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Banditry documentary: Trust TV N5m fine harsh, says Prof Akinfeleye

The current African representative and council member of the World Journalism Education Congress and former head of the Mass Communication Department, University of Lagos, Professor Ralph Akinfeleye, talks to OLAMIDE FAMUWAGUN about the recent National Broadcasting Commission’s imposed fine and its implications for the press freedom

The NBC recently imposed a N5m fine on Trust TV and others over a documentary on insecurity in the country. What’s your opinion on this?

My thought is that we (the media), as the fourth estate of the realm, should be able to do our work and do it well. The NBC’s N5M fine is too severe for the offence committed. You don’t start a case with the Supreme Court. What they needed to do first was to call these media houses and give them a query. It is after a query that they can be fined. It wasn’t stated that they were given a query; all we heard is that they were fined N5m, and that’s a lot of money.

The questions are, “Did the public have the right to know; is it possible to gag the press?” The story was also carried by some international media houses. Are they going to sanction those people too? I think the NBC should always have a human face.  They need to have spoken to them, queried them, and questioned them first, and if they’re not satisfied with the answers given, that’s when they can talk about imposing fines. It is not possible for the NBC or the Information Minister to padlock the air in this age of technology.

Even if it was not carried out by Trust TV, it can be carried by other media houses or even social media with no identifiable station or anchor man or woman. I think what they ought to have done was not to rush into a conclusion but to give them a query.

They (NBC) need to build on what we call the principle of fair hearing. Were they spoken to? Were they given a query? If so, what was the answer to the query given? Was it satisfactory? What advice was given? Imposing fines in this manner will not solve the problem.

In fact, it makes it harder. There is a need for the NBC to work closely with the media. The media, in carrying out their obligations, should carry them out with a sense of responsibility, in this case because of national security. National security is nebulous, so by finding, do they think that those who sent the video are going to stop? The answer is no! What the conversation should be about is how to defeat insurgency and terrorism. They should work together with the media so that they (the media) can expose these people to the security agencies that would deal with them.

How do you rate this government in press freedom with their various impositions of fines and use of the NBC?

I think the government started well, but now they’re deviating. They need to unchain the chains of attack on the press. The press and the government should work together; the press is the fourth estate of the realm. Another name for “democracy” is “free press”. There cannot be a sustainable democracy without a free press. The freedom that is guaranteed by Section 22 of our constitution and the human rights freedom of association should come into play.

There should be more dialogue between the NBC and the media, especially when we are closely moving towards the 2023 general elections. There will be more worrisome reports, so it is better for the NBC to hold more conferences and interact with the media rather than their usual way of subscribing to fines.

What would you say should be the role of the press in insecurity?

The role of the press is to help the government expose any identifiable terrorist, the sponsors of these terrorists, where they come from, where they are, and how they operate. The media should also give early warning signals to the public. I’m sure some of the media houses have been giving these early warning signals to the government; it is left to the government to take action.

For instance, the warnings of the kidnap of the President may not be true, but the press brought it out and nearly all the government officials are taking precautions.

Has the Nigerian press responded well to this frequent gagging of the media?

No, at the Guild of Editors meeting last week, we said that the reactions of the media should be rapid, rigorous, and continuous. They must also look at the Freedom of Information Act. It appears that the press is not using its provisions and there is a need to utilise them. It took us several years to get the Freedom of Information Act. Former President Jonathan signed it on the eve of his departure from the presidential seat, but it appears we are not using it.

Where would you strike a balance between what the press can put out there to the public and what should not be out there, as in the case of the BBC documentary?

In journalism school, there’s something called “news judgment,” “news value,” and “news angle.”

For instance, that same documentary can be talked about from another angle that would not cause any problem for the government, embarrass them, or make them jittery. Editors should sit down and evaluate the concepts of news value, news judgment, and news angle.

A lot of our journalists today are not patient enough to sit down and evaluate the concerns of the nation, the concerns of security, and the consequences of their stories. A lot of them do what we call “rushed-hour journalism.”  Rushed-hour journalism will continue to create conflicts with the government. While the government should be cautious and not gag the press, the press should try as much as possible to not engage in rushed-hour journalism, which is dangerous to democracy.

As a communication specialist, what is your take on Nigerian democracy and the role of the press in it?

Well, on paper, they say we are operating a democracy, but what we have, in my judgment, is an adulterated democracy.

If it is a full democracy, which is based on government by the people, of the people, and for the people, the federal government cannot be in charge of about 65 items on the exclusive list.

In other democracies, only five or six items are on the exclusive list: Security, Army, Defense, Immigration, and Currency.

All others are open to the state and local government to participate. Our democracy’s exclusive list is dangerous and so many things need to be deleted from it. The Federal government under this administration is too powerful, and that’s why we’re having problems.

In a democracy, you said, the governor of the state is the security officer, and we have seen instances where the governor tries to give information and they disobey. We should try to practise true democracy.

For the insurgency and kidnappings to be regulated, police should be established at the state level and local government levels.

Do the media have the right constitutional backing to do their job?

Of course! Look at Chapter 2, Section 22 and Section 29. These are enabling laws that empower the media to monitor the government and make them accountable to the people. They (the media) should continue to remain the fourth estate of the realm, loyal opponents and trustees of the public trust. The gagging of the media is the gagging of the public, and the government should be aware that they cannot padlock the air. NBC should understand that they cannot also padlock the air. Look at what is now going on with technology; it is impossible to padlock it. Let the air be open and let people be socially responsible.

Does the NBC’s law forbid the media from covering killings by terrorists?

There is nothing in the NBC law that forbids the media. The NBC law cannot go against the fundamental objective and state policy that allows the press to monitor the government and make them accountable.

Article 2 allows the media to cover events, but in covering these events, they (the media) need to be socially responsible. They can cover the same event from a different angle, an angle that would not cause disharmony or conflict. There is no NBC law that says they should not cover events of crisis, but in doing so they have to do it from a reasonable angle so it does not provoke any damage. The NBC codes are simply regulations, and the Nigerian Constitution supersedes them.

Should the media cover up these killings because of what some government officials call patriotism?

Some of these government officials are uninformed, they lack a sense of coverage, and they don’t understand the role of the media in covering conflict. They need to be educated. How can you say you want to blanket the media from covering things like these? And when these criminals are eventually captured, you’ll come and parade them before the same media. Is that not illogical? The government should stop blaming the press. They simply need to advise the press to cover such things from a human interest angle, not an angle that would change the status quo.

By law, if the media wants to show anything, they must give a warning such as “graphic content” or “viewers’ discretion advised.” It’s the choice of the public to watch it. The coverage would even help the security folks locate these terrorists. There is information that the press can get that the police may not have because these journalists live amongst us and they get the raw materials.

Article 19 protects the media from being banned from covering anything that is not causing violence.

In a democratic government, the constitution protects you. National security is not exclusive to security officials; it’s a concern for everyone. Look at what happened in Owo. It was through the media that they were able to get information that the killers had lived in one house before carrying out their operation. Would they want to ban the press from giving out such helpful information now that they have been arrested? These killings should be covered but with absolute social responsibility.

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