• Saturday, June 22, 2024
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NBC amendment: A microcosm of the war for Nigeria’s soul

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In May 2019, I wrote an article in this column titled “Nigeria’s Infinity war on the economy.” In that article, I used the egregious railroading of MTN as a study in how Nigerian regulatory posturing destroys investor confidence and ultimately hurts the economy, resulting in more suffering for ordinary Nigerians. The article stated that while the Buhari administration did not necessarily intend to damage the economy, it was too ideologically wedded to its statist convictions even in the face of contradictory evidence. A year later, after taking a step back and examining Nigeria’s economic policy decisions over the past five decades, I have comprehensively revised my position on this issue.

The amendment will predictably destroy thousands of jobs, kill the entire sports broadcasting ecosystem which includes bars and viewing centres, create billions in losses to the economy through fiscal losses and shelved investment, and even hurt the government itself through reduced tax receipts

There is a clear and unmistakable pattern of pro-state, anti-economy actions that are always most pronounced when a certain political formation is in power. This political interest group does not see value in broad-based economic growth, social freedoms and an open civic engagement space, and it uses whatever political power it controls to push policies that can only stifle freedoms, retard growth and multiply poverty. Unsurprisingly, President Muhammadu Buhari is front and centre of this formation and, on his watch as head of state, a new piece of legislation is being forced through to destroy Nigeria’s free press and slow its market-led economic growth. In this sense, while this article may contain some new information, I am quite sure I have written it before.

NBC declares war on Nigerian media

When putting forward a revision to an existing broadcast code, one would expect a measure of consultation with the various stakeholders concerned before it comes out. When the Acting Director-General of the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) instead just makes an announcement and shoots out an A4 document barking the new instructions at everyone, you might think “This guy isn’t very good at his job.” When the NBC board then sends out a contradictory notice in a national daily newspaper asking for the public to send in position papers for consultation on the amendment, you might then think “Is everything OK in there?”

When said Acting DG then sends out a furiously worded counter notice in several national dailies three days later telling everyone to ignore the prior notice and take the A4 he shot at them as law, subject only to pending presidential assent whether they like it or not, it starts to look like something altogether more sinister. According to Armstrong Idachaba, NBC acting boss, the public presentation of the (already-prepared) amendment on May 26 at a media event in Lagos is all the ‘public consultation’ it needed. His statement’s closing sentence was “Any group wishing to make further inputs will exercise such views at the next review of the code.”

Take the A4 I shot at you and don’t ask any questions

Of course, since we are not in the Federal Republic of Idachaba and the constitution still guarantees my right to do so, I decided to ask questions and find out what is in the amendment that Idachaba wants so desperately to force through without prying eyes. What I found was a monstrosity that if passed, will end the Nigerian TV and radio industry as we know it and return all of us to a time when we were completely beholden to NTA and Radio Nigeria. Later this weekend I will publish a deep-dive into the amendment, but for the purpose of this column, here is a stripped down summary of what the amendment contains.

First of all, it prohibits licensees from entering into exclusive agreements, which means that a TV or radio station is no longer allowed to enter an exclusive broadcast agreement with a content provider. Such content must now be made available to everyone in the market, which would completely distort competition as we know it. SuperSport, which seems to be the obvious target of this obnoxious clause, would no longer be able to obtain exclusive rights for the sporting content it broadcasts. It would have to purchase said rights and also have its competitors purchase the same rights (at varying prices), and then everyone would then have to hope to somehow be profitable when they all broadcast the same content – which of course is unlikely.

The amended code also compels licensees to offer programmes and/or channels to other broadcasters for retail to residential subscribers. In plain English, any programmes and channels that you own as a broadcast operator can no longer be exclusive to you. Politics Today, the award-winning daily political hard talk program on Channels Television can no longer be exclusive to Channels – they now have to sub-license it to their competitors including TVC, AIT and NTA for serialisation. In case you’re thinking, “Well at least the competitors will pay for the sub-license,” just hold on for the next clause.

The new code regulates the prices at which content is sub-licensed, meaning that when my former colleagues at Channels work hard and incur costs to produce high quality news content, the government will then force them to give this content to AIT at a price that the government decides. To put this in context, let me put it this way: every episode of Politics Today has no fewer than 11 people fully engaged to make it happen. There are at least two camera operators in the studio, at least four MCR operators manning the sound and vision mixers, a director, Adekalu in Marketing who handles sponsorships and advertising, Dare the producer who books guests and often flies them into Lagos or Abuja on the station’s bill, Seun the host who does the business in front of the camera, and the chairman who signs off on the expenditure that makes it all happen.

