It seems the issue has arisen yet again. A few weeks ago, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), an agency of the federal government, fined Channels Television, AIT and Arise TV three million naira each (N3 million) over their “unprofessional coverage” of the #EndSARS protests and the crisis that followed it.
This sanction has engendered outrage in different quarters.
In a recent editorial on whether Nigeria was drifting to a police state – a question repeatedly raised by concerned citizens, we expressed worry about government’s penchant for draconian measures to muffle public opinion.
As at November 1st, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and 261 concerned Nigerians, as well as civil society and media groups had filed a lawsuit against the NBC and Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, asking the court to “declare arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional the fines imposed on the stations.”
The suit, which is now before a court of competent jurisdiction, read in part: “A fine is a criminal sanction and only the court is empowered by the Constitution to impose it.
Fines imposed by regulatory agencies like the NBC without recourse to the courts are illegal, unconstitutional and offend the sacred principles of natural justice and fairness.”
This is indeed a test case in our quest for a fair and safe society for all citizens. Aside from the controversy around the legality of the sanction, a fundamental concern is that actions like that are palpably antithetical to the spirit and practice of democracy.
While democracy is practised differently in various countries, it generally allows for the freedom of expression and speech. Suppressing that in any way is a perversion of democratic culture.
In Nigeria, the right to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom is guaranteed under sections 22 and 39 of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In June, the commission released an amended 6th edition of the NBC Code which had as one of its notable revisions, a 1000% increase in the fine against hate speech (without a clear definition as to what constitutes hate speech).
However, the Constitution is the fundamental law of the land. All other laws including the NBC Act and any associated codes should derive their authority from the provisions of the Constitution.
The recent push by the federal government to regulate social media is another worrisome development that bears a keen resemblance to this sanction by the NBC. These seemingly authoritarian, suppressive, “gag-like” actions are what many citizens find troubling.
In the specific case of the stations that reported on the #EndSARS protest and ensuing crisis, the Acting Director-General of NBC, Prof Armstrong Idachaba, said that if the commission escalates the violations that emanated from the misuse of social media sources by broadcasters, NBC can comfortably shut the stations down.
The alleged “misuse” or “crime,” if any, of the stations should be assessed by the courts instead of the NBC issuing veiled threats.
In this case, the NBC is both accuser and judge in its matter. Legislating journalistic freedom and reporter’s sources is not so straightforward.
All over the world, news has been redefined. It is no longer “what happened” but rather “what is happening.”
The advent of technology and devices which can capture events as they are happening, by the closest person to the event, means the State can no longer “hide” under officialdom – expecting information from only one source or device.
It is against this background that private, independent stations sourced and reported “live” events at the Lekki tollgate as well as other parts of Lagos.
The government needs to be reminded that just four years ago if citizens’ speeches and expressions had been muzzled the same way the current government is tending towards, the Buhari administration would not have had the social ambience and political opportunity to get elected into office.
Therefore, the ongoing subtle gagging and suppression of rights is absurd, autocratic, despotic and offensive.
It does not augur well for the social contract between the citizenry and the leaders as enshrined in the Constitution.
The Nigerian government needs to move beyond old-fashioned, draconian measures of repression.
It should embrace the culture where people can express, capture and report their views freely.
If the Government has a counter opinion, it should be expressed openly. Where a crime against the Constitution is committed, let the courts adjudicate.
We do not subscribe to any media house circulating fake or unauthenticated news or reports.
We, however, believe strongly that government should not constitute itself into judge and jury over matters in which it has interests.
That obnoxious fine should be withdrawn immediately.