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NBC’s persistent fines threaten press freedom

NBC’s persistent fines threaten press freedom

The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which serves as the regulator for the broadcast industry in Nigeria has with its most recent imposition of fines on a TV station, shown its increasing penchant to curb press freedoms.

The NBC has continued to impose fines on broadcast stations, mostly for comments made by guests interviewed on programmes, a number of which were live and not even pre-recorded. Hardly are these fines imposed because of comments made directly by journalists, employed and speaking in their capacity as representatives of those stations. Even if they were, scaring journalists into silence on topics that those at the helm of affairs at the NBC would not find palatable, is not the responsible way to regulate the industry.

In the recent fine of N5 million against Channels Television, the NBC said it was for allegedly violating the NBC code in a programme with Datti Baba-Ahmed, the Labour Party vice-presidential candidate.

When a person makes comments which under the law can attract sanctions, then they should be made to account for it as an individual. The media cannot be used to pre-emptively curb the freedom of speech of any Nigerian citizen

The NBC said Baba-Ahmed’s comments on a programme ‘Politics Today’ aired on Wednesday, 22 March, was capable of inciting public disorder and therefore violated some sections of the broadcasting code.

During the said programme, Baba-Ahmed called on President Muhammadu Buhari and the Chief Justice of Nigeria not to swear in Bola Tinubu, whom INEC declared as the president-elect, insisting that declaring Mr Tinubu a winner and issuing him a certificate of return was against the constitution. Interjections by the anchor to enable him rephrase his position, which as would be expected, generate controversy, were met with a resolute Baba-Ahmed.

We should state, however, that when a person makes comments which under the law can attract sanctions, then they should be made to account for it as an individual. The media cannot be used to pre-emptively curb the freedom of speech of any Nigerian citizen.

However, if broadcast stations keep getting fined for utterances of their guests, more so during live programmes where they could not have controlled what the audience eventually saw or heard, it is unfair to sanction them. Even if recorded, it is not a right that unpleasant comments as deemed by any administration are prevented from being aired. This manner of censorship reeks of authoritarianism and disregard for freedom of speech and of the press.

It is the kind of behaviour one would expect from military regimes and other dictatorships where only comments that glorify the regimes are considered acceptable. When stations get fined because of comments made by people, especially in the opposition parties, it sends a signal to other stations not to interview those people.

It then becomes a tacit way for the regime to deny opposition figures any opportunities for media exposure, while hoping to solely control any and all narratives. This is unacceptable and the NBC should not expect to turn the Nigerian media into such an unwilling participant in its undemocratic posturing.

Recently, the Media Rights Agenda (MRA) said it had asked the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to disclose to it under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, details of the 302 broadcasting stations reportedly sanctioned by the Commission in four months after campaigns for the 2023 elections began in September 2022.

MRA said in a statement, that it was seeking the information following the announcement made by the NBC Director General, Malam Balarabe Shehu Ilelah, at a media briefing he held in Abuja on February 9, 2023, where he was reported to have said that out of the 740 currently functional stations in Nigeria, the Commission had sanctioned 302 stations between September 28, 2022 and January 31, 2023 for various offences.

Read also: Nigeria’s media industry takes a major step with new Complaints Commission

It asked the NBC to provide for each of the 302 stations on the list, the name of the individual or entity which made the complaint against the station leading to the sanction, the date of the complaint and details of the complaint or allegation made against each station.

Earlier this year, Arise TV and Television Continental (TVC) were fined N2 million each for what NBC described as breach of Nigeria’s broadcasting codes. While both stations were accused of allowing politically-inciting language on their platforms, it also said TVC News does not offer equal coverage to other political parties apart from the All Progressives Congress.

The NBC’s complaint, however, also made reference to remarks by political actors during campaign events, notably live telecasts by the TV stations, which were aired from offsite locations and without editorial overview. These stations were however being fined by comments made live on air, from campaign events they had broadcast, not even held in their studios, much less pre-recorded ones they could have censored even though that would in itself still be over reaching.

While we believe inflammatory comments are not healthy for any nation, the trend is becoming increasingly worrisome. We call on the NBC to stop working hard to become an undemocratic, anti-press freedom tool in Nigeria. It is not too late to retrace its steps.