The Federal High Court in Lagos, on Monday, stopped President Muhammadu Buhari and the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) from revoking the licences of 53 broadcast stations in the country and shutting them down on the grounds of failing to renew their licences.
The judge, Akintayo Aluko, issued the order of interim injunction restraining the authorities from carrying out their revocation threat in a ruling on a motion ex parte.
Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) had filed the motion ex parte along with the main suit challenging NBC’s planned action against the broadcast stations.
SERAP shared the highlights of the court’s ruling in a statement by its official, Kolawole Oluwadare, on Monday.
It said the judge, after issuing the interim order, adjourned until 8 September, for the hearing of the motion on notice for interlocutory injunction.
This would afford the defendants – NBC and Mr Buhari – an opportunity to give their defence to the suit and give reasons why the restraining order should be reversed.
NBC had on 19 August revoked the licences of 53 broadcast stations on the grounds of their failure to pay their licence renewal fees cumulatively worth N2.66 billion. The commission ordered those that were unable to pay to shut down at 12 am on 20 August.
Prominent among the affected broadcast stations were Silverbird TV, AIT, Raypower FM, and Rhythm FM.
The commission cited section 10(a) of the 3rd Schedule of the National Broadcasting Commission Act CAP N11, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 to back its decision against the stations.
The provision says, “10. A licence may be revoked by the Commission in the following cases, that is (a) where the prescribed fee has not been paid on the due date…”
But following the intervention of the Nigerian chapter of the International Press Institute, the NBC suspended the revocation of the operating licenses of 52 broadcast stations.
The extension was granted after IPI Nigeria engaged the Ministry of Information and Culture, the NBC and the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) to explore an amicable resolution of the dispute.
By the extension, the NBC directed all the stations “to pay all outstanding license fees on or before 23 August, 2022 or shut down by 12 am on 24 August.”
But SERAP and NGE sued the NBC and Mr Buhari on 23 August, asking the court for “a declaration that section 10(a) of the Third Schedule to the NBC Act used by NBC to threaten to revoke the licenses of 53 broadcast stations and to shut down the stations is unconstitutional and unlawful, as it violates freedom of expression.”
In the suit, SERAP and NGE asked the court for “an order of interim injunction restraining Buhari and NBC, their agents from revoking the licenses of 53 broadcast stations in the country and shutting down their operations, pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice filed contemporaneously in this suit.”
In the suit number FHC/L/CS/1582/2022, SERAP and NGE urged the court to determine “whether section 10(a) of the Third Schedule to the NBC Act used by NBC to threaten to revoke the licences of 53 broadcast stations and shut them down is not in inconsistent with freedom of expression and access to information.”
The plaintiffs urged the court to declare that “section 10(a) of the National Broadcasting Act used by NBC to unilaterally revoke the licenses of the broadcast stations and shutdown the stations is a violation of the constitutionally and internationally guaranteed right to a fair hearing.”
They maintained that the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution and human rights treaties on freedom of expression “indicate that this right can be exercised through any medium.”
They added, “Effectively, these provisions recognise that every individual has the right to an equal opportunity to receive, seek and impart information through any communication medium without discrimination.
“The use of NBC Act and Code, in this case, would inadmissibly open the door to arbitrariness and would fundamentally restrict the freedom of expression that is an integral part of the public order protected the Nigerian Constitution and human rights treaties to which Nigeria is a state party.”
“The media plays an essential role as a vehicle or instrument for the exercise of freedom of expression and information – in its individual and collective aspects – in a democratic society.”
“Indeed, the media has the task of distributing all varieties of information and opinion on matters of general interest.”
“The public has a right to receive and assess this information and opinion independently. Therefore, the existence of a free, independent, vigorous, pluralistic, and diverse media is essential for the proper functioning of a democratic society.”
“Revoking the licenses of 53 broadcast stations and shutting down their operations because they have not renewed their licenses would both seriously undermine the rights of millions of Nigerians to express their thoughts, and their right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, in any medium they choose.”
The plaintiffs noted that they recognised the mandates of the NBC to regulate broadcasting. They, however, maintained that “the exercise of such mandates including renewals or revocation of licenses must follow the thresholds and guidelines set by the right to freedom of expression.”
“The free circulation of ideas and news is not possible except in the context of a plurality of sources of information and media outlets. The lack of plurality in sources of information is a serious obstacle for the functioning of democracy.”
“The NBC Act and Broadcasting Code cannot and should not be used in a manner that is inconsistent and incompatible with a plurality of voices, diversity of voices, non-discrimination, and just demands of a democratic society, as well as the public interest.”
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