19 June 2019

Nigeria: The NBC/Daar Dispute

editorial

Suspension by the National Broadcasting Commission [NBC] on June 6 of the broadcast licenses of Daar Communications Plc, owners of the Africa Independent Television [AIT] and Ray Power radio station,caused an immediate uproar in the media and civil society community in Nigeria. Describing NBC's action as a violation of press freedom,various press associations opposed the apparently high-handed move and called its immediate reversal.

The suspension turned out to be short-lived, as an Abuja High Court asked NBC and Daar Communications to return to status quo ante. Top media groups later worked out a settlement between NBC and Daar. Still,the circumstances the led to NBC's action need serious examination. In his press statement announcing the suspension of Daar Communications' licenses, NBC's Director-General Malam Modibbo Kawu saidthe commission had evidence to the effect that AIT and Ray Power violated broadcast codes to which all broadcast stations in the country are signatories.

Specifically, Modibbo said AIT aired a documentary on the presidential election, a case that was before the Supreme Court. It further accused AIT of airing divisive and inciting comments sourced from the social media. Further justifying NBC's action, Modibbo said Daar Communication Plc failed to pay its mandatory broadcast fees and as such, it should not be on air in the first place.

Modibbo also said, "This decision is based on the provisions of Section 10 of the Third Schedule of the NBC Act Cap N11 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, which states that where, in the opinion of the commission, the station has been used in a manner detrimental to national interest [such broadcast station should be penalised]. In their relationship with NBC, Daar Communications carries on as if it is beyond the regulatory direction of the commission. They don't pay their licence fees as and when due, and its broadcast is patently partisan and one-sided and deliberately inciting and heating up the polity... "

In response to these accusations, Daar Communications said NBC, by its action, violated Section 22 of the Constitution, a section that guarantees freedom of the press to hold government accountable on behalf of the Nigerian people. The broadcast organisation glossed over the issues of bias, incitement and divisiveness raised by NBC by invoking freedom of speech, a fundamental human right. Though it admitted the non-payment of its broadcast license fees as and when due, Daar's excuse for this default was that there were some administrative hiccups in the fee's payment process.

In carrying out its constitutional role as the Fourth Estate of the Realm, we call on Daar Communications to shun biased and divisive contents that could incite the people against government or some sections of the society. There cannot be meaningful media practice in an atmosphere of tension and chaos in the country. Therefore, Daar Communication should put national unity first in its broadcast activities.

On its part, NBC demonstrated over-zealousness by suspending the license of Daar Communications Plc in the manner it did. The regulatory body's action gave the impression that it was partisan in the post-election judicial process, especially because it cited contents that were critical of the All Progressives Congress, APC. Wielding the big stick over a documentary was definitely an overkill, as there are other disciplinary instruments available for use by NBC, among them the imposition of fines.

There is a delicate line between freedom of expression and what is considered as 'hate speech' or 'incitement.'Therefore, we call on NBC to exercise caution in the enforcement of the law against any broadcast station. The cardinal responsibility of the regulatory body is to promote stability and progress in the industry, to enhance professionalism in the media as they carry out their constitutional roles, and not to intimidate the press. It is a welcome development that NBC and Daar Communications have opted to settle the dispute out of court. But both should keep to the terms and conditions of the truce.

Nigeria

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