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Stakeholders tell NBC to apply flexibility in its sanctions

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Media stakeholders have continued to express concern over National Broadcasting Commission’s (NBC) N9 million fine on three television stations for what the commission described as ‘unprofessional #EndSARS Broadcast’, saying the action is an ‘outrageous violation of the constitution and basic principles of fair hearing’, which cannot be allowed to stand.

Recall that NBC had on October 26, 2020, issued a statement accusing Channels Television, Africa Independent Television (AIT) and ARISE Television of engaging in ‘unprofessional #EndSARS Broadcast’.

The statement reads in part: “We are at the stage at of our nation’s history when our broadcasters have a crucial responsibility for responsive and professional broadcasting. By picking unverified, unsubstantiated social media sources and repeating the narratives, our broadcasters have shown crass lack of professionalism and a disposition to be escalators of conflict and more seriously a threat to Nigeria. Channels Television, Africa Independent Television (AIT) and ARISE Television continued to transmit footages obtained from unverified and unauthenticated social media sources. No doubt, these pictures stimulated anger and heightened the violence that was witnessed during the crisis.

“In line with the provisions of Section 5.6.9 of the Nigerian Broadcasting Code, which states that, ‘the broadcaster shall be held liable for any breach of the code emanation from the use of material from User Generated Sources’, the commission has, therefore, sanctioned Arise TV, Channels TV, AIT in line with the provisions of the broadcasting code.”

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The statement said this is to serve as deterrent to broadcasters who deliberately fail to verify stories before they broadcast. The former governor of Ogun State and Chairman Governing Council of Nigeria Institute of Journalism, Chief Olusegun Osoba, condemned the fine in totality.

According to him, “my investigation showed that the TV stations featured their own reports. They did not pick anything from online bloggers. That is what I was told by the owners of the TV stations concerned. They said the allegations against them were totally untrue and they should fight it. I have always fought against any control by authorities of the press. Once we start subjecting ourselves to the minutest control by the authorities, we are putting ourselves in total danger in terms of freedom to practice our profession in a free and democratic society.”

In another statement issued by the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON), it called on NBC to issue a formal query to each of the stations involved and give stipulated period to formally respond before taking action.

BON said: “We kindly request that the sanctions on AIT, Channels TV and Arise TV be withdrawn immediately pending the formal responses by the stations. BON also appeal to NBC to be more flexible in its application of sanctions, more so in this crisis period. We strongly believe in Democracy where citizens and entities are given fair hearing and Justice, Peace and Unity are preached and practiced.”

Professor of Applied Communication, University of Ibadan, Ayobami Ojebode, said: “The general belief is that this is too heavy on the stations especially coming at a time that most media houses are struggling to survive COVID-19 paralysed economy. In my view, all penalised broadcast organisations should know that they have the right of appeal. There are provisions in the Nigeria Broadcast Code and there are guidelines to follow if anyone is aggrieved.”

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Ojebode said, “without holding brief for NBC, I must say what we as a nation have gone through in the last few days was a highly inflammable and explosive situation. And I must say that using unverified and gory contents was indeed unacceptable. Social media users can do many wrong things and get away with it; traditional broadcast media are the last recourse, which people have for verification of doubtful junks that float everywhere online. Incidentally, NBC issued a warning, and when I saw that I knew the big hammer would drop. This is a democracy. Any media organisation that is aggrieved should explore opportunities for appeal.”

On their part, Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and the International Press Centre (IPC) accused the NBC of turning itself into a ‘Kangaroo court’ and called on the commission to immediately reverse its decision sanctioning the three stations in order to save itself the embarrassment that both the commission and the country will suffer locally and internationally as a result of its action.

MRA’s Executive Director, Mr. Edetaen Ojo, said, “a situation where the NBC, which is so glaringly lacking in independence and subject to the direct control of political authorities, wrote the Nigeria Broadcasting Code creating the offences for which the stations were sanctioned and was the complainant in the allegations against the stations, prosecuted them and sat in judgment on the matter without even giving the stations any opportunity to defend themselves against the charges while also imposing a fine of N3 million on each of them, which it intends to collect and pocket, is offensive to any notion of fair hearing, equity or justice.”

He said that his organisation would take legal action to challenge the NBC’s action. Executive Director of IPC, Mr. Lanre Arogundade, on his part, said, “the NBC has, in this matter again, constituted itself into the accuser, the prosecutor and the judge in its own case. It is indeed strange that the fines were arbitrarily imposed without giving the concerned media outlets the option of defending the allegations. This constitutes an affront on rule of law.”

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Speaking with The Guardian, Managing Director, Arise TV, Ijeoma Nwogwugwu, said: “Apart from the press statement, we were served letters informing us of the fine and we also got another letter inviting us to a meeting — that is the three broadcast stations. All of us were invited for the meeting. We went there, only to be told that the meeting had been suspended. No reason was given for the suspension and no date was also given for another meeting.”

Meanwhile, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), and 261 concerned Nigerians, civil society and media groups have filed a lawsuit against the National Broadcasting Commission [NBC] and Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, asking the court to “declare arbitrary, illegal, and unconstitutional the N9m fines imposed on Channels, AIT and Arise TV [N3m each] over their coverage of the #EndSARS protests, and to stop the NBC from collecting the money.”

In the suit number FHC/ABJ/CS/1436/2020 filed last Friday at the Federal High Court, Abuja, the plaintiffs are seeking: “an order setting aside the arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional fines of N9 million and any other penal sanction unilaterally imposed by the NBC and Mr Lai Mohammed on Channels, AIT and Arise TV, and on any other radio/television stations simply for carrying out their professional and constitutional duties.”

The plaintiffs are arguing that: “Section (2)(n) of the NBC Act and the Broadcasting Code are oppressive, and clearly inconsistent with the Nigerian Constitution and the country’s international obligations. If the NBC and Mr Lai Mohammed are allowed to continue to use these oppressive provisions against independent media in the guise of performing their statutory duties, the end result will be authoritarianism and denial of freedom and liberty.”

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