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NBC, NPC: Gagging media on all fronts

By Adamu Abuh (Abuja) and Gbenga Salau (Lagos)
20 June 2021   |   3:30 am
That the Federal Government is bent on using the preponderance of fake news and hate speech to tinker with the regulatory framework guiding journalism practice is not news. On multiple fronts, the government is poised to amend the laws meant to regulate the media in Nigeria almost in a manner that stakeholders fear could hamper…

House of Representatives. Photo/FACEBOOK/SPEAKERGBAJA

That the Federal Government is bent on using the preponderance of fake news and hate speech to tinker with the regulatory framework guiding journalism practice is not news. On multiple fronts, the government is poised to amend the laws meant to regulate the media in Nigeria almost in a manner that stakeholders fear could hamper independent journalism.

Just as it is reviewing the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the Nigerian Press Council laws, it is working to introduce a law to regulate social and online media.

What could be the motivation for the zeal to regulate the media on all fronts when there are laws that could be explored to deal with issues of libel and defamation? Sections 59(1) and (2) of the Criminal Code Act and Section 418 of the Penal Code could be used to try libelous and defamatory offences. This is aside from the Cybercrime Law, passed during former President Goodluck Jonathan administration in May 2015. The law, among other things, addressed threats to cyberspaces including Internet usage and safety with regard to prevention, prohibition and combating cybercrime.

Inspite of the Cybercrime Law being in place, months after President Muhammadu Buhari got into office in 2015, there was an attempt to regulate the social media with the introduction of the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill. Many Nigerians were against the bill, as its provisions were seen as repressive designed to infringe on their rights.

Yet, last week, the House of Representatives appeared to have found itself in a tight corner over its resolve to consider a wide range of proposed legislations aimed at stifling free speech in the country.

Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila who spoke during a two-day public hearing organised by the Odebunmi Dotun-led information committee on the proposed legislations warned stakeholders to be wary of their contributions since the bills could influence the creation of media and advertising contents, regulate free speech and establish institutions that will impact on generations of Nigerians to come.

The Speaker, who was represented by the Deputy House Leader, Mr Peter Akpatason, urged stakeholders to ensure that legislations that emerge from the process are of the highest quality and do not allow for infringements on the human rights of citizens. 

Of the five proposed legislations deliberated upon, the ones that sought to amend the National Broadcasting Act and the Nigeria Press Council Act drew the attention of stakeholders, particularly in the media industry. The Bill for an Act to amend the Nigeria Press Council Act CAP 128 laws of the federation of Nigeria 2004 sought to remove bottlenecks affecting its performance and make the council in tune with current realities in regulating the press.

Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, who bared his mind on the controversial bills during the hearing, reiterated the need to regulate the social media in the country.

Urging the lawmakers to grant full regulatory powers to government over internet broadcasting and all online media outfits, he asserted that the country’s laws must not be subservient to international telecommunication union treaties in view of the need to protect peculiar situations in our country. 

The Minister faulted moves to compel the NBC to pay all monies accruing to it into the federation’s account in accordance with section 162 of the constitution.

He noted: “We have a problem with this because it is not in line with the thinking of the Executive. Very soon, the NBC will exit the number of parastatals whose salaries are paid by the federal government. In other words, the NBC would need to be paying its own salaries, pay for its overheads and operations. 

“If that is the way the Executive is thinking, it will be a drawback if you now pay everything into the Treasury Single Account. It means that the government would have to continue to pay our salaries and take care of all our needs. This will defeat the objective of the federal government that certain parastatals should contribute more to the revenue of government. 

“I think I need to reconcile this with the Minister of Finance before we proceed. The practice now is that 30 percent of whatever we generate, we retain and 70 percent is what is paid to the Central Bank. In 2020, we were given letters that from next year, we need to be self-sufficient and that we will no longer enjoy the privilege of our salaries being paid by government. We have to fend for ourselves. So, we need to look into this area.”

On the power to grant licence, he said: “The spectrums do not belong to licensees, but to the federal government and can use it either for broadcasting, telecom or any other thing. The impression is given that those enjoying it today can do so forever. The federal government can decide whom to give the spectrum to. We must be careful not to give spectrum permanently to foreign companies who may decide to do whatever they please with it. 

“It is our hope that when we eventually transit from analogue to digital broadcasting, the spectrums that will be left will now be sold to fund developmental programmes. Saying those enjoying the spectrum now should continue to do so is like taking away the powers of the government to allocate spectrum.”

