The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) last Thursday suspended the operating licence of the African Independent Television, AIT and Ray Power FM stations owned by Daar Communications Limited.
The action was taken under the watch of President of Buhari, who in 2015 after being sworn in as president declared that he has converted into a democrat from his character and attitude as a military head of state about 34 years ago when he restricted press freedom under Decree 4, banned political meetings, among others.
Buhari as head of state in 1984 had promulgated Decree 4 which was regarded as law against press freedom.
Section One of the controversial Decree No. 4; entitled, ‘The Protection Against False Accusations Decree No.4, 1984 states “Any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, report or statement … which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offense under this Decree”.
The obnoxious law had the provision that offending journalists will be tried by open military tribunal, whose ruling would not be appealed in any court. It would be recalled that Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of The Guardian Newspapers were sentenced under the Decree.
In a similar fashion, while announcing the suspension of the licence of Daar Communications stations, the NBC Director-General, Modibbo Kawu, said the shutdown was over infractions committed by the media houses including their inability to pay their licence renewal fees and the airing of a Presidential election documentary while the matter was still before a tribunal, among others.
“The commission’s monitoring reports on AIT/Raypower indicate the use of divisive comments accredited to the segment of Kakaaki, tagged, Kakaaki Social, where inciting comments like ‘Nigeria is cursed, we declare independent state of Niger Delta,’ ‘Nigeria irritates me,’ ‘this country is gradually Islamising,’ and other similar slogans are used without editorial control in breach of the broadcast code.”
Though Daar Communications last Friday obtained an injunction from Abuja High Court ordering the immediate reopening of the stations but stakeholders have since kicked against the NBC order on AIT.
The first to protest is the President of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Christopher Isiguzo, who said in a report that the shutdown “simply signposts the return to the dark days. The NUJ will not accept any attempt by anybody, no matter how highly or lowly placed, to arm-twist or gag the media from freely expressing itself.”
In the same vein, the Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE) described the NBC action as shocking and repressive. President of the guild, Funke Egbemode, said the action of the NBC and the Federal Government was unbelievable.
“This action is unbelievable. Why would government do this in a democracy? This action is unacceptable and will not stand,” she said.
In his reaction, the presidential candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar said, “The legislature has been challenged. The judiciary has been tackled. If we stand by as the press loses its independence, there will be little to differentiate us from a dictatorship. This should not happen.”
Chieftain of PDP Femi Fani-Kayode Fani-Kayode, on his part, warned that the worst had yet to come under the present administration.
Three media sector non-governmental organiSations have also condemned the suspension, describing the Commission’s action as unwarranted, unjust, and a violation of the right to freedom of expression and media freedom.
In their joint statement in Lagos signed Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA); Lanre Arogundade, Director of the International Press Centre (IPC); and Richard Akinnola, Director of the Media Law Centre (MLC), the organisations accused the NBC of constituting itself into the accuser of Daar Communications, the prosecutor and the judge, in violation of the rules of natural justice and the right to fair hearing.
Citing the statements credited to Daar Communications stations where it was said that inciting comments were said to be made, the media NGOs disagreed, arguing that the content referred to by the NBC does not violate any legitimate international professional broadcast media standard as the comments are not hate speeches and are not inciting.
They stressed that it is not the role of a broadcast regulator to protect a government from scrutiny or criticism, adding that by seeking to shield the government from embarrassment contrary to acceptable standards of media regulation, the NBC had become too partisan, thereby exacerbating its obvious lack of independence, and concerned only with ingratiating itself with the political party in power.
The media NGOs expressed concern that the NBC as currently constituted is obviously being held hostage by the government with its immediate past Chief Executive Officer and the current Director-General both facing trial on charges of corruption under this same government, adding “under these circumstances, it is difficult to see how the Commission can perform its functions independently, fearlessly and with credibility when it continues to operate under such a cloud.”
They argued that the role of the media is to serve as the marketplace of ideas with a clear responsibility under Section 22 of the Constitution to hold the government accountable to the people and provide the government with unvarnished feedback from members of the public who rely on the media to express their views on all issues relating to the management of their affairs.
They described the NBC’s action as an attempt to muzzle the media and unduly restrict freedom of expression, adding that it is unacceptable for the Commission to attempt to punish a media organisation for providing feedback to the government from members of the public by airing opinions which though potentially embarrassing to the government, were not illegal or prohibited under any law.
The organisations contended that even if the NBC was correct in its claim that the airing of certain content in a single programme on AIT was wrong, that could not justify the closing down of the entire station and other sister radio stations which had not been accused of any wrongdoing.