April 12, 2023

Time for BON to help NBC cure its weakness

Time for BON to help NBC cure its weakness

THE Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria, BON, last week, raised a cry that the broadcast industry was facing very uncertain times in the country. Ironically, most of the problems seem to be coming from the curator of the industry, the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, which, by law, is charged with the regulation, protection and promotion of the industry.

BON is the umbrella body sheltering public and private broadcasting organisations in the country. In two separate letters addressed to the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, and the NBC, respectively, BON accused the regulator of flouting its own rules in superintending the industry and, in the process, creating chaos and uncertainties for the operators. 

Although there were always residual skirmishes between the industry and the regulator, matters seem to have come to a head under the Muhammadu Buhari administration, when the fastest dispensation of justice and resolution of any issue is recourse to fine by the regulator. Plus the residual concerns, the immediate cause of the outrage is the N5m fine imposed on Channels Television as result of a “professionally” handled interview granted Dr. Datti Baba-Ahmed, Vice Presidential candidate of the Labour Party, by Seun Okinbaloye on March 22, 2023. Part of the content was disagreeable to the All Progressive Congress, APC, whose Director of Media and Publicity, Presidential Campaign Council, Bayo Onanuga, petitioned the regulator, demanding for a sanction on Channels. 

Without giving any little opportunity to Channels to defend the broadcast, the regulator immediately flashed a red card. This has not gone down well with the industry which could only look back at recent history of fines to conclude that the regulator is trying to destroy the broadcast industry by subordinating its powers to external entities.

In requesting the Minister, Lai Mohammed, to call the NBC to order as it continues to display flagrant violation to the Nigeria Broadcasting Code, BON, in a March 3, 2023, letter, signed by Dr. Yemisi Bamgbose, Executive Secretary, stated that “in recent times, NBC has refused to follow its rules as stipulated in the Code on investigation of infraction as well as imposition of fines on broadcast houses on alleged infractions.  Section 14.3.1.(a) (b) (c ) (d) stipulates how to handle complaints. Section 15.3.1 (a) (b) (c ) stipulates categories of fines and what constitutes infractions in each category,” BON pointed out. 

Added to BON’s worries are the unfortunate developments in recent times where the broadcasters were not even allowed to see the complaints against them or given an opportunity for a defence before a high handed punishment by the regulator. In the letter to the NBC, BON stated as follows: “There are reasons to believe that NBC is being influenced in its decisions to the detriment of the industry which it is supposed to nurture and grow. It is unfortunate that NBC without due process relied on a petition from a publicity campaign committee of a political party to impose heavy fines on Channels Television when due process was not followed,” BON noted, while pointing the regulator to the relevant sections of the industry Code. Is this mere red herring by BON? Not at all.

The organisation has demonstrated its thoroughness by quoting some sections of the Code with which the NBC operates, and here we take only 14.3.1 and 14.3.2. 14.3.1. The Commission shall, on receipt of complaint(s): a. Inform and require the Broadcaster to provide, within a specified period determined by the Commission, a response in writing and a recording of the relevant materials. 14.3.2. The Broadcaster’s failure to supply the requested materials or make statements in response to the inquiries within the stipulated time limit shall be deemed as acceptance of the complaint(s), and the appropriate sanctions shall be applied. You may not really need a lawyer to interpret the foregoing which is clearer than daylight. The uproar is that the rules are being roundly violated and people are inferring reasons. 

BON enjoys the support of the audience and the listeners they serve. The human rights community is outraged that things have really fallen apart in the regulatory ecosystem. The Media Rights Agenda, MRA, and the International Press Centre, IPC, have thrown their weight behind BON in the wake of the fine on Channels, and are asking that it be withdrawn. Officials of the organisations, Edetaen Ojo, MRA, and Lanre Arogundade, IPC, in a joint statement, alerted that: “NBC has in this instance again exercised quasi-judicial powers injudiciously, by constituting itself to the prosecutor and the judge over a case brought before it by a third party. In previous instances, it has also additionally been the accuser.” The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, and Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development, CJID, have sued President Muhammadu Buhari over the N5 million fine on Channels Television. The Minister, Lai Mohammed, and the NBC are joined in the suit. 

As it is, there are so many people and organisations fighting for the soul of the NBC, to restore the regulatory agency to its senses, sanity and independence in spite of its own failings. They think that an institution should be able to stand on its own and deliver expected services to the nation. Since its debut in 1992, the NBC was designed to serve public good but its fortunes and believability have plummeted in recent years.

The reasons are not farfetched.  In a matter as serious as press freedom, the ability of the media to function without some hermetic strictures, there was a little bit of comic relief, some hilarity perhaps, to induce unintended catharsis for those of us too troubled by the happenings at the NBC. Just laugh out loud and purge yourself of all stress and troubling anxieties.

In the letter to the minister, BON wrote: “It is in the light of the above and for many other reasons that we are passionately calling on the Minister of Information and Culture as the supervising minister to urgently call NBC to order to avoid total decimation in the hitherto respected regulatory body.” Really? The problem at the NBC emanates from the Minister. The structure of the regulatory agency has remained very solid over the years with well-trained staff ready to do their job.

Unfortunately, the NBC Act creates an unstable Board with a three-year tenure, and a supervisory minister whose command must be obeyed. Section 6 under the Act, titled: Power of the Minister to give directives, states as follows: “Subject to the provisions of this Act, the Minister may give the Commission directives of a general character relating generally to particular matters with regard to the exercise by the Commission of its functions under this Act and it shall be the duty of the Commission to comply with such directives.”

A minister who is versed in law is only taking advantage of that unhealthy provision in the Act and he can claim not to have committed any evil at all, except that the industry is reeling in pain and frustration because of his meddlesomeness at the NBC. 

At the moment there are so many things wrong with the industry, all traced to the hold of the Minister on the regulator as empowered by law. For instance, the Digital Switchover, DSO, has not worked at all except for a few embedded within the system to benefit financially, because a minister has chosen to be in charge of a technical process without giving opportunity to those who can make the switchover happen.

The NBC needs help as even its leadership cannot claim to be acting without external pressure and directives to jeopardise the fortunes of an industry and even create tension in the polity. One redeeming opportunity is for BON to put recent actions of the regulator to test by heading to the court, armed with the Broadcast Act and the Nigeria Broadcasting Code. The NBC has gone beyond placating and reporting. The system must be redeemed from its frailties even for the health and pride of the staff who have spent all their working years at the regulatory body.