For some years now, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has been riding roughshod over broadcast stations in Nigeria. In a brazen show of power, the commission had made itself the complainant, the court and the judge in certain matters between it and some radio and television stations. It had imposed questionable fines on these stations for very flimsy reasons. It is heartwarming, nonetheless, that a Federal High Court in Abuja recently gave an order of perpetual injunction restraining the commission from imposing fines on broadcast stations.
In a ruling, which has been applauded by some individuals and groups, Justice James Omotosho also set aside the N500, 000 fines imposed on each of some 45 broadcast stations on March 1, 2019 for violation of NBC code. According to Justice Omotosho, the NBC has no power to impose sanctions on broadcast stations since it is not a court of law. He also held that the commission had no power to conduct a criminal investigation that would lead to criminal trial since it’s not the police. The NBC code, which the Commission relied upon to impose fines, he noted, was in conflict with Section 6 of the constitution which vested judicial power in the courts. The NBC, he added, did not comply with the law when it sat as a complainant, the court and the judge on its own matter.
The Incorporated Trustees of Media Rights Agenda (MRA) had gone to court to challenge the actions of the NBC. In an originating motion dated November 9, 2021, the MRA sought a declaration that the sanctions procedure applied by the NBC in imposing the N500, 000 fine was a violation of the rules of natural justice and the right to a fair hearing as guaranteed by Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and Articles 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.
Similarly, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) last year, sued President Muhammadu Buhari at the Federal High Court, Lagos. They joined the NBC and the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, as defendants. Among others, the plaintiffs want the court to declare the fines imposed on media organisations as arbitrary and illegal as only the court is empowered by the Constitution to impose them; and to set aside the fine on the affected media houses.
Last year, the NBC had fined Trust TV, Multichoice Nigeria Limited, NTA-Startimes and TelcCom Satellite Limited N5 million each for televising a documentary on terrorism and banditry in Nigeria. The commission had also fined many other broadcast stations such as the DAAR Communications Plc, owners of Africa Independent Television (AIT) and Raypower radio station, and Nigeria Info 99.3FM in the recent past. While it sanctioned the AIT in 2019 for allegedly promoting divisive and inciting comments in discussion of national issues, it punished the Nigeria Info 99.3FM in 2020 for interviewing the late former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Dr. Obadiah Mailafia, who reportedly made some incendiary comments. Recently, the NBC also imposed a N5 million fine on Channels Television for airing an interview with the vice-presidential candidate of the Labour Party in the 2023 election, Dr. Yusuf Baba-Ahmed. In the live interview, Baba-Ahmed made some statements which the NBC considered inciting or inappropriate.
On the occasion of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) lamented this arbitrary imposition of fines, saying it had hindered media independence and pluralism. The Guild said this was partly why the country has not been performing well in the World Press Freedom Index. Many observers have even noted that the NBC’s recent actions appear partisan than regulatory. It punishes private stations mostly and turns a blind eye to similar infractions by some government stations. When the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) recently broadcast the phantom acceptance speech by the defeated governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Adamawa State, Aisha Binani, the NBC failed to act. This is double standard.
We welcome the recent judgement of the Federal High Court in Abuja against the NBC and urge the commission to abide by it. Although it said it would appeal against the judgement if it conflicts with the previous judgements of the court, which empower the commission to regulate broadcasting in Nigeria, it is important that the NBC realises that ours is a democracy. And no democracy thrives without a free and vibrant press.
It should learn to follow due process before it takes any further action against any medium. It should never overstep its bounds again. Section 22 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended) recognises the role of the media in a democratic process and empowers it to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people without any encumbrance. Nothing should be done to abridge this constitutional right.