Sonnie Ekwowusi argues that the clampdown on AIT was excessive

Last week the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) abruptly shut down the African Independent Television (AIT) and Ray Power FM radio over what it construes as the airing of “hate speech” and “divisive and inciting comments” such as, “Nigeria is cursed, “we declare independent state of Niger Delta”, “Nigeria irritates me”, “this country is gradually Islamizing” on AIT segment tagged “Kakaaki Social”. It is public knowledge that there is no love lost between the Buhari government and Dr. Ray Dokpesi, the boss of Daar Communications Limited, owner of AIT. The former has been accusing the latter of committing many sins including supporting the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). In the words of the NBC: “Its broadcast is patently partisan and one sided and deliberately inciting and heating the polity.

The management of the company has created the habit of using the channel to fight its personal battles contrary to the statutory requirements of the law”. The government is particularly angry with AIT for airing the documentary on the Presidential election documentary, a matter that is still sub-judice on AIT on Wednesday and Thursday, 22nd and 23rd May, 2019 respectively. In simple language, the government wants AIT’s licence revoked for the station’s bias in favour of PDP and the opposition. Consequently the AIT was shut down last week. However, last Friday, June 7, 2019, Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High court, Abuja ordered the immediate re-opening of AIT and that parties should maintain the status quo ante bellum pending the determination of the substantive suit between the parties.

Meanwhile in his defence, Ray Dokpesi argues that the closure of AIT and Ray Power is a mere intimidation and witch-hunting against him simply because he is affiliated to the opposition. He further argues that since coming to power in 2015 the Buhari government has been intolerant of divergent political views and has perceived them as a threat to what is narrowly conceived as a national interest. He argues that AIT owes a duty to the public to broadcast or inform public on any matter of public interest.

Without holding brief for AIT, NBC or the Buhari government let me quickly say that under our constitutional democracy, even as we understand it in Nigeria today, the citizens including members of the opposition enjoy certain basic rights. One of these basic rights is the right of the citizens to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the performance of any political party. Corollary to this right is the freedom of the press to hold opinion and impart information. Section 39 (1) (2) of the 1999 Constitution guarantees press freedom and stipulates that every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinion to receive and impart ideas and information, and freedom to own and operate a TV or wireless broadcasting upon the authorization of the President.

But as we know very well, no freedom is exercised in vacuum; no freedom is absolute, otherwise freedom will become lawlessness and end up in anarchy. Therefore, press freedom enshrined under the above section 39, is curtailed under section 45(1) of the same constitution to the effect that nothing in section 39 of the constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons. What are these laws that are reasonably justifiable in a democratic society? They include laws on defamation-libel and slander and the National Broadcasting Commission Code 2012 (hereinafter simply referred to as the “NBC Code.”)

The NBC Code classifies punishments which could be meted out to erring TV stations into grades A and B. Grade A sanctions are applied in cases of very serious breaches such as transmission without licence, etc., whereas B sanctions are applied in non serious breaches such as deviation from assigned frequency causing harmful interruption, etc. Grade A sanctions attract immediate shut down of TV station and/or seizure of TV operation licence or seizure of transmitting equipment, etc. I have meticulously read through the NBC Code and it appears to me that the charges against AIT-partisan political broadcast, political broadcast with inflammatory, divisive, inciting and provocative tone and political broadcast that threatens the indivisibility and indissolubility of the sovereign State of Nigeria-are all charges which fall under Grade B which do not attract shutting down the AIT. As regards “hate speech”, there is nothing like that in the NBC Code. Attempts by Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi (APC, Niger State) in the Eighth Senate to get Hate Speech Bill passed into law failed woefully. Therefore AIT or any TV station cannot be prosecuted under a non-existent “Hate Speech” law.

Lest we forget, constitutional democracy is participatory democracy. Variety is the spice of life. Even the NBC code encourages airing of divergent political views. In fact one of the political objectives in the NBC code is to “inculcate in the people the spirit of tolerance of all shades of opinion; and promote social justice based on the responsibilities and rights of the individuals in society”. In any case, viewed from the standpoint of the spirit of truth and self-interest, we all belong to different religious, social, political and economic groups. Therefore we all have the right to have prejudices, prescriptions and presumptions about our leaders because prejudices, prescriptions and presumptions are necessary to protect the society from the disordered appetites of political leaders. TV stations have their biases and prejudices as well. For instances, the CNN, BBC, Aljazeera, Fox and others have their biases and prejudices. Since President Trump came to power, the U.S. media has been hurling unprintable insults at him. The New York Times, in particular, is completely anti-Trump. But Trump has not dispatched the American SSS to shut down or revoke the licence of the New York Times or other anti-Trump media.

So, instead of running after AIT, the NBC should concentrate its efforts in yanking off the TV many programmes that are antithetical to our cultural heritage. There are mounting complaints in Nigeria that many programmes on the cable satellite and DSTV, etc., are abhorrent to Nigerian cultural heritage. The painful aspect is that our children are glued to the TV everyday watching these useless foreign programmes. A year ago or so, a friend living in Abuja stumbled across a DSTV channel 128 programme advertising homosexual practices. Whereas article 3.8.1 of the NBC code stipulates that womanhood shall be presented on TV with respect and dignity. But unfortunately womanhood is constantly being degraded on TV. Any small boy, for instance, who calls himself a musician, can afford to recruit dozens of half-naked women to dance for him on TV. One of the cultural objectives in the NBC code is “to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabrics of Nigeria”. The NBC must reinvent itself if it really intends to achieve these lofty objectives.