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Beyond Matawalle’s apology to broadcast stations

By Editorial Board
03 November 2022   |   3:55 am
Zamfara State Government was courageous to have swallowed its pride and reversed its closure order of five broadcasting media stations for alleged contravention of the government’s executive order.

Zamfara State governor Bello Matawalle

Zamfara State Government was courageous to have swallowed its pride and reversed its closure order of five broadcasting media stations for alleged contravention of the government’s executive order. The government’s subsequent apology was instructive, but it did not reverse the psychological damage it had inflicted on the media, more so because the closure was itself illegal. Although the state government admitted that it had no power to have ordered the closure, it has nevertheless insisted that the broadcasting stations adhere to the executive order. This insistence is controversial, as government cannot force a media organisation on what to report, or dictate how to report it. If displeased with a news report, government is free to issue a clarification and insist on its right of reply. Beyond this, government can only complain to the court and seek redress as appropriate.

On Saturday October 18, 2022, the Governor of Zamfara State, Bello Matawalle ordered the shutdown of four broadcast stations in the state. The stations involved –Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Alumna TV, Gamji TV (and FM station) and Pride FM Station –were accused of covering a rally by the opposition governorship candidate of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Dr Dauda Lawan Dare.

According to the government, the coverage contravened Executive Order 10 of the state banning political rallies. The Order was put in place because of the security concerns in Zamfara State according to the government.

Broadcast media regulators such as the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria, the Nigeria Union of Journalists, and the International Press Institute, among others, condemned the government for its action and called for immediate reversal.

A few days later, government succumbed to the pressure, as Chairman of the State Committee on Prosecution of banditry and related offences, Abdullahi Shinkafi noted that no democracy can thrive without the role of the media and he appealed to media practitioners to assist the government in the fight against insecurity bedeviling Zamfara State in particular and Nigeria in general.

“Based on the press releases by NBC and NUJ, the power given to them by the constitution, nobody has the power to shut down the media from the operation,” Shinkafi said, adding that government had also withdrawn the security forces deployed to the media houses to allow the personnel resume their work.

“On behalf of the government, and as honorary adviser to the government, I apologise to the media houses. They can start operating and they must abide by the government Executive Order 10 signed by the governor, pending the vacation of the order. Once it is vacated, they can cover whoever they want to cover.”

The shutdown of the broadcast stations is a display of high-handedness, a violation of the freedom of the press, disdain for the rule of law and a veiled attempt to muzzle the opposition. It was high-handed on the part of the government to order a shutdown of the stations without recourse to due process. Even if the stations had violated the law, the courts are there to interrogate and give redress to the government if approached. Thus, instead of a peremptory shut down, Matawalle and his government should have filed a case against the media houses in the court of law. The shutdown order shows lack of respect for the rule of law that the government swore to uphold when it was inaugurated.

It is notable that the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) swiftly came out to declare Matawalle’s action as Illegal.

The NBC had defended its licensees while notifying the state government “of the gravity of the illegality” and requested it to “expeditiously reverse the directive and apologise to the people of the state.” The commission also emphasised that it would resist any attempt to cause a breach of law and order anywhere through misuse of the broadcast media in Nigeria before, during and after the 2023 national elections. For a commission that has been accused of acts inimical to the media through breach of due processes in the recent past, Nigerians hope this avowed commitment to due process will be sustained.

As stated by the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) while reacting to the shutdown, the only government agency charged with the mandate of regulating broadcast stations or determining any infraction in the conduct of broadcasting is the NBC.

NGE further noted that, “while the NGE doesn’t even want to go into the illegality of the ban on political activities in that state, our primary concern here is the unlawful and unconstitutional action of the state governor against the affected stations for carrying out their constitutional and social obligations of reporting events and keeping citizens informed on political developments in the state. In fact, the shut stations would have been accused of unprofessional conduct if they didn’t cover that rally.” This perspective is worthy of reiteration to constantly remind holders of levers of power at all levels to exercise their powers with responsibility and adherence to the rule of law.

Even though the Government of Zamfara State reversed the shutdown order and apologised, the damage was already done. How can the media houses account for the revenue losses resulting from the few days of shutdown? Will the government compensate them for those days? What of the trauma they were made to go through? In whichever way one looks at the shutdown order, it was not a well-thought-out action. It was rash and seemingly actuated by malice against the media and the opposition party.

This act is also a contributor to the bad image of Nigeria as far as impunity against journalists and the media is concerned as it pushes up the grim statistics of hostility towards the media. Governments at all levels should consider the long-term effects of their actions rather than emotional actuation. The business of governance ought to be devoid of rash actions.

This faux pas should provide a lesson for governments at all levels that a hostile disposition to the media does nobody any good. They should remember that the media provide the oxygen of democracy. A free media are very essential not only for the protection of democracy but all other human rights. This freedom must be jealously defended against the onslaught of transient powers.