Nigerian Broadcast Regulator Professor Armstrong Idachaba On the State of Industry and Measures to Help, Sports Rights, the DTT Transition and the Coverage of the SARS Protests

27 November 2020
interview

London — The Nigerian broadcast regulator has a lot on its plate including issues arising from its Broadcast Code of Conduct and the delayed DTT roll-out. Russell Southwood spoke to its Director-General Professor Armstrong Idachaba about how its dealing with the issues it faces.

Q: I spent some time over the last six months talking to broadcasters in Nigeria, particularly State broadcasters, and the industry seems to be in a very dire financial situation. Is that the case and what is being done to address that?

A: You know that this is a global phenomenon. Most countries in the world are grappling with it to survive economically. If you look across the world the Covid-19 pandemic strikes nations and Governments to the bone financially. People are trying to be creative and they are trying to re-arrange their finances to see how they can get over it and get going.

What we have done deliberately in Nigeria is to create a kind of cushion. We granted some waivers and general discount on license fees. Initially, the moment the pandemic broke out we gave a 2-month waiver on license fees across the board.

That was our first measure and in addition to some kind of palliative support offered to individual broadcast stations that we considered important like community broadcasters. We sent them safety kits and some other stuff to help them protect themselves better during the pandemic.

Thereafter the discussion centered around the sustainability of the broadcast stations going forward. So we put up a generous plan where we discounted their license fees by 30% and those who were really struggling to pay we gave them a discount of 60%. Those are specific measures that we took just to instill some kind of stimulus for the industry.

Q: You've recently created the NBC Code of Conduct, what's the status of the Code? Is it advisory or is it legally enforceable?

A: The point to begin is to look at the Act setting up the NBC, which Act 32 of 1992, it's a constitutionally valid and enacted law of the Parliament of Nigeria. It gives the NBC the power to fashion a regulatory code for the broadcasting industry and to designate it.

That actually gives the NBC the power to set regulate the industry and produce a Code of Conduct. So the Code of Conduct for all intents and purposes is a valid piece of legislation and that has been upheld by several courts, including the High Court. The expectation is that anyone who is practicing in the industry should abide by the provisions of that law.

Q: I want to pick up on two issues within the Code of Conduct: firstly, section 6.2 which is about sports rights. I think the passages in it are very clear. I just wondered what reaction you got from DStv and the people who are holding the sports rights?

A: The issue over rights provisions is that there needs to be some kind of enlightenment on the provisions of the code. When NBC regulates the broadcaster, they have to understand that in the deals that they have with thirds parties over intellectual property rights are done within the broadcasters' and the owners of those rights.

But the point is that there is a national philosophy about programming content. The Nigerian communications policy is one that focuses on promoting local sports teams in a way that Nigerians and Nigerian broadcasters can benefit and maximize the potentials of rights that are acquired in the Nigerian space.

Our message basically is that broadcasters wishing to engage rights owners must have at the back of their mind that once they get these rights they must be willing to make it available to other people that are interested in the national interest.

The best example to give would be the English Premiership League (EPL). DStv spent tons of money to get the EPL rights. Our expectation is that DStv will say well EPL we have a deal with you but please be notified that a country where we operate I'm not allowed to keep these rights alone. Once I acquire it and Nigerian companies are interested I'm obliged by the Nigerian law to make it available to them at mutually agreed terms. There's no imposition of exchanging rights.

There's certain sporting rights that are very interesting to Nigerians, across social strata, like watching the English Premiership League.

Q: So it has to be available across both Free-To-Air and Pay TV platforms?

A: Absolutely so long as there's a payment. Of course, we understand where you have the rights to a certain platform the expectation is that you will not make it directly available to a competitor on that same platform. But you are obliged to make it available to other people on other platforms at a great price so that you don't create a monopoly locally.

Q: The second thing I wanted to pick up from the NBC Code was an issue that has bedeviled the industry for a long time which is getting paid on time by advertising agencies and brand owners. I wondered how realistic the provisions of the Code are on this issue? I've been doing this for 20 years and it's been an annual issue. People complain and nothing much happens. How will that change?

