telecommunications

By Okoh Aihe

I LIKE this feeling of optimism that the various laws spring upon Nigerians as the election fever breaks. You know how the holy books put it: “Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new,” especially if you follow the laws of the land concerning elections or even concerning broadcasting in an election season.  

What the laws presuppose is that politicians have suddenly become angels; they will no longer buy SUVs for village heads, even while working in government offices; they will no longer fly bullion vans to their homes during elections, and brag: “it is my money”; they will no longer instigate area boys to break heads or cause people to be burnt in their homes, without any investigations by the security authorities; no, in Nigeria, angels will now live on earth, no longer in heaven, in the apparition of politicians.

There is a spending cap. You flout it and be given some paltry fines or spend a little wink of time in jail, which may never happen anyway, especially if you are the all powerful, but nothing says the politician will forfeit the rewards from ostentatious exhibition of power. 

In this season, so much is expected of broadcasters, to hold the nation together with their professionalism and be fair to all who walk in to do business. That has always been the creed, further accentuated by the Nigerian Broadcasting Code 6th Edition, and the Electoral Act 2022. I am anxious for the day the government controlled stations – federal and states – will allow opposition parties to enjoy generous airtime in their stations.

With that impertinent observation aside, let me state that I do not like the bind being put on broadcasters, like all sins hail from them, with some subtle hints that the stations are the repositories of slush monies. While the stations may be struggling to unravel the meanings of certain provisions of the law, there will be the need to be mindful of some little traps, so that they do not have the innocent amongst them heading to jail just to profit one greedy and scheming politician.

A certain document from the broadcast regulator, National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, caught the attention of this writer. Titled, “Countdown to 2023 General Elections: A Call for Caution”, the letter pointed out some relevant sections of the law which demand cautionary dealings or business transactions from broadcast operators.

Quoting relevant sections of the Money Laundery (Prevention and Prohibition) Act 2022, the letter signed by the Director-General of the Commission, Mallam Balarabe Shehu Ilelah, stated as follows:  Section 2(1) No person or body corporate shall, except in transactions through a financial institution, make or accept cash payment of a sum exceeding –  (a) N5, 000, 000 or its equivalent in the case of an individual; or (b) N10, 000, 000 or its equivalent, in the case of body corporate; 

Section (2) a person shall not conduct two or more transactions separately with one or more financial institutions or designated non-financial businesses and professions with the intent to avoid the duty to report a transaction which should be reported or breach the duty to disclose the information.

Then this followed. “Pursuant to these provisions, the Commission enjoins all Broadcast Stations to keep a log of all advertisements, Campaign Rallies and sponsored programmes during this period showing, Name of advertiser, Frequency/volume of advert, date and time of broadcast; amount paid for Advert/programme; type of payment (cash/bank transfer) etc.”

Then there was the platitude about their stations not being used to perpetuate Hate Speech, inciting Comments and Fake News, which they don’t monitor anyway, that is, based on what we have seen so far, where politicians used their tongues to pauperise Nigerians or lacerate other political parties from their Icarus position of wealth! Not even a caution. But threats are rolled out every day by relevant authorities when the powerful makes all such good efforts look silly. 

The Electoral Act seems to have agreed with the NBC concerning fairness in broadcasting and advert spending. But Section 95 warns that broadcast and media stations should not be employed to the advantage or disadvantage of any political party or candidate at any election. 

It states in part: “Media time shall be allocated equally among the political parties or candidates at similar hours of the day. At any public electronic media, equal airtime shall be allotted to all political parties or candidates during prime times at similar hours each day, subject to the payment of appropriate fees. At any public print media, equal coverage and visibility shall be allotted to all political parties.”

It is all well and good to issue warnings and directives to the broadcasters while the politicians search for every ingenuity to circumvent every law and regulation, to push the broadcast station into trouble just because the economy is so bad and they need to survive. 

I sympathise with broadcasters because there are some people so steeped in the act of governance/government that they have little time for reflections or introspections before saying certain things. So they don’t have any idea of what it wakes to run a broadcast outfit? Do they have any idea what the failing economy is doing to broadcast operations in the country? Do they know what it takes to mobilise for live broadcasting? These are questions the broadcasters and even the regulator should answer because, as a regulator, you have to know the health of the industry in order  to protect those who operate in it. 

A little while ago I was with one of the chief executives of a major broadcast chain in Nigeria. One of the lieutenants came to discuss the cost of operations with him. A sore point of discussion was the cost of running the generators every week, and a quick summary brought the cost to several millions every month, only at one location. It was frightening. You can do a business like that and survive. 

While the law stands supreme and operators should do everything possible not to run foul of it, this now is my humble suggestion: Elections are some months away. The broadcast operators should endeavour to conduct training programmes for their staff on the various intervening laws concerning the elections, to prevent their business from being plunged into uncertainty and avoidable difficulties. 

The days ahead, if signs are anything to go by, are going to be very interesting, even tempestuous and challenging. The broadcast operators should be on their feet to report the end of a blighted era, and contribute to writing an elegy for a regime that caused the nation pain. 

Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.