NBC, broadcasters’ looming showdown over N4.3bn debt
There is a looming showdown between the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and some radio and television broadcasters in Nigeria over the inability of the commission to recover over N4 billion in licensing fees from the licensees.The NBC had on Monday warned that it would shut down stations that owe license renewal fees before the 2019 general elections. Recall that last year, the commission had stated that defaulting stations would be closed down by April 1 if they do not make their payments by March 31, 2017. Almost two years down the line, only a fraction of the N5 billion debt at that time has been paid.
Chairman of the Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria (BON), Mr. John Momoh, had pleaded with the commission for a less than severe approach to the retrieval of these payments, while also admonishing his colleagues to remember that the payment of licence fees was an obligation that broadcasters must fulfill. The Director-General of the NBC, Is’haq Modibbo Kawu, said on Monday at a stakeholders’ meeting in Lagos, that the commission was set to invoke relevant laws to ensure that erring broadcasters pay up their debts.
“The National Broadcasting Commission is determined to fully collect all licence fees that it is owed. We are prepared to work with our licencees for an acceptable payment formula, which must be in place by the 15th of September 2018. Thereafter, we would be obliged to enforce the provisions of the law.
“The fees are basic, obligatory and non-negotiable. The plea that the economy is in a bad way is an absolutely unacceptable excuse for refusing to pay licence fee. We all know how the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) enforces its laws or Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and other sister regulatory agencies.“Because we know that a lot of them are targeting elections and the money they will make, we will make it impossible for them to make that money because if they do not pay their licencing fees, then they have no right to enjoy any freebies from elections.”
The DG also spoke on the issue of sanctions on various broadcasting stations saying that broadcasting ethics stresses that the peace and unity of the country should be paramount. He said that in a situation where the ethical boundaries have been breached at various times by a broadcasting station, such a station would be sanctioned or shut down as the case may be. He further urged broadcasters to abide by the NBC Code and electoral laws always.
The NBC, a parastatal of the Federal Government was established and vested with the responsibilities of regulating and controlling the broadcasting industry in Nigeria, among others. Last year, the NBC boss rang the alarm over the huge indebtedness of broadcast outfits to the commission and their refusal to meet their licencing obligations.“There are very worrisome issues in our operations,” Kawu said during a stakeholders’ meeting in February last year. “The first is the situation whereby many stations have refused to pay their licence fees; even the statutory act of informing the NBC, six months before the expiration of licence and signifying intention to continue as a licencee is ignored.
“Our licencees carry on, as if they have their licences for keeps and the NBC cannot withdraw licences. It is important to remind us all that all licences are provisional, no matter how long you have held them. And for emphasis, I want to let you know that stations owe over N5 billion as licence fees. As at August this year, the NBC is still being owed over N4.3 billion and the consequence is a near paralysis of the operations of the commission.
“The NBC carries out its statutory functions on the basis of the obligatory licence fees that broadcasters pay. But the pattern is refusal on the part of licencees to pay, and in some cases, a few arrogantly tell us they cannot pay because the sums are too high; or they claim that the business environment is not good enough, so NBC should accept whatever they choose to pay.
“And in the past, some licencees exploited their political connections and got the presidency to lean on the NBC, to look the other way, while they operate as if they carry a veto over the regulator. There is always an emotional blackmail that our insistence on payment goes against freedom of the press,” he said.Nigeria’s broadcast system was deregulated in 1992, and three years later, formal operation of private broadcasting began with the establishment of the first private-owned radio and television station. Currently, there are, at least, 250 radio and television stations across Nigeria, according to the Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria. The country went from having nine broadcast stations in 1992 to over 500 radio and television stations today.
Kawu admitted that a historic pattern of relationship between regulator and licencee, which was based upon a notion of “nurturing” their stations at the beginning of a deregulated broadcasting industry when there were just a few private operators in the business was partly responsible for the current impasse. “A notion emerged, that they should be ‘nurtured’ and not allowed to go down under,” he said. “So a rigorous regime of licence fee payment was not enforced. It is this pattern of what might literally be called an ‘incestuous relationship’ that has led us to where we are today – licencees refusing to pay, and an indebtedness reaching over N4 billion, while the commission is unable to carry out its functions,” he stated.
While reacting, Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye of the University of Lagos said there was need to separate Genesis from Exodus, urging NBC to categorise the debt and strategise on recovery, forgiveness or bale-out plan. “I do not think the deadline is realistic considering the huge amount of money involved. But licencees need to send their payment plan to the NBC on or before September 10,” he advised. Former director-general of the commission, and a member of the board, Danladi Nasir Bako, lamented the nonchalant attitude of licensees towards the settlement of their debt, saying there was no law mandating them to be in broadcasting if they didn’t have the funds to remain in business. “This is why you employ people and sack them every two years to avoid them forming a union. We cannot run broadcasting on the basis of emotions, there are basic obligations we must meet,” he added.
He further stated that there was no way existing broadcast organisations could have extra stations or channels, “why are you expanding when you cannot pay your bills? Vision FM, Abuja says it has no money to pay licence fees, yet it is opening new stations; please, let us drop this emotional discussions on licence fees. “I was DG in 1999, and I remember how we had to reduce the licence fees severally. We have amended the fees so many times, so the issue of reviewing it now is impossible. What was your business plan when you started, are you over staffed? We cannot keep going round in circles, because the truth is, you knew the implication of going into broadcast business, you had a business plan, and if there is a fault in it, then you need to review it to fit the economic situation in the country,” he said.
Bako urged the broadcasters to come up with marketable programmes that would attract advertisement. “You need to wake up, do your homework on how to attract viewers. You can get people to teach you how to do business. We sat down here and MultiChoice from Big Brother show made 11 million text messages amounting to N44 million, is that not creativity?. There are people making money out of our poor economy, you need to wake up, put on your thinking cap and get rolling,” he advised.
While commending the harmony that exists in the industry, Bako said: “Radio and television has brought so much joy to people; in fact, radio has put Compact Disk (CD) people out of business. You need to find out how to access some of these funds that are available; reduce your staff, compel them to bring a new story idea every month.”
The Chief Operating Officer of Daar Communication, Mr. Tony Akiotu, proposed a joint committee of NBC and BON be set up to interrogate the debt recovery issue. “I believe we can help NBC. We are holding a meeting next week on the subject to warn members about the implication of not paying. Because we believe that as responsible citizens and broadcasters, we have to fulfill our obligation by paying our license fee.” Kawu was in agreement with the formation of the committee.
Also reacting was the Managing Director of Freedom Radio, Kano, Abbas Dalhatu, who expressed despair that the foreign broadcast stations had taken over his listeners. Bako, however, attributed Dalhatu’s challenge to lack of good content. Oyebisi Ashimolowo of Splash FM, Ibadan, advised other stations to emulate their approach of spreading the payment across five years. “At Splash, we pay NBC N250,000 every year, because we realise it may not be easy to pay at once,” she said.