A: We have taken an initiative to address this recalcitrant problem that is cause of high concern for the growth of the industry. Basically our strategy is to get the broadcasters themselves to develop their own structure to protect their own business. Often they are the most victimized and the most cheated.

The advertisers put up their advertising and owe them tons of money the negotiate or renegotiate. Once a broadcaster raises an issue and begins to demand payment they simply abandon that broadcaster and move to another one. So we are saying broadcasters get united. We want to help them by regulation to say look if you are not paid after a certain time the broadcasters should have the capacity to blacklist. Once you can't advertise on any broadcaster, you will be compelled to pay. We are building an industry consensus around this provision of the code with BON and IPAN.

Q: On the DTT roll-out, there has been a delay. Where are things now?

A: True, I agree there has been a lot of delay but there has also been a lot of level of a kickstart. As we speak, we've rolled out in one third of the country. The major requirement is the technical infrastructure and the roll-out. My basic assumption is that all we need to do is to replicate what's already working. We need to further extend the signal distribution network across the country.

Q: Who is responsible for the roll-out? There have been various investigations into different companies. Who is responsible on the signal carrier side and on the Set Top Box side?

A: On the signal carrier side, two companies were licensed: ITS, which was created out of the Government broadcaster NTA and private company Pinnacle Communications, with a long history of involvement in the installation of radio transmitters. These two were licensed to deliver the signals for the distribution network and they have deployed in six states already.

Since I came in February there has been a renewed commitment to continue with the expansion. So as we speak Pinnacle and ITS are already mapping out strategy to deploy infrastructure in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano, Gombe and we hope in the next three months to see a roll-out in those major cities.

We have got set-top boxes. We licensed a team of set-top box manufacturing companies but they cannot continue to roll out boxes where there is no signal. They are cautiously waiting for the signal roll-out which is beginning to happen. I had a discussion with two or three of those set-top box manufacturers that are already working on the cheap set-top boxes and they are very optimistic that as soon as the roll-out happens the number of set-top boxes can be increased to match expectations.

Q: So how many set-top boxes are there out there already?

A: So far in the six cities where we have deployed there are conservatively 2 million set-top boxes. Our target is to deploy about 22 million set-top boxes. The set-top box manufacturers have an addition 2 million set-top boxes waiting in their warehouses. The digital switchover is a priority project for NBC.

Q: I understand there were restrictions on reporting on the SARS protests. I wondered what the logic was for that?

A: Nobody restricted anybody. Our reporters were the same, they followed the campaign. Regarding the way broadcasters issued commentaries on the campaign, what we frowned at was a deliberate abdication of professionality... where you have a reporter embedded at the location but the reporter is unable to send reports from the location so he decides to hook on to a non-verified social media platform. Would you commend a journalist who neglects to send actual reports from the location but decides to use the social media source?

Q: That was what you were addressing?

A: There are provisions of the Code that clearly state, and it is a universal practice, once you are reporting, what you are reporting must be verifiable and must be accurate. Some reporters reported inaccuracies, they sent in manipulated footages that were not taken from the scene of the incident and as far as we are concerned, they aggravated the crisis. We prefer relevant, useful information at a time of crisis.

I've just finished listening to a reporter of the BBC who was at the location and she described exactly what happened, that the soldiers came, they shot bursts into the air. They didn't shoot at anybody and the protesters organized themselves and sat down on the ground. She was asked if anybody was shot and she said 'no', she didn't see it. Nigerian reporters were there but they didn't send in any of their own reports. They hooked up with somebody on Instagram whose not a professional broadcaster and there were no professional values about verification and authentication.

A BBC report: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-54947999 According to that report:" Amnesty International says 12 people were killed when soldiers opened fire on a protest about police brutality in the wealthy Lagos suburb of Lekki".

To download NBC's Code of Conduct: https://www.nbc.gov.ng/publications-and-paper

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