Does Censoring or Banning a Movie Really Work?

By Samuel Samiái Andrews

Culture, Morality & Creativity

The media reports recently in Nigeria that the government through the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB), issued a directive to censor and ban certain categories of creative content and expressions of cinematographic works made in Nigeria or made by Nigerian filmmakers (Nollywood).

 Filmmaking is both a constitutional and statutory right of Nigerians. It is also an internationally guaranteed right, which is stipulated by multiple international treaties of which Nigeria is a signatory to most.

It is a fact that all laws are local, loosely interpreted to mean that a nation-state is the sole sovereign to set laws for its jurisdiction that enforce acceptable norms, policy and social good governance of her people. However, in the contemporary era, law-making that offends laws in the books within the same geographical sphere of a nation-state may offend the rights of its people.

If laws are made from the prism of solely enforcing moralities, sectional sensitivities and ideologies, a nation-state risks descending into State-sponsored illegalities and the illegal deprivation of private properties (intellectual property is mostly private property).

Moral, religious, and ideological sensitivities or idiosyncrasies are complexities that ought to be handled with the highest scrutiny in a state like Nigeria. In Nigeria, there are people of a variety of religious, social and cultural beliefs. Therefore, forcing any socio-cultural norm on an entire people is not just unfair but against the principles of democracy. The terms ‘…ritual killings and glamourizing other crimes…’ should be subjected to legal and anthropological certainties.

Most content shown by Nollywood are realities of Nigerian culture, folklore and history, so why criminalize, illegalize or shame our culture? The emergence and ingenuity of Nollywood are linked to the creativity and originality of the interpretation of Nigeria’s indigenous culture and folklore.

I am not stating that Nigerian culture or history is enmeshed solely in criminality or gruesome killings of her people. However, if it happens (which is a fact) what is wrong or illegal in showing these events on cinematographic platforms or sharing these stories via songs? Can NFVCB ban the existence of smoking? So, why engage in the impossible?

Some indigenous Nigerian cultures and customs may be caught in this NFVCB ban or censor directive. For instance, an unelected public official may cite a section of a regulation (which has not been subjected to public scrutiny) to ban Ifa incantation, Ekpe masquerade, Ekpo masquerade or any other traditional customs–which in most parts of Nigeria includes skulls of dead animal, hides and skin of wild animals etc.– for the misplaced discernment of “gruesomeness or barbarity”.

‘Na Who Send You’?

Cultural sensitivities have become a quasi-public policy of the National Film and Video Censors Board in its regulatory activities. NFVCB cites ‘cultural sensitivities’ as one of the criteria in granting permission for the release of a Nollywood film. This policy has been a trend from the onset. The current directive of NFVCB concerns smoking in movies, cultural scenes (reality) in films-sacrifices, ‘money-making rituals’ etc. Who defines what depictions of creativity are immoral or illegal? The government or the people of Nigeria?

It is improper to censor the visual and audio depictions of historical events and cultural practices through the medium of fiction and non-fiction storytelling. Why do we have categorizations – classifications of films- fit-for audience- ‘R’ ‘Adult’ ‘G’ etc.?

We have experienced this censorship or ban threat from NFVCB before. Half of a Yellow Sun, a movie based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book with a similar title, faced censorship issues. Other Nigerian-directed and produced films have faced a similar fate. Did the censorship or ban stop the movie from being seen by Nigerians? No! Of course, it did not although, the delay of the film’s release in Nigeria due to the interference of NFVCB may have affected the bottom line of the filmmakers in Nigeria and the censorship or ban certainly affected the creative entrepreneurial spirit and efforts of Nigerian creatives.

A More Effective Approach To Regulation Of Artistic And Literary Works

Sensible and effective national policy to regulate citizens’ conduct shouldn’t be expanded to include arbitrary abuse of power or infringement of the citizen’s creative rights legally protected as private property by the Constitution of Nigeria. Within the jurisprudential divide, one common denominator remains that laws should be effective and ‘democratically’ made for governance.

When laws or rules become anti-citizen, the essence of societal ordering becomes complicated. In modern or contemporary governance, the formal and institutional arms of government conduct empirical and deep consultations with the people (especially, those who may be fundamentally affected by a new law/rule), for filtration, analyzation and feedback on the overall significance of a new law/rule. Did the NFVCB conduct consultations with the stakeholders of Nigeria’s entertainment industry, experts and professionals? As a researcher and scholar of Nollywood, I’m unaware of the occurrence of such consultation. 

Nollywood remains one of the relevant productive sectors in Nigeria. The existence of Nollywood through its efforts continues to enrich Nigeria’s economy and boosts a positive reputation for Nigeria in the comity of nations. So, why try to fix something that isn’t broken? The Nigerian government should revert to its drawing board and approach this issue more smartly based on the current global standards of classification of movies.

Banning goods or products that have recreational or entertainment benefits to its citizens generally doesn’t work! In a digital era of creative production with ubiquitous distribution platforms powered by digital technology, how can NFVCB effectively enforce its ban or censorship? How effective is (was) banning or censoring online piracy of Nigerian movies? According to studies and research, banning online content lacked the intended impact on piracy (an obnoxious affliction on Nigeria’s socio-economic objectives) of audiovisual content. Rather, another regulatory body in Nigeria adopted a more effective mechanism to dull the effects of piracy on movies and musical works of Nigerian creatives.

The unintended consequences of the NFVCB censorship and ban directive will be the catalyst for the emergence of another wave of the black-market economy for Nigerian films that will undercut the hard work of legit Nollywood producers and directors; artists, actors, actresses, and the downline community. The focus of the NFVCB should be on the effective and realistic regulation of films not banning or censoring. The desired outcome of the NFVCB properly implementing its duties should be to propel Nollywood’s creatives to spur Nigeria’s dire national economic situation towards growth.

*Samuel Samiai Andrews is a Professor of Intellectual Property Law & United States Ambassador’s Distinguished Scholar.

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