The Unconstitutionality of NBC’s Attacks Media Freedom

The Unconstitutionality of NBC’s Attacks Media Freedom

For Emmanuel Onwubiko, the recent attack on Channels Television by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), is one too many. He believes that the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, is using the NBC as a tool to deploy tactics to stifle press freedoms contrary to the provisions of Sections 22 and 39(1) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria

Background

Since coming to office in 2015 and winning a tumultuous and indeed, pyrrhic victory in 2019, the All Progressives Congress (APC) has done everything it had said a lot against, prior to winning power. Specifically, the then opposition APC, had prior to the 2015 election and the inauguration of the former military ruler Major General Muhammadu Buhari (Rtd) as elected President, made extensive use of the media of mass communication and especially the social media platforms to market their party, and to seek to win the minds and hearts of the electorate against the then ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which had the former University Teacher and one time Governor of Bayelsa State, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, as the President. The APC had the current Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, as its spokesman, and it was this spokesperson who was frequently seen by Nigerians, freely making extensive and unrestrained use of the media to demonise the then Government; and the then opposition party had a lot of foot soldiers who spent a lot of time and resources mainly working on the psyches of the Nigerian electorate through all kinds of opinions, some of which were toxic and outright falsehoods.

Lai Mohammed’s Anti-People and Unconstitutional Plots

However, it’s ironic that Lai Mohammed who headed the media wing of the then opposition APC, was made the Information and Culture Minister in 2015, and his first task was to fashion out all kinds of anti-people and unconstitutional plots, to seek to limit the extent to which the citizens are allowed to enjoy their unfettered freedoms as guaranteed by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in Chapter 4.

Lai Mohammed has attempted to protect the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), and to influence that agency of Government to introduce all kinds of obnoxious and unconstitutional guidelines aimed at curtailing free practice of broadcast journalism in Nigeria, as against the provisions of Section 22 of the grundnorm, which makes the media the fourth estate of the realm and the conscience of the nation.

Lai Mohammed v Alhaji Modibbo Kawu & NBC

Lai Mohammed and the hierarchy of the NBC in 2015 had running battles regarding the overbearing influence of the Minister, who was alleged to have handicapped the then Director-General, Alhaji Modibbo Kawu; and this squabble dovetailed into a supremacy battle regarding the administration of the funds domiciled in the NBC for the digitisation of the broadcasting industry in Nigeria, from the analogue system to the global best practices of digital. That was the fight on one hand. And this fight led to prosecution by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, regarding the administration of the funds and the dispensing of some to a private business concern that won the licence to carry out the digitisation programme alongside the publicly owned Nigerian Television Authority. That fight between the Minister and the Director-General then, did not allow the Minister to achieve his overall programme of crippling the democratic practice of the media industry, which he had wanted to deploy the NBC to achieve.

And, the NBC Swung Into Action: Idachaba and Ilelah

The then embattled DG lost the battle, leading to the appointment of an acting DG, who slavishly allowed the NBC to be deployed for a vendetta against private broadcasting stations, who grant interview times to persons the APC Government does not like their faces and opinions.

This acting DG, Idachaba, went to work by slamming a range of fines on some of Nigeria’s reputable privately run television stations. NBC fined Arise TV, Channels, and AIT over their so-called ‘unprofessional coverage’ of the #EndSARS protest on 20 October, 2020.

The NBC said it fined Channels Television, AIT and Arise TV N3 million each over their “unprofessional coverage” of the EndSARS protests and the crisis that followed it.

The then controversial Acting Director-General of NBC, Prof Armstrong Idachaba announced the sanction at a press conference in Abuja. He stated that, if the Commission escalates the violations that emanated from the misuse of social media sources by broadcasters, sanctions according to the provisions of the law, NBC can comfortably shut the stations down.

Idachaba said the stations’ offence was capable of leading to a breakdown of law and order, but the option of the fine will serve as a warning to the stations and others. Ironically, he was sacked. The television stations he fined, challenged this illegality.

So, President Buhari on June 10, 2021 then appointed one Balarabe Ilelah as NBC DG, about 15 months after Modibbo Kawu’s suspension in February 2020, bringing to an end the dictatorship of Idachaba against private broadcasters in Nigeria; but the dictatorship against the media had only just got escalated by the appointment of Ilelah, who was hitherto, relatively unknown in media circles.

President Muhammadu Buhari appointed Balarabe Shehu Ilelah, a Broadcaster, as the substantive Director-General of the NBC. Alhaji Lai Mohammed, announced Ilelah’s appointment in a statement on Friday, Armstrong Idachaba having had held sway as acting DG of the Commission since Kawu’s suspension. He worked with the Information Minister to amend the country’s Broadcasting Code which some stakeholders objected to. His stint as NBC acting DG was characterised by controversies. The NBC under him, recently asked all social media platforms and online broadcast platforms to register with the NBC. The Commission also asked broadcast stations to deactivate their Twitter accounts, following a suspension of the microblogging site by the Federal Government.

Alhaji Mohammed said the new DG, Ilelah, has a tenure of five years. As recently as 48 hours ago, the new DG fired a warning salvo at Channels Television for their interview with the Governor of Benue State, Mr Samuel Ortom, who carpeted President Muhammadu Buhari for undermining national security. The NBC summoned the Reporters who conducted the interview.

HURIWA’s Reaction

Angered by this continuous tyranny against media freedoms, and for the umpteenth time, a leading Civil Rights Advocacy body, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) warned the National Broadcasting Commission to stop obstructing citizens’ exercise of their constitutionally protected fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression.

Against the backdrop of the reported warning letter sent to Channels Television by the NBC on the interviews of the Benue State Governor and a security expert and erstwhile Naval Intelligence Officer, Commodore Olakunle Olawunmi; HURIWA warned the NBC to avoid taking the laws into its own hands, by constituting a clog in the wheel of the progressive enjoyment of right to media freedoms.

However, in a media statement by the National Coordinator, Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, and the National Media Affairs Director, Miss Zainab Yusuf, HURIWA said the NBC does not have an overriding supremacy over the clear provisions of the Nigerian Constitution enshrined in Chapter 4, and in many international legal instruments which speak to the issue of democratic freedoms.

HURIWA stated that the agency of the Federal Government, such as the Broadcasting Commission set up by an inferior legal statute cannot, and must never be allowed to destroy the different ramifications of fundamental freedoms that citizens are entitled to, just as the Rights group said that constitutional democracy will collapse the moment the NBC is allowed to dictate to broadcasting stations who to interview. The National Broadcasting Commission on Thursday, queried Channels Television for granting an interview to Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State.

NBC said the move followed “inciting, divisive and unfair comments” made by the Governor during a programme, ‘Sunrise Daily’ last Tuesday. Interview, how to interview and what the citizens of Nigeria should or should not say, as if Nigeria has become communist country like China, or as if Nigeria is under a repressive dictatorship.

HURIWA cited Sections 22 and 39 of the Constitution, as those finest provisions that empower the media to act as the social vanguard of Nigeria.

Specifically, Section 22 of the Constitution states as follows: “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”. Then Section 39(1) of the grundnorm provides thus: “(1) every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”.

Besides, Section 1(1) of the Constitution states thus: “This Constitution is supreme, and its provisions shall have binding force on the authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria”, including Alhaji Mohammed and the NBC.

Emmanuel Onwubiko, Head, Human Rights Writers Association Of Nigeria (HURIWA)

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