Between Regulation and Press Freedom

Technology evolution has brought about convergence of different technologies and networks, thereby creating a thin line between regulation and technology. But the media is at the centre of the controversy emanating from this new development, writes Emma Okonji

The recent shutdown and reopening of Daar Communications Network, owners of AIT Television and RayPower radio stations by  the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), has been seen as a clash of interests between the regulator and the media.

While the media has interest and right to express its views through digital broadcasting in relation to press freedom, the regulatory body has the authority to regulate the activities of operators within the ambient of the law,

However, technology evolution is beginning to draw a thin line between regulation and technology through which broadcasting activities are carried out by the media and other operators who play active roles in the broadcasting space. Based on technology evolution and its power of convergence, industry regulators need to exercise caution in their regulatory activities to avoid stifling technology and media growth.

Last week’s pronouncement of the indefinite suspension of the operational licence of Daar Communications and the subsequent shutdown of its operations in Nigeria by the NBC for alleged violation of broadcasting laws, as well as the shutting down of social media sites in Liberia by the Liberian government, are clear actions of intimidation and attempt to cage the media, and other players in the technology space, which the world must guard against.

Licence suspension

The NBC had announced the indefinite suspension of the licence of Daar Communications Plc.  The Director-General of NBC, Modibbo Kawu, announced the suspension of the licence and the subsequent shutdown of the operations of AIT television and RayPower radio.

According to Kawu, the action was taken for failure of the stations to abide by the broadcasting code.

“AIT/Raypower embarked on use of inflammatory, divisive, inciting broadcasts, and media propaganda against the government and the NBC for performing its statutory functions of regulating the broadcast industry in Nigeria.

“Consequently, after several meetings with management of Daar Communications Plc and many letters of warning, the NBC, on June 6th, 2019, took a decision to suspend the licence of Daar Communications Plc for failure to abide by the Commission’s directives, the provisions of the NBC Act Cap N11. The shut down order is until further notice,” Kawu said.

He explained that the regulatory agency had been monitoring the stations for a long time and had issued warnings that were defied.

“Following monitoring reports and complaints from concerned Nigerians about the broadcast contents of Daar Communications Plc’s AIT/Raypower broadcast stations, the NBC have over the last two years, summoned, on several occasions, the management of the company to address issues regarding the operations of AIT/Raypower with the company, particularly, Political Platform and Kakaaki aired on AIT,” he said.

“In one of our meetings, held on 2nd June, 2017, the Commission expressed its disappointment with the way and manner hate speech, divisive and inciting comments were applied in discussion of national issues in breach of the provisions of the NBC Act and Broadcast Code,” Kawu further said.

Stakeholders’ Reactions

Following the suspension of the licence of Daar Communications and the shutdown of its operations, several groups and individuals expressed their opinion over the matter. Some condemned the action of the NBC, which they described as a deliberate attempt to undermine freedom of expression of the media and to stifle press growth and freedom.

From the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), to PDP Governors Forum, including the Senate President of the eight National Assembly, NGO and advocacy groups, all faulted the action of the the regulatory body in shutting down the operations of an independent broadcast station, without following due process.

In a statement by the NLC President, Ayuba Waba, the labour movement urged the federal government to caution all its agencies and commissions against taking any action(s) that contravenes democratic standards.

He said that NLC viewed the suspension of these licences as premeditated attacks on the media ultimately aimed at circumscribing our collective freedom. NLC advised NBC to approach the judiciary rather than take unilateral actions that eventually affects the rights of the citizens to information and knowledge.

In the same vein, the PDP Governors Forum, also condemned the NBC’s action, describing it as an act of repression against the media and a threat to the growth of democracy.

The governors stated this in a communiqué read by the Chairman of the Forum and Governor òf Bayelsa State, Seriake Dickson. after its meeting in Abuja.

The governors said: “When you shut down news outlets, when you harass and intimidate journalists, then you are threatening the growth of democracy. We condemn it and call on the federal government to do what is right.”

President of the Eighth Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, in a statement signed by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Yusuph Olaniyonu, stated that the actions of NBC could cast aspersions on Nigeria’s commitment to the freedom of the press and must be avoided.

“Regulators though necessary, must know that all such actions that give the impression of the endangering of the freedom of the press or freedom of speech cast our nation in a bad light. Such issues need to be handled in a better manner,” Saraki said.

The Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP), also condemned the suspension of the licences and shutdown of AIT and RayPower FM by the NBC, describing it as despotic authoritarian, barbaric and a complete reversal of the democratic gains the country had made in the last two decades.

The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) also joined others in condemning the action of NBC.

SERAP in a statement signed by its deputy director, Kolawole Oluwadare said: “These grounds are so subjective that if allowed to stand would seriously undermine freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information in the country. The mere fact that forms of expression on AIT/Raypower are considered by NBC to be insulting is not sufficient to justify the indefinite suspension. These grounds do not meet the requirements of legality, reasonableness, due process, necessity and proportionality.”

Also, Paradigm Initiative, an advocacy group, joined forces in condemning the action of the NBC, describing it as undemocratic and capable of stifling free expression and the freedom of the press. Paradigm Initiative in a statement signed by its CEO, Mr. Gbenga Sesan, said the NBC failed to recognise and understand that the press has the freedom to report expressions by citizens, just the same way citizens have the freedom to express opinions, however controversial.