Mr. Lanre Arogundade, in his presentation on behalf of the International Press Centre (IPC) and the Centre for Media Law and Advocacy, faulted the prevailing situation whereby the NBC not only operates as an island, but has a boss who decides what constitutes an offence, decides on the nature of punishment and goes ahead to apply the sanctions, which includes shutdown of broadcast stations. 

The rights activist maintained that there was no way the NBC would be allowed to remain the accuser, the prosecutor and the judge in its own case. 

Arogundade argued that it was incumbent on the lawmakers to provide for the right of appeal to the Board of NBC where sanctions are applicable, which could include hefty fines, suspension or withdrawal of license.

He stressed that the NBC should only play administrative role when it comes to the matter of alleged breach of the code and imposition of sanctions. 

Arogundade noted that it was unfortunate that the NBC overtime appears to be an extension of the office of the Minister of Information and Culture, which rarely acts independently.

Stressing the need to make the NBC independent, he noted that the process of licensing broadcast stations is politically compromised in the present circumstances. He further kicked against the plan by the lawmakers to empower the NBC to fix Price for Pay-TV in the proposed amendment of the law.

Arogundade argued that fixing tariffs arbitrarily could lead to excessive pricing that has the potential of discouraging investment in the sector and the attendant job losses. He added that giving the NBC the sole right over tariff issues could be interpreted as an ouster clause that arrogates to it arbitrary powers that cannot be challenged even in the court of law.

He argued that the regulatory mechanisms of the broadcast sector must entail independence for the regulator while ensuring that such regulation neither constitutes an obstacle to the exercise of the right to media freedom and freedom of expression nor the survival or sustainability of the broadcast sector.

Arogundade stated: “Our other objections to the two sub-sections are that: They represent a usurpation of the functions of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission Act (FCCPC Act), which in our well-considered view already has adequate provisions to deal with the often contentious issue of competition and pricing in Nigeria; the FCCPC is indeed more technically equipped to handle the kind of matters being dabbled into here, being a specialised agency established for specific purposes. The two sub-sections should be removed from the proposed amendment bill of the NBC Act.”

The Nigeria Press Organisation (NPO) comprising the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) and Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) opposed the amendment of the NPC Act on grounds that it amounts to subjudice to deliberate on the issue pending before the Supreme Court since 1999.

The Editor-in-Chief Leadership Newspaper, Mr. Azubuike Ishiekwene, who held brief for NPO, however, contended that it would amount to a breach of the constitution to tamper with 17 of the 39 clauses in the proposed NPC Act.

He said: “Of course, the federal government has appealed the ruling and the matter is currently before the Supreme Court. So, I will rest my case by appealing to the honourable members of this committee to refer to the conversation that was heard on a similar matter in 2018 when this matter came up before the Senate and the pendency of this matter before the court was canvassed and the 8th National Assembly at that time agreed that the prudent thing to do was to step it down. I urge this House to also consider a similar step.”

The Media Development Organisations also expressed concern over the proposed amendment to the NPC Act since it would erode the independence of the media in the country.

Arogundade who also presented a joint memorandum on behalf of the Organisations, which include, International Press Centre (IPC), Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Centre for Media Law and Advocacy, and Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, argued that the amendment being sought would surely restrict freedom of expression as enshrined in the constitution.

Arogundade warned that if the NPC Act is amended, it could be deployed as a weapon to clampdown on bloggers or journalists for expressing opinion antagonistic to politically or economically powerful elites. 

He stressed that the penalties for offences as stipulated in Section (3) i & ii of the proposed amendment, including fine of N5 million or three years imprisonment, are too punitive and constitute a threat to media independence and freedom.

He noted that Section 33 (3) and (4) does not give room for retraction or apology where a fake news is mistakenly published but recommends a blanket sanction of up to N10 million naira or closure for a period of one year or both.

Arogundade, therefore, recommended that the committee should take a cue from the Ghanaian constitution by recommending the inclusion of the provision for press freedom in the constitution while it should also recommend that government shall not appoint managers of the public (state) media.

Nevertheless, the Executive Secretary, Nigerian Press Council, Mr. Francis Nwosu, commended the section of the bill that seeks to empower the Executive Secretary of the Council to issue summons, saying it would enhance the council’s effectiveness and efficiency in handling complaints.

Nwosu further canvassed that a provision against Hate Speech be included in the amendment, adding that there was the need to state that prosecution of a crime under the amendment should be done by the Attorney General upon investigation by the police.