Abuja — The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) yesterday triggered a public outcry for slamming a N5 million fine on a private radio station based in Lagos, Nigeria Info 99.3FM, for airing views it categorised as hate speech.
No sooner had the NBC penalised the radio station over the views expressed by a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Dr. Obadiah Mailafia, on one of its programmes, "Morning Cross Fire," on August 10, than Nigerians, including a former vice president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, condemned it.
Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, Mr. Femi Falana SAN, also condemned the fine, describing it as illegal.
The NBC had penalised the radio station based on the revamped Nigeria Broadcasting Code (NB Code), which jacked up the fine for hate speech from N500,000 to N5 million.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, had earlier this month approved the new NBC code, despite opposition from stakeholders in the industry, including Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka.
But the board of NBC yesterday described the new broadcasting code as illegal, saying it cannot be used in regulating broadcasting in Nigeria.
Notwithstanding the controversy around the new broadcasting code, the NBC activated it yesterday to penalise Nigeria Info 99.3FM, Lagos.
The commission, in a statement, expressed concern over what it described as the unprofessional conduct of the station to provide its platform for Mailafia to promote what it labelled as unverifiable views that could encourage or incite people to crime and lead to public disorder.
The commission added that broadcasters hold licences in trust for the people and no broadcast station should be used to promote personal or sectional interests at the expense of the public.
It noted that Mailafia's comments on the Southern Kaduna crisis were devoid of facts and by broadcasting same to the public, Nigeria Info 99.3FM violated the Nigeria Broadcasting Code.
The NBC said: "By virtue of the provisions of some of the sections, stations are not allowed to broadcast contents that could incite to crime or lead to public disorder or programmes that contain anything that amounts to subversion of constituted authority, capable of compromising the corporate existence of Nigeria as a sovereign entity.
"Broadcasters are to balance all issues in the public interest and ensure that information given in a programme, in whatever form is accurate.
"Consequent on these provisions and in line with the amendment of the 6th Edition of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code, Nigeria Info 99.3FM Lagos has been fined the sum of N5,000,000.00 (Five Million Naira), only.
"This is expected to serve as a deterrent to all other broadcast stations in Nigeria who are quick to provide a platform for subversive rhetoric and the expositions of spurious and unverifiable claims, to desist from such."
It threatened to suspend the licence of broadcast stations that breach the code and warned broadcast stations to desist forthwith from airing unwholesome content, or they should be ready to face sanctions.
But addressing a press conference yesterday in Abuja over the purported amendment of the code, the Chairman of NBC Board, Mr. Ika Bilbis, along with other members, said the only NB code, which the board and other stakeholders recognise and which they shall work with, in the setting of operating policies and standards for the NBC, was the 6th edition, launched in 2019 in Kano.
The board added that 55 institutions and stakeholders, including the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON), Independent Broadcast Association of Nigeria (IBAN), private media outfits, broadcasters, notable media intellectuals, communication experts such as Soyinka, had, in different letters to the board, rejected the new code.
It said: "The board of the NBC wishes to make it quite clear that as long as it is in place, the only NB code that we recognise and which we shall work with, in the setting of operating policies and standards for NBC is the 6th edition of the NB Code, which was launched in 2019 in Kano. Any other purported review has no board endorsement and, therefore, cannot be utilised in regulating broadcasting in Nigeria.
"The danger of allowing the unilateral amendment of the NB Code to stand is that investors in the industry will lose confidence in the stability the broadcast ecosystem has enjoyed till date before the advent of the current Minister of Information.
"Our president and his team have worked so hard to galvanise local and foreign investment in Nigeria. Allowing obnoxious policies to take root in our investment culture will spell doom for creativity, enterprise, diversity and the general development of broadcasting in Nigeria."
Reviewing the recent negative developments concerning the purported amendment of the NB code, the board explained that the wellbeing of the broadcast media has direct relevance to the stability of the nation's democracy.
Explaining that the NBC Act empowers the commission to establish and disseminate a code, which sets standards for the quality and content of broadcast materials, the board accused Mohammed of unilaterally reviewing the regulations without the input of other stakeholders.
It said: "Code review is undertaken every four years and involves the staff of the NBC, former DGs, retired directors of the commission and all other relevant stakeholders in broadcasting.
"These include Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON), Independent Broadcast Association of Nigeria (IBAN), Private Media outfits, Broadcasters, notable media intellectuals, communication experts, digiteam and the academia."
It stated that following 2019 national elections, some members of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) made observations to Mohammed at a FEC meeting about the divisive programmes by some broadcast stations before, during and after the elections and the need to strengthen the operations of the NBC to avert such future occurrence.
This "noble observation" of the president, according to the board, was "unfortunately misunderstood" by the minister whom it accused of unilaterally amending the code.
The board said: "From the history, traditions and the convention of the NBC, no Honourable Minister of Information has ever interfered in any NB Code review.
