On Tuesday last week, as details of the shooting by the Nigerian army at protesters at Lekki toll gate in Lagos unfolded, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) announced “guidelines” for media organisations for the “coverage of the crisis.”
Citing provisions from the heavily-criticized amended broadcasting code, the agency cautioned broadcast stations not to use information that “adversely affects those emotionally involved” in the brewing.
“The broadcaster shall approach with restraint the use of materials from user generated sources in order not to embarass individuals, organisations, government or cause dissatisfaction, incite to panic or rift in the society at large,” the agency said, quoting section 5.6.2 of the code.
GUIDELINES ON THE COVERAGE OF CRISIS. pic.twitter.com/Oj4icOiRKG
— nbcgovng (@nbcgovng) October 20, 2020
On Monday, the commission delivered the first blow. Three television stations – AIT, Channels and Arise News television stations – were each hit with a sanction of N3 million for alleged violation of the broadcasting code in reporting the #EndSARS protests.
The acting director-general of the agency, Armstrong Idachaba, said the stations transmitted “footage obtained from unverified and unauthenticated social media sources,” and warned that they risk losing their licenses if they persist.
“No doubt, these pictures stimulated anger and heightened the violence that was witnessed during the #EndSARS crisis,” Mr Idachaba said, adding that the penalty would “serve as a deterrent to broadcasters who did not verify news stories before they broadcast.
“In line with the provision of the code section B which is (a) heavy fine between N500,000 to N5 million, we will communicate that to the affected stations depending on the magnitude of breaches. But none of them will pay less than N2 to N3 million and any further breach will lead to the withdrawal of licence,’’ Mr Idachaba said.
This latest fine, which has been challenged by a rights group, SERAP, adds to the list of sanctions of media organisations under the amended code which empowers the government to regulate the media without recourse to a court order.
The amendment was believed to have been triggered by the clampdown on Daar Communications, owners of Africa Independent Television, for the alleged use of “inflammatory, divisive, inciting broadcasts, and media propaganda” against the government in its flagship morning programme, Kakaaki Social, last year June, which sparked wide condemnation.
Because the new code vests the NBC with the power to determine what passes as a breach by broadcasting stations, critics believe it is an opening to stifle the press and muzzle dissenting voices.
For instance, up from N500,000, under the revised code, NBC can fine broadcasting stations up to N5 million for hate speech.
The arbitrary use of this controversial regulatory power by the NBC has sparked palpable fear, especially because no third party like a law court is involved in determining what is hate speech, or breach of user sourced media contents, as in the case of the #EndSARS protests in Lekki where some media stations used real-time footages shared by eye-witnesses but was adjudged as unverified by the NBC.
Critics have expressed fears that what could otherwise pass as bickering, satire, parody or a challenge on authority may be adjudged as hate speech. Press freedom analysts believe that the code is a subtle way of stifling freedom of expression and gagging the press.
Their worries are further fuelled by the rights violations suffered by people who have criticised governments at both state and federal levels of misrule.
“We should (be worried). It simply means the future of press freedom in Nigeria is under massive attack to muzzle journalists and that’s why it is important to amend the laws that constraint press freedom,” a programme officer with Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, Stephanie Adams, said.
Analysts believe Nigeria’s long years of military rule before a transition to civil rule about two decades ago still haunts its polity, with a recent report showing that attacks on the press and free speech have worsened under President Muhammadu Buhari’s watch, himself a former military dictator who jailed critics and clamped down on journalists, a life he said he still longs for.
While the amended law has been heavily pushed back by some Nigerians, a human right lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, and a filmmaker, Charles Uwagbai, in separate suits, have dragged the National Broadcasting Commission before the federal high court in Lagos.
Ms Adams also said the NBC code is at odds with the Nigerian constitution which grants press freedom and free speech.
“It means the Nigerian constitution that supports the freedom of the press is (a) doormat and not respected even though the press have the right to gather and disseminate information that is in public interest but it is evident that this sanction is not for national interest but for personal interest.
“The sanction is to muzzle on news platforms that seem to unveil and report underreported stories and some that are not specifically in favour of the government,” she told PREMIUM TIMES.
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