The nation’s broadcasting regulator shouldn’t give credence to the allegations of bias and suppression, writes Monday Philips Ekpe

The other day, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) addressed a letter to Arise Global Media Limited titled, “Preponderance of Derogatory and Incendiary Remarks: Final Warning”. The message is stern and unequivocal: NBC is fed up with what it sees as Arise News’ failure to host some of the quests on its shows creditably, particularly concerning the choice of words used in expressing their views. Specific names and instances are mentioned in the correspondence. As expected, strong reactions have followed.

One of the earliest came from Amnesty International which condemned “the ‘final warning’ issued to Arise TV by the FG through National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). Targeting Arise TV simply for doing their work sends the wrong message that Nigerian authorities are not prepared to be held accountable. Nigerian authorities must stop the unrelenting quest to silence media organizations like Arise TV, which are crucial to ensuring independent and diverse media space in the country and fulfilling people’s right to information. Using regulations as a way to silence independent journalism is completely unacceptable. The media in Nigeria should be free to exercise their right to freedom of expression as protected by international law.”

That response is typical of the human rights organisation, a cue that was immediately grabbed by the main opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and other commentators to lambast the government of President Bola Tinubu a little. The “final warning” in the heading is a direct reminder of the military era which also witnessed an overuse of phrases like “with immediate effect”, “summarily dealt with” and “not be tolerated henceforth”. To some people, that sounds like a move to intimidate not only Arise TV but the entire private media. Even during the reign of terror in those days, the outcomes of similar cautions were mostly mixed and ineffective for the reason that there’s something about human nature and activities that can’t be controlled by fiat. Ask officials in prisons, correctional centres, military training grounds and slave camps. As regimented as those places are, tough-sounding words can’t always be trusted to elicit obedience and compliance. I can bet that much of the antagonism the Commission has attracted to itself since that mail went public is attributable to the tone. Well, just like the rest of us, NBC’s Director General, Malam Balarabe Ilelah, must be learning about the appropriate diction to employ in carrying out his responsibilities.

The point must now be made that the legality and necessity of the duties of NBC are not in doubt. Originally set up by Decree 38 of 1992, the regulatory agency has the backing of Section 39 (2) of the Nigerian Constitution, amended as an Act by the National Assembly in 1999. The framers of the law might have considered the peculiarities of the broadcast industry before conferring on NBC some powers that could actually degenerate to dictatorial tendencies if not properly deployed. Oftentimes, broadcasting’s immediacy, wide reach, inherent magic of transmissions/airwaves and the capability of captivating illiterate or semi-literate audiences can provoke negative consequences if not adequately managed. The fact that, unlike newspapers and magazines, establishing radio and television stations in Nigeria requires the approval of the president instantly announces the uniqueness of the industry, a status that should be protected from manipulation by all means.  

In the run-up to the last general election, the country’s political space was dense, made worse by the recklessness and toxicity midwifed by some media outlets. The NBC DG then attempted an explanation for sanctioning them thus: “Ethnic and religious profiling became awfully rampant. Invectives and counterblasts were thrown freely by guests on the platform of broadcast stations at the detriment of the Nigerian people. Subversive discussions and reckless comments, capable of tearing us apart as a people were broadcast freely without proper gatekeeping. Ethics and professionalism were thrown overboard. The commission wishes to remind you that we have one country. And if we pave way for anarchy, we will all be affected. We are only in business because we have peace. Our diversity should be our strength, our assets, our power. We must guard this jealously.” Frankly put.

As credible as that submission might be, however, no mass media worth their names would just swallow whatever pills or hooks the government regulator throws at them. In March 2019, dozens of broadcast houses were fined for “unethical coverage of the elections.” The dust of the 2020 “endsars” protests hadn’t even settled when Channels Television, African Independent Television and Arise News were charged for allegedly airing unverified materials and not being sensitive to national peace and security.

As expected, some civil society organisations reacted to the sanctions on the side of the penalised institutions. Media Rights Agenda (MRA) was emphatic in a statement signed by its Executive Director, Mr. Edetaen Ojo: “A situation where the NBC, which is so glaringly lacking in independence and subject to the direct control of political authorities, wrote the Nigeria Broadcasting Code creating the offences for which the stations were sanctioned and was the complainant in the allegations against the stations, prosecuted them and sat in judgment on the matter without even giving the stations any opportunity to defend themselves against the charges while also imposing a fine of N3 million on each of them, which it intends to collect and pocket, is offensive to any notion of fair hearing, equity or justice.”

This is where the Commission needs to take its own limits and prescriptions seriously. It should try to understand the environment in which it operates. Democracy is here now. Free expression is an inalienable right that mustn’t be suppressed or be perceived as such. Anchors of television and radio programmes do owe the nation the duty to keep their interviewees from the path of false, abusive, inciting and hateful speeches. NBC should also restrain itself from bullying a sector that’s critical to the nurturing of democratic ideals.

Some introspection by both broadcasters and monitors at this time won’t be a waste at all. The best place to start is reassessing the centrality of the media profession and the rationale for its supervision. How profound the impact of mass communication generally is on individuals, organisations, societies and countries has engaged relevant students, researchers and scholars down the years. There’re conflicting standpoints but one rallying point is that the media do influence – in varying degrees – what people think about and say, or how they act and react to things. The media also validate or challenge people’s beliefs, convictions and prejudices. Even before the present dispensation when internet has super-invigorated information and communication technology, ICT, in ways that were unimaginable only two decades ago, the mass media had established themselves as indispensable instruments of largescale dissemination of news and views.

On realising the enormous power of the media, rulers all over the world, of all shades, persuasions and periods have responded to it in different ways. Some have made efforts to woo the practitioners and relate with them as partners in progress. Others, especially those who have reasons to be scared or wary of public scrutiny, simply don’t have faith in that kind of finesse. To them, coercion and other forms of strongarm tactics are the more persuasive tools of media relations. The media’s battle to maintain liberty and government’s efforts to pull strings in the name of enforcing professionalism are directed at the hearts and minds of the reading, listening and viewing public.   

Clearly, no responsible broadcast medium would deliberately offer its segments for expressing ignoble, destructive opinions. Decorum and sensitivity are non-negotiable assets in public communication. I truly do not envy the task before Dr Ilelah and his team. They need to be conscious of public perception. The atmosphere is fouled already and mustn’t be compounded.

Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board


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