionality or otherwise. The acting director-general of NBC, Prof Armstrong Idachaba, had announced at a press conference in Abuja that the agency has fined those stations for what the NBC termed unprofessional coverage of the protests.Good as the intention of the broadcast regulatory agency may be in line with broadcast code, the move however generated and is still generating a lot of debate and criticism from stakeholders and well meaningful Nigerians about the desirability or otherwise of such an action.
Condemnation trails move
In the wake of all these, a civil society organisation, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and the International Press Centre (IPC), among others, have condemned what they termed the unconstitutional and illegal fines imposed by the electronic media regulator. SERAP in particular made its reaction known in a statement by its deputy director, Kolawole Oluwadare in a statement titled: ‘SERAP asks NBC to withdraw illegal fines on Channels TV, AIT, Arise TV or face legal action’.The statement reads, “This action by NBC is yet another example of Nigerian authorities’ push to silence independent media and voices. NBC should drop the fines and uphold Nigerian constitution and international obligations to respect and protect the freedom of expression and media freedom. We will sue NBC if the unconstitutional fines are not rescinded within 48 hours.“This is a new low in Nigeria’s protection of freedom of expression and ability of independent media houses to function in the country. The fines are detrimental to media freedom and access to information and the NBC must immediately withdraw the decision.”The media has a vital role to play as public watchdog in imparting information of serious public concern and should not be inhibited or intimidated from playing that role. The NBC should stop targeting and intimidating independent media and voices.“President Muhammadu Buhari should caution the NBC to stop intimidating and harassing independent media houses and to respect the Nigerian Constitution 1999 (as amended) and the country’s international human rights obligations, including under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”The NUJ, on its part, said the decision by the broadcast industry regulator to penalise those stations over what it alleged as unprofessional coverage of the #EndSARS protests across the country further exposes the nation’s anti-democratic tendencies.NUJ national president, Chris Isiguzo, said in Abuja that rather than trying to muzzle the media, the NUJ suggest that NBC should applaud the media coverage of the protests and the professionalism of journalists who, despite the enormous risks to their lives, ensured a comprehensive coverage of the protests. “This development is of major concern to the union as journalists and media organisations are targets of attack by both protesters and government.”The statement says the media, despite all its perceived short comings, remains the most viable tool for good governance and democracy and should be jealously guarded and protected. The statement further called for what it says should be an end to open contempt and disrespect for the media by NBC, noting that the fines imposed on the media houses are unnecessary, discriminatory, an attempt to discourage a free, independent media and should be withdrawn immediately.Also, in a joint statement issued in Lagos over the same issue, MRA and IPC accused the NBC of turning itself into what they called a kangaroo court and called on it to immediately reverse its decision of sanctioning the three stations in order to save itself the embarrassment that both the commission and the country would suffer locally and internationally as a result of its action.MRA’s executive director, Edetaen Ojo said, “A situation where the NBC, which is so glaringly lacking in independence and subject to the direct control of political authorities, wrote the Nigeria Broadcasting Code creating the offences for which the stations were sanctioned and was the complainant in the allegations against the stations, prosecuted them and sat in judgment on the matter without even giving the stations any opportunity to defend themselves against the charges while also imposing a fine of three million naira on each of them, which it intends to collect and pocket, is offensive to any notion of fair-hearing, equity or justice.”Also, the executive director of IPC, Mr Lanre Arogundade,  spoke in the same vein saying, “The NBC has in this matter again constituted itself into the accuser, the prosecutor and judge in its own case. It is indeed strange that the fines were arbitrarily imposed without giving the concerned media outlets the option of defending the allegations. All this constitutes an affront on rule of law.”We are in sync with these stakeholders in the Nigeria project. The centrality of the media in a democracy cannot be overemphasised. As a matter of fact, the constitutional role of the media as the fourth estate of the realm makes it mandatory for the government or its regulators to provide a conducive atmosphere for the sector to thrive and excel,” he noted.Blueprint Weekend investigation shows that despite these reactions, the NBC as at the time of filling this report is yet to rescind its decision. 