"After the 2019 presentation of the 6th code (which is the present one), the Hon. Minister has acted alone with just a handful of his loyalists who have written a new NB Code that has created uproar in the industry, threatening to destroy investments and lead to job losses.
"The Honourable Minister has constantly dropped the name of President Muhammadu Buhari as having approved his own version of the code review. The NB Code is a regulatory framework put together jointly by stakeholders to guide their operations in the industry."
It accused the minister of dropping the name of Buhari to unlawfully review the code, stating that the president is a "stickler for due process" and he always insists on organisations doing the right thing.
"The Honourable Minister's version of the revised NB code does not meet any known criteria of due process and inclusiveness of stakeholders.
"The director overseeing the office of the DG of the NBC has equally made insinuations that the board endorsed the amendments culminating in its 'public presentation' on 26th March, 2020 at the L'eola Hotel in Lagos. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
"The "public presentation" was actually attended by serving directors in the NBC, one former DG of the NBC, a member representing the Ministry of Information and only four selected stakeholders. When compared with over 60 stakeholders that attended 2019 presentation in Kano, there is a wide gap in industry representation," it added.
The board said there were serious and disturbing amendments unilaterally carried out by the minister, which had attracted criticisms with threats of litigation from concerned organisations and individuals.
The board said the controversial portions of the purported amended code aimed at destroying hard work and enterprises, taking people's freedom and intellectual property as well as depriving hard-working entrepreneurs to empower new entrants who have not cut their teeth.
Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) also described the new NB code as a calculated attempt to muzzle the media and Nigerians' right to freedom of expression.
Speaking with THISDAY yesterday in Abuja, the National Secretary of NUJ, Mr. Leman Shuaibu, urged Nigerians and the media to rise up and defend their inalienable right to freedom of expression.
"As a union, we don't support the fine and new NB code; we believe it is an attempt to muzzle the media and suppress Nigerians from exercising their freedom of speech," NUJ stated.
Atiku also described the newly introduced NBC Code as an attempt to gag the media.
In a statement released yesterday by his office, the former vice president acknowledged the danger of hate speech to journalism and the workings for a free society.
He, however, explained that it is repugnant that the government would instrumentalise the prevention of hate speech as a means of constricting free speech.
He urged the NBC to reverse the penalty against of 99.3 Nigeria Info FM.
Atiku added that it is globally acknowledged that one of the core functions of the mass media is to inform the society on all ranges of issues, not even to the exclusion of national security issues.
According to him, the mass media has a role to play in ensuring that all possible shades of opinions are given access to the media platform.
"In many advanced democracies the world over, criminals on even wanted lists of law enforcement agencies have reached out to the media to express their opinions about the crimes that they had perpetrated and the media space was not denied to them.
"As a matter of fact, it seems somewhat contradictory that a country like ours, which is in the throes of national security skirmishes, would choose to shrink media access to critical information. It is not known if any society had won the war against terrorism by placing a restriction to access to information, in the way the NBC had done," he said.
Atiku said it was disappointing that under the watch of the All Progressives Congress (APC) the media was being targeted for extermination.
The Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) condemned the N5 million fine on the radio station and accused NBC of promoting dictatorship.
CUPP in a statement yesterday by its spokesman, Mr. Ikenga Ugochinyere, said NBC was leading the new war against the media and the right to free speech.
According to it, what NBC has not told Nigerians are the details of what constitutes offensive speech.
"This is the highest degree of oppression - beating up a child and asking that child should not cry is an abuse. If you do not want the child to cry, then do not beat the child. Fix the system and Nigerians will quit complaining," it stated.
Fine Illegal, Says Falana
Also reacting to the NBC code, human rights lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr. Femi Falana, described the N5 million fine as illegal.
He said with the NBC board's position, the amendment of the code had not come into force.
He said: "Assuming that the code was properly amended, the board cannot charge a suspect with criminal offences, prosecute, convict and impose a fine on him. The investigation being conducted into Dr. Obadiah's interview by the State Security Service has not been concluded. So, why was the NBC in a hurry to violate the fundamental right of the broadcasting station to a fair hearing?
"Section 33 (4) of the Constitution provides that anyone charged with a criminal offence shall be tried before a competent court or tribunal. Only a competent court of law is empowered to try, convict and impose a fine on a criminal suspect after a trial has been conducted before a competent court.
"In Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited in Suit FHC/UY/CS/1623/2016 - National Oil Spill Detection & Response Agency (NOSDRA) vs. Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited the Federal High Court per Hon. Justice Ojukwu held that the imposition of fines by regulatory agencies was unlawful. The judgment of the learned trial judge was upheld by the Court of Appeal in the case of Nosdra v Exxon Mobil (2018) JELR 41137 (CA).
"In view of the fact that the imposition of the N5 million fine was anchored on a purported amendment of the code and since the NBC lacks the legal competence to impose a fine on any broadcasting station without a finding of guilt by a properly constituted criminal court, the NBC should suo mutu quash the illegal fine."