Columns

October 11, 2023

Arise TV, sue NBC; do it now! By Ochereome Nnanna

NBC

SOMETHING terrible is happening to Nigerians. It is not that they are being beaten that bothers me so much. It is that they no longer react, no matter how they are pummelled. Shockingly, the media appears to have become a victim of this.

There is an ongoing certificate and identity scandal which has been described in a foreign court as a “Nigerian thing”. Do you blame them? Our president’s name is on it. When misguided teenager, Mmesoma’s JAMB result forgery was confirmed, the same yellow bellies who were all over her and even dragged her ethnic group into the scandal are now either mute or trying to twist a clear-cut court deposition out of shape.

Kenneth Okonkwo, a Nollywood founding father-turned lawyer and politician, refused to join the conspiracy of silence that has suddenly seized the country. He appeared on Arise TV and candidly answered the questions put to him by the panelists. The Director General of the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, NBC, Mallam Balarabe Ilelah, fired a warning letter to the Arise TV over Okonkwo’s assertions on the President Bola Tinubu certificate and identity scandal matter. The letter was entitled: “Preponderance of Derogatory and Incendiary Remarks: Final Warning”.

This so-called final warning also referred to an earlier interview session featuring guests, Dele Farotimi, an outspoken opposition activist; and Oladotun Hassan. Ilelah’s contrived belligerence came for no other reason than that the interviewees spoke their minds about Tinubu’s certificate and identity controversy. Ilelah tried to intimidate Arise TV, but Okonkwo took a serious exception to his name being mentioned. He threatened court action should that happen again.

Okonkwo’s spirited strike-back made my day. It showed that in this evolving Nigerian dead-field, there are still people who can look impunity in the face and tell it off.

Ilelah referred to “relevant sections of the Nigerian Broadcasting Code” which he claimed were violated. To be sure, electronic media are closely regulated in most countries, including our role models, the United Kingdom and the USA. The NBC Broadcasting Code governs ethics. The Code, which is regularly updated, is as old as our broadcast industry. Before Buhari, the NBC was hardly heard of. How did it suddenly become the anti-media monster that it has become today?

Shortly after the 2019 general election, former President Muhammadu Buhari, obviously needed a Decree 4 of 1984-like instrument with which to muzzle the electronic media, especially the private broadcasters which had proliferated all over the country. He called a meeting of the Federal Executive Council, FEC, and lamented that the election was characterised by too much “divisive” utterances which must be arrested.

The same Buhari who became president through divisive politics, who said he would give 97 per cent of his government posts to those who voted for him, was suddenly worried about divisiveness. This was the same Buhari who tried but failed to use the Federal Might to confiscate indigenous people’s land for reallocation his Fulani kinsmen. In response to Buhari’s wishes, the NBC Board Chair, Aliyu Ikra Bilbis, invited memos from all stakeholders in the broadcast industry towards the Broadcasting Code’s review. This was the due process.

But the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, knew what Buhari wanted and decided to give it to him through impunity. In cahoots with Dr Armstrong Idachaba, the Acting D-G of the Commission, Lai Mohammed unilaterally amended sections of the Broadcasting Code. The illegal Code was unveiled in Lagos on August 13, 2020. The existing Code prescribed a N500,000 fine for certain violations. Lai Mohammed jerked up the fine to N5 million and viciously used it against 99.3 Nigeria Info FM Lagos, Africa Independent Television, AIT; Trust TV, DSTV, TSTV and NTA, mostly as punishment for the utterances of their guests.

The Commission was dragged before the High Court of Abuja presided over by Justice James Omotosho. On May 1, 2023, Omotosho ruled that the NBC had no power to sanction any broadcasting station, pointing out that the Constitution vested that power in the courts of law. It seemed that Mallam Ilelah was oblivious of this court ruling, hence his intimidatory grandstanding against Arise TV and their guests.

Justice Omotosho’s ruling is the correct interpretation of the Constitution. If Federal Executive Bodies such as the NBC are allowed the power to impose sanctions and close down stations that call out the president or other powerful figures and institutions over matters of morality, our civil liberties are gone. Our democracy and constitutional rule will be a joke.

This ruling reasserts the constitutional right of the citizens (section 39) to “freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information without interference”, but subject to the laws of the land. It also upholds Section 22 of the Constitution which mandates the media thus: “The Press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of Government to the people”.

These constitutional mandates are the reasons that the media are termed the Fourth Estate, after the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary, though only government-owned media receive public funding. The day we can no longer freely discuss a certificate and identity scandal of those occupying public offices because of fear of what government agencies will do to us must never break in Nigeria. The day that our media can no longer push for good character, morality, anti-corruption, fight impunity and criminal capture of government, should never come.

Arise TV should sue the NBC. It should apply for an injunction to stop NBC from violating its constitutional right to hold people in government to account on the people’s behalf. Get it done today, not tomorrow.

If the NBC has any issue with any broadcaster, it should “go to court”.