In October 2016, Information Minister Lai Mohammed stood before an audience at the Biennial Conference of African Broadcasters (Africast) in Abuja and declared proudly that policies governing Nigeria’s broadcast media space would shortly see it exceed $1bn in annual revenues. From the first entry of private capital into the space following deregulation in 1992, Nigeria now boasts almost 900 radio and television stations, a number the minister said would grow as the current administration’s digitisation policy bears fruit.
Less than four years after making this statement, a parastatal under Lai Mohammed’s supervision is pushing through a piece of regulation that promises to completely upend the basis of the Nigerian broadcast industry and destroy his projection of a thriving billion-dollar industry. The Acting Director General of the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Armstrong Idachaba recently announced a new set of amendments to its broadcasting code that will in one fell swoop demolish the intellectual property rights that underpin broadcasting and kill the business model of the Nigerian broadcast ecosystem, effectively turning it into an appendage of the government.
Notable amendment highlights
The new code prevents licensees from entering exclusive broadcast agreements with content providers, This means that TV and radio stations will no longer be able to utilise first mover advantage in identifying content and licensing it for their exclusive use, because their competitors will also by law be able to use said content.
Broadcasters are also compelled by the amendment to provide their original programmes and/or channels to other broadcasters, which means that the entire concept of exclusivity will no longer exist. By law, popular radio and television talk shows which are native to their specific stations will thus become platform-agnostic because the stations are now required to provide such content to their competitors on a sub-license basis. Incredibly, the new code also stipulates that the price for any such sub-licensing agreement will now be set by the regulator.
The new regulatory regime also includes a rule mandating any broadcaster that has obtained the rights to screen live foreign sporting events in Nigeria to also obtain rights to screen local sporting events at a minimum of 30 percent of the cost of the foreign rights. This would mean that hypothetically, a broadcaster that obtains the right to screen English Premier League football in Nigeria for $100 million won’t be allowed to broadcast games unless they purchase NPFL screening rights for $33 million. The code also prohibits advertisers from placing messaging on such foreign sports broadcasts unless they also advertise on local sporting broadcasts.
Going further into dystopian territory, the code includes an ambiguously-worded clause restricting broadcasters from using content aggregated from social media. In what is a clear swipe at citizen-led journalism, section 5.6.1 of the code says, ”The Broadcaster shall approach with restraints, the use of materials from user-generated sources in order not to embarass individuals, organisations, government, or cause disaffection, incite to panic or rift in the society at large.” This clause which may be interpreted in several ways by the authorities, would appear to be a facsimile of a contentious clause in the controversial ‘Social Media Bill.’
Also important to note is that the proposed amendment is no longer ‘proposed’ as such. According to a notice put out by Idachaba in several daily newspapers on Monday June 29, these amendments have already been set in stone and are awaiting presidential approval.
Fallout of the proposed code change
The effects of this code change would be disastrous if actually signed into effect by President Muhammadu Buhari. The most immediate and noticeable change would be a total freeze on all incoming investment into Nigeria’s broadcast media space, followed by an exodus of capital, loss of jobs and loss of highly skilled talent to emigration. This is because exclusivity is the lifeblood of all forms of broadcast media practise. Early morning radio talk shows, primetime television dramas and sports broadcasts all exist and access sponsorship and viewership based on this principle.
Taking away a broadcaster’s right to license or own content exclusively would effectively mean that all content becomes communal property, which immediately diminishes its value both in the eyes of audiences and advertisers. The collapse of an industry which already contributes more than $1bn in measurable output to Nigeria’s ailing economy would be nothing short of disastrous. No fewer than 150,000 direct and indirect jobs have been created and sustained by the private broadcast industry since deregulation, including over 20,000 by sports broadcasters alone. Crippling this industry would also starve the government of billions of naira worth of tax and licensing revenue.
Investor confidence would sink to an all-time low if this code is signed into law, successfully promoting the idea that Nigeria’s current administration is bent on pursuing an outdated goal of state domination of the economy, Communist-style policymaking and strongman authoritarianism. The thinly-veiled attempt to gag citizen journalism by instituting a chilling effect on broadcasters using content gathered from social media is sure to solidify this view which already exists among a great number of foreign investors who are currently avoiding Nigeria. At a time when the Nigerian economy is reeling from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and global economic recession, further loss of jobs and destruction of investor confidence will only prolong Nigeria’s economic quagmire and deepen the suffering of citizens.
To their credit, the NBC board does not share Idachaba’s eagerness to push through a regulatory atom bomb without the requisite consultations, which is evidenced by a notice they put out on Friday June 26 requesting position papers on the code change. This notice was later contradicted by Idachaba’s slapdown the following Monday, but the signs are that even at board level, the NBC retains a good amount of perspective, which is good news for the industry it regulates and Nigeria in general. Whether the Acting NBC boss will act with similar perspective in the days ahead remains to be seen.