The ripples and bubbles of last week's closure of DAAR Communications before its reopening on the orders of Justice I.E. Ekwo of the Abuja High Court, evokes critical concerns on the roles of all the actors involved.
The rather unfortunate incident has thrown up several fundamental questions, while bringing to the fore significant issues of public interest. Indeed, as if the law of unintended consequences has simultaneously been at play, the faceoff has invariably become a public trial of DAAR Communications (particularly its proprietor), alongside the government.
Why are we at these crossroads? NBC, in the exercise of its regulatory powers had on May 27, 2019 queried DAAR communications for the alleged "Lack of editorial responsibility in the use of content from social media", saying some of the identified acts violated certain provisions of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code, of which, it is the custodian. NBC cited, in particular, what it termed "treasonable rhetoric" on the part of African Independent Television (AIT), while pointing out that the major culprit was the week-day 'Kakaki Social Media' early morning programme.
Concerned that NBC would, as a consequence of the query, halt its operations, DAAR Communications instituted a legal action against NBC (in which the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and the Attorney General of the Federation of the country were joined as defendants) at an Abuja High Court. Among others, it sought an ex parte order to restrain NBC from taking such actions.
The legal action against it notwithstanding, NBC, on June 6, 2019, via a press conference by its Director General, Modibbo Kawu, announced the indefinite suspension of the operating license of DAAR Communications and promptly shut down the operations of all its subsidiaries, including AIT, Raypower 100.5 FM, Faaji FM and DARSAT.
This sequence of events has led to the condemnation of NBC by cross sections of the media, the civil society, lawyers, opinion leaders, and individuals, among others.
While PREMIUM TIMES is wary of and concerned about what many consider as AIT's propensity for broadcasting what many consider as 'hate speech' and incendiary materials - particularly against the present administration - in more recent times, we agree with a number of grounds of the condemnation of NBC, which are:
That NBC acted contemptuously by embarking on such a course of action on a matter in court and of which it is the principal defendant;
That NBC constituted itself into an accuser, a prosecutor and a judge in its own case;
That NBC exceeded its regulatory brief by seeking to punish DAAR Communications for the alleged use of "inflammatory, divisive, inciting broadcasts, and media propaganda" against the government;
That the shutdown of the entire operations was too sweeping, as divisions of the outfit that were never accused of any offence, such as Raypower 100.5 FM, Faaji FM and DARSAT, were also punished; and
That without prejudice to the powers granted the NBC to suspend broadcast licences, this can only be duly exercised via the rule of law, which requires the procurement of appropriate orders of the court.
As consequence of the foregoing, PREMIUM TIMES wishes to strongly recommend that the NBC should:
Always adhere to the rule of law and due legal processes in the exercise of its power to sanction broadcast media outlets that violate the broadcasting code, especially where such organisations refuse to heed warnings and show remorse;
Device means of taking actions against specific broadcast programmes that violate the broadcasting code, rather than making all to suffer for the injury of a few;
Recognise, in all instances, that the media operates on the twin pillars of being a business for profit and a business for the rendering of public services, both of which require due consideration and the exercise of caution, even where sanctionable offences have been committed.
For DAAR Communications, the proprietor and the management of its broadcast arms should be concerned that the company has, in the wake of recent developments, come under serious public scrutiny, and in some instances outright condemnation for its tendency to disregard the ethical and professional imperatives of fairness and balance. This is strongly perceived to be a product of the publicly known partisan political interest of the owner, Raymond Dokpesi.
Of equal public concern is DAAR Communications' seeming notoriety for not paying licensing fees when due, while owing its staff months of unpaid salary. These cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, constitute an ideal reputation for a private independent media; one which occupies the pride of place as the first to be so licensed by the Federal Government of Nigeria.
DAAR Communications, therefore, needs to take urgent steps to correct these perceptions; otherwise it stands the huge risk of losing public trust and confidence, both of which are vital ingredients for media sustainability.
Finally, the Attorney General of the Federation, being a party to the lawsuit instituted by DAAR Communications, ought to have advised the NBC against taking illegal actions. The silence of the office of the Attorney General on such an important matter, as well as the subsequent deployment of security agents to the premises of DAAR Communications, after it was reopened by the NBC on the order of Justice Ekwo, makes the government complicit in this matter.
The security agents should be asked to vacate the premises immediately, as their presence is nothing but an act of intimidation of the staff and management of DAAR Communications.
Overall, the faceoff between NBC and DAAR Communications again raises the urgent imperative of reviewing the NBC Act, which was enacted by the military government. Not only is it that the NBC lacks the required independence under the Act, some of its provisions are antithetical to the promotion of media development, press freedom and democracy.
This is pertinent when we consider that in the years 2011 to 2015, about 65 violations were recorded against the media, but in the year 2015 to the first quarter of this year we already have an alarmingly inappropriate record of 265 violations, according to the pressattack.ng. Our statutes continue to carry the most embarrassing media constraining laws that are out of sync with international best practice and grossly in violation of international human rights treaties, which Nigeria is party to.
Among other issues, the regime of high licensing fees, which are capable of incapacitating the private media, despite the fact that they render public interest services such as civic education, health education, security enlightenment, among others, which government do not usually pay for, needs to be reviewed downwards.
The NBC Act should also be reviewed in such a way that the powers to investigate, prosecute and sanction are not all concentrated in the regulatory body, because they are prone to abuse. We recommend this initiative to interest groups and stakeholders in the media, including the government, the professional bodies and associations and the media support/development groups.