Previous fines by NBC
In August this year, the NBC’s sledge hammer also came down heavily on an Abuja-based radio station, Nig Info to the tune of five million naira over what the commission considered unethical conduct bothering a comment made by a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Dr Obadiah Mailaifa.This was contained in a statement signed by the NBC management titled, ‘The National Broadcasting Commission Fines Nigeria Info for Unprofessional Broadcast’.Mailaifa in an interview had talked on the killings in Southern-kaduna worst hit by banditry when he alluded to an unnamed governor from the North-west as sponsor of Boko Haram.He had said, “Some of us also have our intelligence networks. I have met with some of the bandits; we have met with some of their high commanders – one or two who have repented – they have sat down with us not once, not twice.“They told us that one of the northern governors is the commander of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Boko Haram and the bandits are one and the same. They have a sophisticated network. “During this lockdown, their planes were moving up and down as if there was no lockdown. They were moving ammunition, moving money, and distributing them across different parts of the country,” he saidBecause of this statement on air, the NBC in reaction said, “The National Broadcasting Commission has noted with grave concern the unprofessional conduct of Nigeria Info 99.3 FM Lagos in the handling of the programme, ‘Morning Cross Fire’ aired on August 10, 2020 between 8:30am and 9:00am.“The station provided its platform for the guest, Dr Mailafia Obadiah to promote unverifiable and inciting views that could encourage or incite to crime and lead to public disorder.“Dr. Mailafia Obadiah’s comments on the Southern-kaduna crisis were devoid of facts and by broadcasting same to the public, Nigeria Info 99.3 FM is in violation of the following sections of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code. It then listed several breaches of the broadcast codes, saying, “Consequent on these provisions and in line with the amendment of the 6th edition of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code, Nigeria Info 99.3 FM Lagos has been fined the sum of five million naira.“This is expected to serve as a deterrent to all other broadcast stations in Nigeria who are quick to provide platform for subversive rhetoric and the expositions of spurious and unverifiable claims to desist from such.“The commission wishes to put it on record that it will not hesitate to suspend the broadcast licence of broadcast stations that continue to breach the code.Threatening further, it said, “Stations are, by this statement admonished to desist forthwith from airing unwholesome content or be ready to face appropriate sanctions.”Implication on free speech
However, the Nigerian government is hell-bent on regulating citizens’ expression online and offline with determination to curb hate speech. In 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari, during his Independence Day speech vowed that his administration would take what he termed a firm and decisive action against promoters of hate speech and other divisive materials on the social media. The minister of information, Kai Mohammed while announcing the hate speech fine increment stated the amendments of the NBC code necessitated to vest more regulatory powers to the commission. Since then, a number of arrests have been made of people with ‘divisive’ tendency to the government of the day in almost every state in the country. For instance, the arrest of journalists, bloggers, and social media commentators has become a regular occurrence lately owing to all of these. In Cross River, Kaduna, Kogi, Akwa Ibom, Rivers states, journalists and persons who dated to criticise those state governments were arrested on the directive of the respective state governors, detained in police facilities without trials. Among these, the cases of Agba Jalingo, Austin Okai, Jones Abiri and others are focal points. In all of these examples, their ordeals bothered on their independent opinions as guaranteed in the constitution.  While commenting on this development, Tade Ipadeola, president of PEN Nigeria Centre noted that, “Nigeria is the most pluralistic country in Africa with almost 420 ethnic groups in constant flux. In the future, she also aspires to be a major work and leisure destination for millions of people. We cannot stress the importance of constant open dialogue within the country enough.”For there to be meaningful dialogue, everyone should be free to express their thoughts and convictions. It is this ambience that fosters constructive dissent, significant collaboration, and even social and technical innovation.”Since the return of democratic rule in 1999, the country has been making slow and painful progress along the pathway of respect for human rights. But I’m afraid the country is suffering a relapse into a monologic, monocultural framework.”I also worry that the emphasis right now is on retributive justice when actually what we sorely need is distributive justice. We cannot overestimate free speech in a country that is supposedly rising. As a country, we do have some very dubious claims to preeminence in demographics and economics, at least in Africa, but those are dubious claims. “I am worried that the playing field in my country is not level. I am even more worried that even if the field were to be leveled somewhat today, it wouldn’t really do much to redress the fundamental flaws in how the country defines itself. A level playing field is no use to the mouse if it has only cats to contend with.”Analysts are of the views that in a society where there are perceived official gang up against the media, free speech would be on trial and not good for democracy.
MRA takes NBC to court
In the meantime, as the NBC failed to backdown on the fine against the three media houses, Media Rights Agenda (MRA) has filed a lawsuit at the Federal High Court in Ibadan to challenge the powers of the commission to impose fines on broadcasting stations.According to letters of the suit filed on its behalf by Boluwatife Sanya, MRA is asking the court to declare the fines as null and void, while also asking the court to set aside the fines and issue a perpetual injunction restraining the commission from imposing sanctions or fines or other unlawful or unconstitutional restrictions on television and radio stations in Nigeria.

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