NBC vs. AIT: The Dilemma of Media Freedom

The Nigerian media, especially the press, undoubtedly had struggled through series of repressive policies since independence – Newspaper Prohibition from Circulation Act of 1967; Public Officers Protection against False Publication Decrees No. 11 of 1976; and No. 4 of 1984; Detention of Persons Decree No. 2 of 1984 and Newspaper Registration Decree No. 44 of 1993, etc. All of these policies were consequences of Military dictatorship. However, the return to democracy two decades ago saw media freedom powered with section 39 of the 1999 constitution (as amended), which stipulates that every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impact ideas and information without interference. “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government”, section 22 specifies.

Desirable as full attainment of media freedom might be, the reality of global experience is such that has placed the media in contextual covert control and official regulations, even in the most advanced democracies. This is because of the creational reality that human beings are either too weak or too political to be left freely to their own expressions. The right to freedom of movement, for example, does not include freedom to move from places to places without interference, and to visit and be visited by anyone, by any means, regardless of frontiers. We consider it plausible to enforce traffic wardens and lights, Visas and Immigration Departments to regulate road use and avoid infringements on the territorial determination of countries. However, on the right of opinion and expression, there seems to be a confusing over-stretch, necessitating a rethink over the subsumed media freedom.

A recent experience in Nigeria pointing to this necessity occurred when the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) suspended the license of African Independent Television (AIT) – a local private media outfit, over what the NBC described as AIT’s breach of the Commission’s ACT and broadcasting code. According to the NBC, aside from AIT’s habitual failure to pay license fees as and when due, the media company had defied the Regulator’s several warnings over its willful and repeated application of hate speech, divisive and inciting comments in discussion of national issues. AIT was particularly observed to have created a nexus in which it selects and airs user-generated political comments on social media unedited, knowing how volatile and detrimental they are to national interest.

The suspension generated heated debate across the country. Some see the NBC as having rightly exercised its constitutional authority, in view of AIT’s being signatory to the broadcasting code, and non-denial of having repeatedly failed to heed NBC’s several reminder of its violation of the broadcasting code and the provisions of its license. Others uphold AIT’s perspective that its suspension was a political infringement on media freedom by the NBC.

Although AIT has since returned to the air, the ongoing debate on whether the NBC did the right thing or not, should, in my view, bring to the table a global rethink over media freedom on three major premises. The first is that it is impracticable to achieve uninterfered media freedom as it is with objective journalism, which led AIT to the problem under discussion. The second is that the epistemological flaw in objective journalism is same that seem to have made media freedom the basis for irresponsible conflict reporting, fake news and hate speech. The third is that media freedom has also been serving as the covert basis for interdependent exploitation of the people by the government and the media.

Beginning with the third premise, any careful observer would know that majority, and the most powerful media companies, including AIT, are owned by the very people from whom media freedom is sought – government and their allies, ruling or opposition. Essentially therefore, media freedom is not a bargain between “the people” and the government; it is a struggle between government factions in which “the people” are used for cover-up justifications. It is particularly of concern to me that the media have hidden under this freedom (the right to obtain and publish) to attract huge contracts and make big monies from the governments or their oppositions by ways of reporting or covering-up or refusing to report them to the people. On the other hand, governments, seeing the commitment of media professionals to this instrument of freedom, have devised ways of either owning media companies directly or empowering or contracting their allies to establish, own and operate them. This editorial contract is what AIT is considered to have been doing for the current opposition party in Nigeria – PDP. In the end, media freedom is largely a construct through which the government and the media interdependently deceive the people about state affairs.

On the second premise, many may not have known that it is the right to media freedom that is being exploited in producing pornographic contents all over the world. What is simply required is for the producers to cite the back-up laws and issue warning on contents. It is the same right to media freedom that has served as the basis for the prevalence of insensitive conflict reporting, hate speeches and fake news all over the media. Today, Nigeria and rest of the world is battling with campaigns and technologies to control fake news because of the scams and harms it has come to establish. The worst platform where the right to media freedom is overstretched is social media. This is where you will find the most of hate speeches, fake news and inciting contents and this is one of where AIT got into the NBC’s hook.

On the possibility of achieving media freedom, experience in the most advanced Western democracies shows that there are covert measures to curtail media freedom. In the United Kingdom, for example, when Ofcom – the country’s media regulatory body was set up by Tony Blair, it relocated most important decisions involving the media to the Department of Trade and Industry from the Department of Culture, Media and Sports. By this action, the economics of advertising and shareholders pressure became the means through which journalism of mainstream media organizations in the country are manipulated in the direction of state’s interest. This is an example of what I mean by contextual covert control of media freedom.

In the United States, laws and policies governing media operations are made by the Congress along with House and Senate Committees. The Federal Communication Commission – the US media regulatory body can only operate within the parameters set by the Congress. Today, the media policy process in the USA is increasingly fragmented to involve the government agencies such as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Federal Trade Commission, State Department and Department of Homeland Security, with the PATRIOT ACT becoming a notable instrument for curtailing media freedom.

A colleague, Professor Tonnie Iredia – former Director General of the Nigeria Television Authority recently drew public attention to what he described as undesirability of official control of broadcasting on the grounds of observed technology-driven global realities. He was particular about broadcast licensing having the possibility of breaching the fundamental rights of those who request for licenses and are denied or suspended. The question however, is, will the removal of official media licensing guarantee true media freedom? If the answer is No, as I do think it is, then there is an urgent need to thoroughly and contextually revisit the issue of media freedom, as the freedom should, indeed, mean the freedom for you to know that you are not free, but that your opinions and expressions matter to the rights and well-being of others.

By Yakubu Ozohu-Suleiman, PhD

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