Unwarranted sanction on broadcasting stations
The imposition of fines by the Federal Government on three broadcasting stations for the airing of the documentary by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Africa Eye titled, “Bandits Warlords of Zamfara,” is most unfortunate, a barefaced display of arbitrariness and abuse of state power.
The BBC documentary is about bandit militias who raid villages and carry out mass kidnappings for ransom in the country’s northwest. The government said through the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) that the documentary violated the broadcasting code.
Despite wide criticisms of the government’s threat to impose the fines, it eventually went ahead to punish the three media organisations concerned with five million Naira (N5,000,000) or $12,000 each on Trust TV, Multichoice Nigeria Limited, owners of DSTV, TelCom Satellite Limited (TSTV); NTA- StarTimes Limited for the carriage of the documentary.
Before this fine, Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohammed, has threatened the BBC and others for “naked glorification of terrorism and banditry in Nigeria,” which “undermines national security.” Notwithstanding the good intentions of the government, the actions of the government and the minister are morally wrong and unconstitutional.
The Nigerian Broadcasting Commission which issued the sanctions justified its action on the supposed contravention of the provisions of the sixth edition of the Nigerian Broadcasting code.
The contravened sections 3.1.1, 3.12.2 and 3.11.1 state inter alia: “No broadcast shall encourage or incite to crime, lead to public disorder or hate, be repugnant to public feelings or contain an offensive reference to any person or organisation, alive or dead or generally be disrespectful to human dignity.”
The other sections state: “The broadcaster shall not transmit a programme that incites or likely to incite to violence among the populace, causing mass panic, political and social upheaval, security breach and general social disorder; and “The broadcaster shall ensure that law enforcement is upheld at all times in a manner depicting that law and order are socially superior to, or more desirable than crime or anarchy.”
In agreement with the submissions of many well-meaning Nigerians and bodies that have criticised the action of the government, the minister is flawed on many grounds. First, there is nothing in the reportage that contravenes any of the sections cited by NBC. How is it that a professional report of an actual state of affairs in a fair manner and in a decent language amounts to the glorification of banditry or terrorism? How does the interview of a bandit kingpin incite or encourage banditry? Nigerians have witnessed a demeaning broadcast of brutalised Abuja-Kaduna train abductees. They have also had broadcasts of extra-judicial killings and brutalisation of helpless and innocent persons, rallies and riots that are potentially inciting violence. They have also had broadcasts of criminal kingpins being interviewed by even government broadcast stations. Were these also contravening the Nigerian Broadcasting code?
Second, with nothing to charge the media houses with, the threat and sanctions have the potential to make the media a pro-establishment megaphone, or what one commentator described as a “one-faced channel of information where it is only permitted to give perspectives from government sources.” In other words, the action of the government was not only an attempt to suppress the right of media organisations to disseminate information but also a subtle denial of the right of citizens to information.
This is inconsistent with the provisions enshrined in Section 22 and 39 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended). In the wording of Section 22; “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.” Section 39 (1) states: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” Whatever it is, the minister seeks to achieve by this gagging, such a despotic tendency is inconsistent with the journalistic practice of engaging in balanced coverage and providing balanced information to citizens in a democratic setting.
For a minister who has worked as a public relations manager and therefore an affiliate of the press, it is disappointing that he has turned his office into a needlessly erratic pitbull of this administration, hounding journalists and sanctioning media houses with the same jackboot ruthlessness of the junta he had once vehemently criticised. Doing this at a time Nigeria is in dire need of intelligence and information to quell terrorist activities further strengthens the suspicion that government is complicit in terrorism.
This is not the first time this administration would display such intemperance and aversion to press freedom. In 2019, this administration raided the premises of Daily Trust, brutalised workers and destroyed properties over the publication of a scoop of an “impending’ Boko Haram attack on a town in Borno State.
In another instance, security agents of this administration plotted to seize investigative reporter, ex-The Guardian Fisayo Soyombo, over his investigative reportage that unveiled gross maladministration, corruption and impropriety in Federal Government establishments. There was Agba Jalingo, a journalist and activist, purportedly incarcerated falsely by the Governor of Cross River State, Ben Ayade; and many others brutalised for carrying out their legitimate duties as journalists.
While it is superfluous to comment on the content of the BBC reportage, we categorically condemn both the threat and sanctions on the media houses as an assault on press freedom, with damning implications for democracy.
In a new world order that recognises individual moral autonomy, press freedom has availed itself as a pillar of democracy. Acting on this role imposed on it by civil society, the press has assumed the ombudsman of the state and has opened itself up as the most reflective organ in society to check other arms of government. Thus, it is not for nothing that it is called the Fourth Estate of the Realm. As a watchdog of sorts, it could be the last bastion of security when it checks intra-government conspiracies against the people.
Any form of professional irresponsibility that will jeopardise the sacrificial efforts of the military and other agencies deployed in combating insecurity is condemnable, but the duty of the press to provide information for people to be free and self-governing is sacrosanct.
The press must always speak truth to power by holding state authorities accountable to the people who elected them. The performance of this duty should not be seen as turning journalism into a parallel government.
The duty of the journalist, it must be stated, is to relay the news, report the event, and tell the story. The journalist is not a megaphone of the establishment. He is not a public relations officer or a marketer of the government.
The journalist’s duty is to report or give an account of what he or she has witnessed. He does this not only to inform, educate and thereby empower citizens but also to enable institutions and governments to get a realistic picture of the events in society and peoples’ feelings and reactions to them.
For institutions and governments, the journalist’s duties enable the government to act, plan and execute in the service of the citizens. The BBC reportage of the bandits’ warlords, ordinarily, could have provided some direction to a government that has seemingly been perplexed by incessant banditry.
What it has taken government officials donkey years to attempt was achieved in nine months by the journalists, and this can be taken as an opportunity to restrategise in anti-terrorism campaign.
Ordinarily, for bringing this light, the intelligence arm of security services would be set in motion to track down the bandits. So, rather than vilify and sanction media houses, more people-oriented image makers of the government would commend them for this service.
In the light of all this, this authoritarian posture of the government portrays a lack of capacity to constructively engage civil society.
Image-makers of government should possess the courtesy, wit and wisdom to intelligently mediate the communication flow between government and the people, rather than resort to invectives that frustrate responsible journalism.
This gagging and suppression of essential information for all-inclusive governance is a slap to everyone who cherishes freedom. Government should redirect its energy to practical steps to curtail terrorism and banditry instead of encouraging its perpetual continuity.