Last month’s directive of the National Broadcasting Commission demanding notification from radio and television organisations before airing live political programmes is a throwback to the dark days of media censorship in the country. It is an order that is not only repugnant, but should have no place in a democratic society.
This, no doubt, is part of the Federal Government’s ongoing vicious clampdown on the media, which has already resulted in barbaric countrywide seizures and searches of major newspapers and their distribution vans by soldiers. It is difficult to find any other explanation for it.
We are at a loss as to how a government that mouths democratic ideals can descend to the level of seeking to abridge the constitutionally enshrined freedom of the press as a way of covering up its obvious incompetence. The mass media is constitutionally obligated to the Nigerian public. The NBC and its ilk need to be reminded that such obnoxious attempts – even during the era of military dictatorships – always fail; this one too is destined for the same end.
Sounding gratuitous about the country’s political situation, the NBC on May 30 penned a spurious letter to broadcast media organisations in Nigeria about how they should operate their outfits. Among other things, the Commission claimed the new regulation was meant to “check (the) increasing cases of unprofessional handling of live political broadcasts in which inciting, provocative and highly divisive comments are frequently served to the public…”
As if the foregoing was not deplorable enough, the organisation added the clincher: “…henceforth, broadcasting stations must notify the commission in writing at least 48 hours before transmitting a political programme live.”
This is shocking. Is this the extent to which the NBC is willing to go to satisfy the crooked agenda of a government that is turning out to be as savage as the forgettable past military usurpers? This directive bears the imprint of a government that has matured into a full dictatorship.
The NBC cannot hide behind a finger to achieve the devious aims of the government. Broadcast media houses cannot but carry impromptu live political programmes in order to enlighten the public and bring burning issues to the national space. Is it not enough that these organisations submit the list of their quarterly programmes to the regulatory agency in accordance with the NBC Act? Ordering them to submit the names of their interviewees is taking regulation too far; it is unconstitutional.
As the Nigerian Press Organisation, which comprises the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, Nigeria Union of Journalists and Nigerian Guild of Editors, warned, these attempts to cow the media into submission would generate “unpleasant consequences.” We also agree with the NPO, which said, “…the notice would amount to unbridled censorship and gagging of the media and it is against the spirit and letters of all electoral laws in Nigeria. This notice is clearly targeted at opposition political parties, a development which is dangerous to the nation’s democracy.”
Just like the recent happenings with the print media, the Presidency cannot claim ignorance of what the NBC is doing. If the Presidency does not have a hand in it, why has it not stopped its agency from the pursuit of this illegality? What does the Presidency have against the mass media to demand such an all-out offensive to emasculate free speech? We surmise that the Goodluck Jonathan government and the military are feeling the pressure for bungling the war against terrorism, which has been headlined by the murder of thousands and the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls from a secondary school in Chibok, Borno State.
With international concern mounting over the incompetent handling of the two-month-long affair, the government is bristling at the criticism in the media. There is also the issue of gross corruption, which Jonathan described as “mere stealing” in a recent media chat. Of course, it is easy for the government to enlist the military in this pull-them-down campaign against the media, since both of them have not acquitted themselves well in the face of the brazen terrorist attacks in parts of Northern Nigeria.
But, as the Fourth Estate of the Realm, media responsibilities in a democracy are clearly spelt out in Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution, which Jonathan swore to uphold upon his ascension to office in May 2011. No government – including the present tenants of Aso Rock – has the right to threaten the media because the press is there to serve the interests of the people.
However, the broadcast media in Nigeria, in collaboration with the arms of the NPO, should take the matter up legally by challenging the directive in court. The media should resist these unwarranted attacks as had stoutly been done in the past. No responsible broadcast outfit will bow to NBC’s irrational request.
Governments, even in Europe and the United States, face criticisms. Beyond verbal responses and denials, we have not seen a David Cameron (of Britain) or US President Barack Obama’s government, in the guise of security measures, clamping down on the operations of the media or destroying newspapers.
Nigeria is not a jungle, where the government can curtail freedom; it should stop all its subterranean moves to abbreviate the rights of media professionals through the back door.
The President must bring his goons under control. No society ever benefits from gagging the media. As Henry Steele Commager, the American liberal historian, once said, “The fact of censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, a society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.” That is not the kind of society Jonathan should wish for Nigerians.