NBC’s fines on media firms violate press freedom

It’s fast becoming a trend for the Federal Government to sanction media houses for stories, aired or written, that its agencies perceived as damaging the country’s image. On August 3, 2022, National Broadcasting Commission, through a letter from its Director General, Babarabe Illela, imposed fines on media outlets regarding the broadcast of documentaries about violence and theft in Nigeria.

On March 5, 2022, Trust TV had broadcast a documentary titled, Nigeria’s banditry: The inside story. Other TV channels also broadcast a documentary made by the British Broadcasting Corporation Africa Eye, and titled, Bandits Warlords of Zamfara.

According to the letter, the media violated sections of the Nigeria broadcasting code (6th edition, 2016) by allegedly promoting the activities of bandits and undermining Nigeria’s national security. The authorities referred to sections 3.1.1, 3.12.2 and 3.11.2, which state that the media should not distribute content that incites or is likely to incite violence among the populace, causing mass panic, political and social upheaval, or security breaches, among other disruptions.

NBC and the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, alleged that the documentary aired by the stations glorified terrorism. Mohammed, on July 28, threatened that the Federal Government would sanction Trust TV and BBC.

The information minister described the airing of the documentary by BBC Africa Eye as  “unprofessional,” saying interviews were granted to bandit warlords and terror gangs, thereby promoting “terror” in the country.

He said, “There is a regulatory body regulating broadcasting which is the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission and they are also aware of these two incidents. They are looking at which part of the broadcasting code that has been violated by the BBC and Trust TV. Media is the oxygen that terrorists and bandits use to breathe.

“When otherwise reputable platforms like BBC can give their platform to terrorists showing their faces as if they are Nollywood stars, it is unfortunate. I want to assure them that they will not get away with it, appropriate sanctions will be meted to both the BBC and the Trust Tv.”

NBC would later impose a fine of N5m on NTA-StarTimes Limited, MultiChoice Nigeria Limited—owners of DStv—and TelCom Satellite Limited for the BBC Africa Eye broadcast.

The letter said the fines must be paid by August 30, 2022, stressing that failure to comply would lead to the imposition of a higher sanction.

The PUNCH reports that NBC had also on October 26, 2020, fined Arise TV, African Independent Television and Channels Television between N2m and N3m each for #EndSARS protest coverage, alleging that the media houses played a part in the escalation of violence across Nigeria, as youths protested police brutality. The protests had culminated in the October 20, 2020, Lekki Toll-Gate shootings.

Again, NBC on April 26, 2021, served Channels TV a letter indicating the station’s culpability and liability for infractions of the code in respect of its broadcast about the Indigenous People of Biafra on Politics Today of Sunday, April, 25, and imposed a N5m fine on the station. Similarly, on May 2, 2021, NBC fined a radio station Inspiration FM, N5m, for airing a report on IPOB NBC said that Channels TV and Inspiration FM’s broadcast promoted secessionist, divisive, violent, and inflammatory comments.

However, the International Press Centre, last Thursday, condemned the N5m sanction on the media outfits. The IPC, in a statement by its Press Freedom Officer, Melody Lawal, described the development as an “arbitrary fine.’

She reminded the Federal Government, Mohammed and the NBC that the banditry ravaging Nigeria and putting the lives and property of citizens in jeopardy was not a creation of the media.

The IPC called on the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, the Nigeria Union of Journalists and other professional bodies championing freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the country to “rise in unison in condemnation of this new development and hostility by the government.”

Also, the Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission, Tony Ojukwu,  called for the revisiting of NBC’s legislations and policies to avoid infringement of human rights.

Ojukwu said, “We stand with the civil society to condemn the attempts of some parliamentarians to pass bills restricting social media and civic space.

“We also stand with civil society to condemn attempts by NBC to impose excessive fines on media houses for activities based on information to the citizens.”

According to him, the majority of journalists have lived up to their professional duties to unearth wrongdoings in society, no matter whose ox is gored, even at the risk of their lives and that of their family members.

Over the years, the Nigerian Guild of Editors has rejected various fines imposed on media houses over alleged infractions.

In one of its statements, the NGE described the fines as punitive, arbitrary and against press freedom.

“The NBC is punishing Channels TV for interviewing the spokesman for the Indigenous People of Biafra, while Inspiration FM is facing the hammer of NBC for broadcasting a statement by IPOB declaring a sit–at–home order,” it said in  a statement.

“Once again, NBC has played the role of an accuser, the prosecutor and the judge. In a democratic country like ours, a panel should have been set up to investigate the alleged infractions, with both stations given the opportunity for defence.

“The National Broadcasting Code is clearly at variance with the tenets of democracy anchored on freedom of expression and a free press. Every accused person or organisation deserves a fair hearing before punishment is pronounced. Obtaining letters of apology from the affected stations under duress cannot justify the action of NBC.”

Reacting to the imposition of fines, the convener of Access 2 Justice, Joseph Otteh, said the measures taken by NBC are malicious and seek to foster a chill and fear climate over the media rather than represent an instance of legitimate regulation.

He cited Section 39 of the Constitution which guarantees the right to “freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”

Otteh added that while that right, like many other rights, may be regulated in the interest of the public good, what NBC has done, from observation, is undoubtedly to inflict politically-motivated vengeance on the media over the publication of inconvenient truths that aggravate government’s embarrassment over the security situation in the country.

He said, “The media has the right to impart information, from whatever sources the information comes, and there are no legal or constitutional restrictions on persons or entities who can give information to the media. In other words, the Constitution does not restrain, ban or condemn the speech of anyone from reaching the public. And the public has the right to receive that information.

“So, on the two ways of this traffic, the NBC has transgressed very important constitutional rights. By these actions and other precedents like them, the NBC shoots itself in the foot, acting like a partisan and biased regulator than an impartial body that can be trusted to protect the public good.”

Another lawyer, Yomi Alliyu, SAN, said the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and information, adding that there is no way broadcasting of a speech made by a terrorist can incite crime, hatred or be repugnant to public feelings.

He said, “NBC is being draconian in overstretching the meaning of its code. As far as broadcasting of speech from anyone is concerned the media is only performing its role of dissemination of information as the fourth realm of the state and cannot be guillotined.”

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