In the last couple of days, Nigerians were treated to a battle of words between the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which is Nigeria’s broadcast regulator and one of the nation’s foremost broadcast stations – the Africa Independent Television (AIT) and its sister radio station, referred to simply in this article as AIT. Three days ago, the regulator acting within its statutory powers suspended the AIT on grounds of breach of the broadcasting code. In a media conference, the Director General of the NBC, Ishaq Modibo Kawu, listed the many alleged breaches of the AIT which in broadcast parlance, would pass for mortal sins of the industry. Based on that, some analysts may have concluded that AIT was guilty as charged and deserved to be sanctioned. But the case is not that simplistic as it draws attention to larger issues in our broadcast landscape which we have to resolve.
In our new age of technology, Nigeria must begin to act swiftly in line with global realities which currently point to the undesirability of official control of broadcasting. The argument now is that broadcast licensing has a possibility of breaching the fundamental rights of those whose requests for licences are denied or suspended. Broadcast licensing is thus now seen to be at variance with freedom of expression as a human right as provided for in many pieces of legislation such as Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights; Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution. These are provisions which clearly stipulate the right of everyone to freedom of opinion and expression; including the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. This probably explains the demand of the Nigerian Guild of Editors for the revocation of AIT’s suspension.
In the past, it was argued that because broadcasting uses spectrum-a scarce public resource, it is virtually impossible to grant every request for a licence without creating a chaotic broadcasting milieu. There is doubt if this argument is valid today following the rise of numerous unlicensed new competitors and technologies, including: the Internet and the World Wide Web; blogging; social networking; VCRs and DVDs; podcasting; portable digital music and video; gaming platforms; and many other multimedia information and entertainment services. To some experts, broadcast licensing merely makes their operators enjoy less freedom than providers of newspapers, books and magazines, movies, live performances, as well as cable and satellite operators. Now, are all the acclaimed sins of AIT not visible to Nigerians through other organs especially social media platforms which use the same spectrum? In fact, we cannot claim that government owned broadcast stations are less blame-worthy especially against the findings of Yomi Bolarinwa, a former NBC Chief Executive that ‘recalcitrant public stations in Nigeria operate largely as the mouth piece of government instead of representing the whole society while the private stations operate as the mouth piece of the rich and powerful with the common man abandoned by both.’
Another major issue is the enabling law of the broadcast regulator and its composition. According to the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization UNESCO, it is expedient to select only members of regulatory authorities that “can function free from any interference or pressure from political or economic forces.” Nigeria’s NBC cannot meet this standard when it is made up of nominees of a government that may not be fair to broadcast stations owned by proprietors with opposing political views. This is the crux of the posture of AIT. Whether the latter is right or wrong in its perception, begs the issue. The panacea is for the framework for our broadcast licensing to change from its present colouration of members of the regulatory body who by virtue of their political appointment and lack of independence from government cannot but be partisan. Indeed, even professionals in the NBC would still carry a huge political burden if the law says they are under the supervision of a Minister especially one with Lai Mohammed’s disposition.
Broadcasting needs to be properly organized in Nigeria so that the issue of licensing is sufficiently de-mystified for the public to clearly understand why someone gets a frequency while another person is denied or why a particular licence is suspended. If not, it would be difficult to control the stations as whatever the regulator does to any operator would be criticised against what she does to a government broadcast station. To redress the situation, we need to follow how other countries have handled the subject. In the UK, the practice is for vacancies on regulatory bodies to be advertised for anybody to apply while selection is organized by an independent public appointments’ agency. In Germany, some notable interest groups such as trade unions, religious and professional bodies have the right to nominate candidates. In South Africa, members of its Independent Communications Authority are persons who have suitable qualifications, expertise and cognate experience in certain fields among them broadcasting, telecommunications, journalism, engineering etc.
The merits of a professionally organized regulator are self-explicit especially in developing societies where democracy is yet to be stabilized. In such societies, regulators under the control of government are likely to be directed to use unavailability of frequencies to reject licensing requests or to even suspend licences of members of opposition political parties. It is not only government control of the NBC that needs to change. The enabling law, the National Broadcasting Commission Act Cap. NII, Laws of the Federation, 2004 also needs to be reviewed to remove issues such as contradictory authorizations in the Act For example, in one part of its enabling law, Section 2(1b), the power of the Commission is limited to “recommending applications through the Minister to the President, for the grant of radio and television licences.” Elsewhere in the same law, Section 9 is illogically titled “powers of the commission to grant licences.” From where does the NBC derive such power? In other words, although the Commission is empowered to merely recommend the grant of a licence to higher authorities, the same Commission is described as a grantor of licences thereby equating the regulator with the President or at best confusing the subject as to who does what in the business. If the President and the NBC have same powers, what one does, can be attributed to the other by an aggrieved citizen.
Besides, by being selective about the activities of a regulator which the NBC can perform, Nigeria appears afraid to institute a viable entity. Some analysts may be wondering why the NBC is empowered to suspend/revoke a licence which it does not have power to grant. Accordingly, the substantive problem in our broadcast industry is beyond the one between the regulator and AIT