31 years after it’s establishment, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has been restricted by a Federal High Court from imposing fines on broadcast stations.
According to the ruling by Justice James Omotosho, only the Judiciary has power to impose sanctions in line with the provisions of the constitution.
The Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) was established in 1992 by the Nigerian government as a regulatory body for the broadcasting industry in Nigeria after years of agitation for the deregulation of broadcasting in Nigeria under the Ibrahim Babangida military administration.
The commission generally, was created to regulate and monitor the activities of broadcasting organisations in the country, with a focus on ensuring that they adhere to ethical standards and promote national unity. Some other specifics of the code, according to recent amendments was to allow 75% of it’s content focus on local themes, concepts and casts for programs, anti competitive objectives, protection of the airwaves from false information, cultural and moral depravity, etc in the event of which violations can attract withdrawal of license, imposition of fines and sanctions.
Years down the line however, as is the case with some government bodies, the regulatory activities of the NBC has been allegedly bastardised, some media stations are of the opinion that the commission’s activities recently are laced with bias, harsh treatment of stations who criticise government activities or reports that expose the inadequacies of the government. In a bid to restrict some stations that are considered unfavourable to government activities and under the guise of censorship or other contraventions, the body becomes a tool for protecting the government in power by censoring stations, imposing heavy fines, some of which, in honesty, might not have committed offences warranting the punishment. The principle of separation of power is threatened when a single body has so much arbitrary power, especially in a profession as socially sensitive as journalism.
Recall that earlier this year, the NBC fined Television Continental (TVC) and Arise TV for allowing politically inciting comments on their programs, during the pre-election wave.
Ahmed Baba Datti, Vice Presidential candidate of the Labour Party in a live program made comments that was considered politically upsetting by the NBC. The NBC perhaps failed to consider the challenge program anchors are faced with on live programs to steer the conversation away from inciting language while on live broadcast, it never considered meting lesser punishment or warning on the stations, but they were fined heavily.
Earlier in 2020, the NBC imposed a N3m sanctions on AIT, Channels and Arise TV for their reports during the #EndSARS crisis which, according to NBC, heightened the tension and violence witnessed in that period. There are several other cases of NBC imposing fines and regulating the activities of the press in the country.
The argument is not about the need for regulation in the activities of the media, but why a body affiliated with the government should be given this sacred duty. The nature of press activities as a watch dog on government policies, programs and activities is threatened when the judge becomes the jury. To what extent can the sanctions and regulations be trusted to be dispassionate when it can so easily be used as a malicious tool to stifle ‘offending stations’ and wield arbitrary power on who says what?
On the other hand, the nature of Media operations requires that practitioners be accountable for what they publish as some might use freedom and absence of checks and caution as an excuse to publish several contents, that pose threats to social stability and national security. The ideology of an objective press has long ago been proven to be untrue as humans are bags of biases and our activities can be subjective. The very nature of news gathering, filtration and gatekeeping is relatively subjective to an editor’s news value judgement.
Absence of regulation creates a vacuum and has tendencies of encouraging misinformation, propaganda and the likes, therefore there is a need for regulation, just not by a body that is a government parastatal, this is tantamount to giving the cat the meat to guard.
The NBC, however bureaucratic, has been able to curb the excesses of unprofessional stations and act as checks to uphold high quality and professional standards among broadcasters. The question is.
Should the NBC be scrapped? How will members of the press be totally free to discharge their social responsibilities and hold the government accountable to it’s duties as their profession prescribes?
Should NBC regulation be replaced with specific new legal acts and ordinance that will clearly define boundaries for media stations instead ?
On the legal side of the discussion, the law provides that only the judiciary has the right to impose fines on individuals, bodies according to section 6 of the Nigerian Constitution. This is in conflict with the NBC Code which allows the body mete out criminal sanctions and imposition of fines to errant broadcast stations.
To conclude, it is evident that the incidents leading to a suit by the Incorporated Trustees of Media Rights Agenda (MRA) in which the NBC was a respondent has brought to light matters relating to media and the law which should lead to newer discussions on managing press activities, ensuring there are checks, balances and practitioners are allowed to efficiently carry out their obligations as watchdogs of the society within a legal framework.
Written by Isaac Akerele
*Akerele is a final year Mass Communication student of Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye, Ogun State and an intern at the Media Career Development Network, Lagos.