NBC: Crippled by broadcasters’ debts

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BY PADE OLANIYONU

Of what value is an expired licence especially a broadcasting licence ? None. Nil. Zero.

That exactly is the situation with a large number of the country’s broadcasting organisations. Technically (and actually) many broadcasting organisations are ineligible to keep doing what they are doing, given their repeated failure to pay for the renewal of their respective licences. Up until 9 January, the scale of default in payment by radio and television organisations, including cable and pay TV services providers, to the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), stood at over N3trillion.

Stung by the size of debt, the NBC, last December, threatened to come down heavily on defaulters. The threat, issued via an advertorial published in newspapers, was titled, ‘Notice of sanctions on defaulters against the NBC Act’ and contained the list of organisations operating illegally with expired licences.

The advertorial split the defaulting organisations into three segments. Privately-owned stations had 18 entries, while those owned by government had 11. Also, there were 20 entries for those that were granted provisional licences, which have since expired.

The smallest of the debts stands at N1million, while the highest is N800 million.

Broken down, 16 private broadcasting organisations owe the NBC an aggregate of N1.7 trillion. The Nigeria Television Authority, NTA; Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, FRCN, and 34 other state-owned owe N1.3 trillion. Also in the debt loop are radio and television stations owned by the Federal Capital Territory Authority. The exceptions are those owned by Cross River and Kaduna states.

The leading organisations in the league of debtors, according to that NBC advertorial, are Silverbird Communications, DAAR Communication, FRCN, NTA and Niger TV/Radio. For state-owned stations, the biggest defaulters are Niger, Kebbi, Borno, Plateau and Taraba.

The NBC also complained that the window given to licensees “to settle all outstanding licence and other statutory fees and levies have expired”, but stated that some have since paid up and have   been issued new licence certificates. The commission similarly threatened to follow up the publication of defaulters’ names with enforcement sanctions  in accordance with the NBC Act 2004.

On 9 January, NBC Director-General, Emeka Mba, issued what he said was a final warning to defaulters, when he told journalists in Abuja that any station that failed to pay up or substantially exhibit commitment to do so by the end of that month would cease to be a broadcaster. The warning went unheeded, while the sanction threatened was not applied. This has necessitated an extension of the deadline to 16 February with NBC expressing confidence that many of the stations have commenced plans to redeem their debts to avoid suspension of operations and possible revocation of licences.

Breaching the NBC Code will invite non-renewal of licence and possible revocation of such. But in a country where influence, especially of the political variety, trumps due process, there are suspicions that many defaulters may end up not paying and also escape the sanctions recommended by the law. Protection from sanctions, it is suspected, will be sought from higher authorities.

In a country where regulations are negated with impunity especially by those who claim to be friends of government, where the law is given scant consideration, this is a possibility.  If influence triumphs over regulations, the NBC is certain to be hobbled in the drive towards digitisation of the broadcasting process, which it is leading. Recently, that was admitted by the D-G, NBC, who told journalists the need to accelerate the digitisation process is propelling the commission to recover debts from defaulting broadcasting organisations.

But can the NBC add bite to it’s bark? Will it withdraw these licenses and offer them to new businesses who remain on a long queue waiting for broadcasting licenses? The ball is in Mba’s court.

Olaniyonu, a public affairs analyst, lives in Lagos.

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