Daar Communications’ reaction

 In the midst of the outrage by Nigerians over the indefinite suspension of the licence of Daar Communications, its founder, Dr. Raymond Dokpesi, sensing the action of NBC and the body language of the presidency, had earlier before the  suspension of the licence, filed an exparte application before a Federal High Court in Abuja, seeking an order, setting aside the action of the electronic broadcast regulator.

Dokpesi had accused President Muhammadu Buhari of stifling free speech by working to shut down AIT and Raypower FM.

Dokpesi said: “I believe very strongly that under the leadership of the current Director General of the NBC, press freedom has been greatly eroded. If this was not protected by the President at the top, is it possible that his body language is being interpreted?

“I have it on strict authority and very assured information that the highest echelons of government, the Presidency, queried and challenged the NBC that they were not doing their jobs: ‘How on earth could they be hearing and seeing on AIT what they termed hate speech?’

“Any criticism of this government is hate speech. The NBC is acting under the authority of the President and Commander-in-Chief.”


Reversal order

Following the exparte application filed by Dokpesi, Justice Inyang Ekwo after hearing the application, ordered parties in the suit to maintain status quo ante bellum as at May 30, 2019, pending the hearing and determination of Daar Communications Plc’s suit challenging the closure of its broadcast stations.

The Judge also ordered the NBC, the Attorney General of the Federation and Ministry of Information and Culture to appear before him today June 13, over the shutdown and suspension of the broadcast licence of Daar Communications Plc.

Justice Ekwo, in his ruling on the exparte application filed and argued by Benson Igbanoi of Chief Mike Ozekhome’s chamber, granted the alternative prayer of the applicant, while he held that prayers one and two cannot be granted without first hearing from other parties.

The plaintiff prayed the court to restrain the defendants from invading or closing down the premises of Daar Communication, its operations or broadcast services, pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice filed along with this application.

In obeying the court order, NBC immediately reopened the stations , pending the final outcome of the court case.

Kawu,  who spoke with THISDAY on telephone shortly after the reopening of the television and radio stations, said the commission had to obey court order, hence the stations were reopened.


NPO’s intervention

 The Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), which comprises Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON), The Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and The Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), has, however, resolved the crisis between Daar Communications and its regulator, the NBC.

The crisis was resolved by NPO on Sunday night. President of NPO, who doubles as President of NPAN, Nduka Obaigbena, last Sunday, convened a meeting of all parties to resolve the issues, where it was agreed that the suspension be lifted with immediate effect, and DAAR Communications Plc will withdraw its case in court against the NBC, while all parties will take necessary steps to work together to build confidence in the public interest.

Other agreements reached at the meeting were that DAAR Communications Plc will work out a new realistic payment plan with the NBC and ensure prompt payments in accordance with the new plan, and as well appoint an Ombudsman to ensure balance in its news coverage especially political commentary. The meeting also agreed that henceforth, it will also take full editorial responsibility for the use of content sourced from social media outlets.

According to a statement from NPO, the NBC, at the meeting restated their commitments to freedom of expression and the constitutionally guaranteed role of the media under sections 22 and 39 to hold governments accountable, which states amongst others that the press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media are to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in the 1999 constitution and ensure the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.

Liberia blocks social media

Just as Nigerians are slugging  it out with NBC over the shutdown and reopening of the broadcasting operations of Daar Communications, Liberians are  also having tough time with the Liberian government over the blocking of several social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in that country, making it difficult for her citizens to access the social media.

It is reported that the platforms were blocked in reaction to the ongoing anti-government protests in the capital, Monrovia. The protests, which have been tagged ‘Save the State’,  were against the high inflation rates and corruption in the country.

Reacting to the action of the Liberian government, Paradigm Initiative, an advocacy group, expressly condemned the act and declared that it is an affront to the freedom of expression amidst other civil liberties which belong to the citizens and residents of Liberia.

In a statement, the Chief Executive Officer of Paradigm Initiative, Mr. Gbenga Sesan, said: “Article 15 of the Liberia Constitution 1986 states that every person shall have the right to freedom of expression. So the act of blocking access to the internet or to social media platforms for whatever reason is a gross violation of citizens’ freedom of expression.

“The government of Liberia must be aware of the social, cultural, educative and economic value and relevance of the Internet. Business and human lives thrive not only on communication but on other benefits provided by social media platforms and the internet, and to block access to same is to act tyrant and disregard the liberties of the people. Grave and serious legal and historic impacts will be occasioned as a result of the action of the Liberia government.”

OTT regulation

In Nigeria, operators of Over the Top Technology (OTT) who offer free telecoms services through WhatsApp and Skype, while riding on the platform of traditional telecoms operators like MTN, Globacom and Airtel, has been accused by the traditional telecoms operators of running down their voice services business, thus eating deep into their source of revenue generation. They went further to ask the telecoms regulator to regulate the activities of OTT players, which the regulator turned down, citing instances where it could be seen as stifling the growth of the emerging technologies in the process of regulating the activities of OTT.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the body regulating the global activities of telecoms operations, in a recent statement, warned country specific regulators not to regulate OTT technology.

Governments across the world, especially in African, should begin to understand the emergence of digital technology, especially in digital broadcasting, and do well not to stifle its growth in an attempt to over-regulate its activities.

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