The amendment to the broadcasting code should not stand. It is a direct threat to the media
No society thrives without a robust, virile and vibrant media to gauge the pulse of the public, offer institutional check on abuse of power and make those in authority accountable to the people. As the fourth estate of the realm, the watchdog role of the media is clearly captured under Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution. According to the provision, “the press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
It is against this background that we situate the application of a contentious law by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to fine a radio station, Nigeria Info 99.3 FM, the sum of N5 million for “providing its platform to be used to promote unverifiable and inciting views….” The decision followed a claim made on the radio by a former Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) deputy governor, Obadiah Mailafia, linking an unnamed northern state governor to Boko Haram.
While we condemn incendiary and unfounded statements that tend to incite, the legitimacy of the fine imposed on Nigeria Info 99.3 FM is questionable in light of revelations by several stakeholders, including the NBC Board chairman, Ikra Bilbis, that the Nigerian Broadcasting Code was unilaterally amended by the Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohammed. “That the Honourable Minister cannot usurp the powers of the board is clearly stated in the Act. Any such action by the Honourable Minister is illegal”, said Bilbis who echoed a recent statement by the former Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) Director-General, Dr Tonnie Iredia: “Everybody expects a broadcasting commission to be an autonomous body.” He added that the minister “should leave the broadcasters in the NBC to do their professional duty.”
Like other stakeholders, the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON), the umbrella organ for all public and private broadcasters in the country, has also faulted several aspects of the new code. It said while sanction is a consequence of regulation breach, for the enforcement to be seen to be transparent and well within the constitution, there must be a process. Yet the NBC has acquired the status of the prosecutor, the advocate and the judge as evident in the manner the radio station was fined without being subjected to any process.
We agree that it is important for media practitioners to be mindful of the operating environment and the need for balance and sensitivity to the culture and diversity of our people. We also understand that in the world we now live in, there is a thin line between hate speech and free speech. However, we are worried that the Nigerian environment is increasingly becoming hostile to holding the people in power accountable. The ability of the citizenry to make sound judgment about policy is the fulcrum upon which an informed society leans and such would be almost impossible without the news, information and analysis that the media, using different platforms, provides. But they cannot perform that role in an atmosphere in which views critical of government are criminalised.
While the onus is on media organisations to set editorial template that will mitigate the effect of hate speech and breaches of professional standards, circumscribing their working environment is unacceptable. We therefore call on the federal government and its overzealous agents to uphold the right to freedom of expression reflected in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 and in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the General Assembly in 1966.
The so-called amendment to the broadcasting code by Mr Lai Mohammed is illegal, capricious and self-serving. It should not stand!
The press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to … uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people