After all the hard work and expenditure involved in making this episode happen, Channels will then be compelled to permit TVC to broadcast it without doing any work whatsoever, and the government then gets to decide how much Channels can charge TVC for it. Realistically, an episode that costs N9 million to produce could be licensed to all of its competitors at N200,000 each.

Economic folly or deliberate sabotage?

Does this sound ridiculous? Insane? Mischievous? Destructive? How about all of the above? Clearly, any attempt to enforce such a transparently daft set of regulations on Nigeria’s media industry is akin to dipping a wedding dress in crude oil and instructing the bride to wear it that way to her wedding. These rules simply cannot fly, and they were clearly written either by an impressionable 11 year-old child who just read a pirated pdf copy of The Communist Manifesto or someone on a mission to destroy Nigeria’s broadcast media ecosystem.

The amendment will predictably destroy thousands of jobs, kill the entire sports broadcasting ecosystem which includes bars and viewing centres, create billions in losses to the economy through fiscal losses and shelved investment, and even hurt the government itself through reduced tax receipts. It would also destroy the baby steps that Nigeria is making in terms of culture industry exports, typified by Wale Adenuga’s WAP TV, which is carving a niche for itself by creating and broadcasting indigenous drama series to a global satellite audience.

According to a recent Multichoice report, its financial impact in Nigeria includes $650.8 million in GDP uplift due to employment from equipment distribution, $25.1 Million in tax contributions, $23.3 million in training and infrastructure investments, $198 million in estimated decoder subsidies, $34.8 million in CSI initiatives that impact roughly 1.6 million lives per year, and $78.7 million in staff salaries. It directly employs over 1,000 people and supports a further 20,000 plus indirect jobs in broadcasting, creative and adjacent industries.

Other players in the space including Netflix and Iroko TV have also made similar investments.

This amendment will destroy them all and condemn hundreds of thousands of Nigerians to poverty and despondency, but that is still not the worst of it. When all broadcasters either have the same content or are only allowed to charge each other as much for it as the government will permit, the content immediately becomes worthless by default. The entire business model of broadcasting and the advertising and subscription revenue that supports it is exclusivity.

Taking exclusivity away from broadcasting is like aircraft away from an airline – it condemns it to death.

The real trouble, however, begins after the TVCs and Channels TVs and Multichoices are forced to pack up when profitable business operations become impossible. It is not just entertainment that will suffer – journalism will too. When Sunrise Daily no longer exists to ask real questions and place people like House spokesperson Benjamin Kalu on the spot as it recently did, what will be left for Nigerians to consume? The answer, of course, is NTA. Without using Buhari’s preferred Decree 4 route of attacking media freedom frontally, the Buhari administration would have achieved the same thing even more effectively through the back door.

The Acting NBC DG’s clear and undisguised fear of examination makes it obvious what this is really about and on whose bidding he is pushing this abominable set of rules that were neither debated nor publicised in a supposedly democratic country. If Armstrong Idachaba has so little respect for the mass communication profession which he spent most of his career lecturing in, that he is willing to be used as a tool to destroy Nigeria’s broadcast media ecosystem – and subsequently Nigeria’s democracy itself – he should own up and stop insulting our intelligence by claiming that we are not entitled to pick scrutinise and hold up whatever regulation will affect our lives in a democratic country.

If Idachaba’s boss at a certain Villa on Yakubu Gowon Crescent, 3 Arms Zone, Abuja is still bent on reenacting 1984 by subjecting Nigerians to Decree 4, after reenacting the economic brigandage of that year as he has already done, he should also come out and tell us openly.

President Muhammadu Buhari is an elected public official who is accountable to me and to 199 million other Nigerians. He is not an emperor. It is time to decide whether the hopes, dreams and aspirations of 200 million Nigerian human beings are subservient to those of Mr Buhari and his political interest group who believe that life at the level of a subsistence farmer in Chad is what God intended for us.

This political formation should, however, realise that in spite of their coordinated attempt to convert Nigeria into Niger Republic for five decades under their near-unbroken chokehold, Nigeria has still grown into a $400bn economy which contains the human capital and economic ecosystem that made this article possible. They are losing this war and will keep losing, because the desire for freedom is at the core of the human spirit. There was another wannabe strongman who also declared war on all forms of Nigerian democracy and prosperity a little over two decades ago. All he is now is a bedtime story for little children and a poorly-referenced Wikipedia entry.

We saw him come and we watched him leave.