Overbearing regulator?

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•NBC law is product of military rule; it needs a review

It required the intervention of the Federal High Court, Abuja, to restore the licence of DAAR Communications Plc, owners of African Independent Television (AIT) and Ray Power FM, which the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) suspended on June 6.  The privately owned broadcasting organisation had gone to court to challenge the suspension of its licence. The court ordered both parties to maintain the status quo as at May 30, pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit before it.

This conflict raises questions about the powers of the NBC, and the exercise of such powers, particularly whether the commission was overbearing by suspending the media organisation’s licence. The agency said the media group operated “as if it is beyond the regulatory direction of the commission. They don’t pay their licence fees as and when due.”

Other allegations: “Its broadcast is patently partisan and one-sided and deliberately inciting and heating the polity.” The agency also accused AIT/Raypower of using “divisive comments accredited to the segment of “Kakaaki”, tagged, “Kakaaki Social”, where inciting comments like, “Nigeria is cursed, we declare independent state of Niger Delta”, “Nigeria irritates me”, “this country is gradually Islamising” and other similar slogans are used without editorial control in breach of the broadcast code.” The regulator claimed that DAAR Communications had refused to heed its “letters of warning.”

Founder of DAAR Communications, Chief Raymond Dokpesi, defended his organisation, saying, “Every broadcast, which appears to them to offer a dissenting perspective to the position of government, is reprehended as a threat to national interest. Every reference and reportage from various sections of the country concerning injustice, inequality and inequity is reprehended as a threat to national security.”

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According to Dokpesi, his organisation is guided by Section 22 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which gives it the responsibility to hold government, public officers and people in power accountable to the public.

By seeking the court’s intervention, DAAR Communications made a strong point about democratic standards and due process, which the NBC should learn from. The agency should have approached the judiciary to resolve the issues. That is the implication of a democratic environment, with its emphasis on freedoms, including broadcast rights of television and radio stations and public rights to access news and information.

Indeed, the regulator cannot be accuser and judge in its own case. This is why it should have recognised the judiciary’s role as arbiter, and should have gone to court for mediation. The agency must avoid giving the impression that DAAR Communications is the target of a witch-hunt on account of its founder’s political leaning.

It is significant that Dokpesi, who submitted a petition to the National Assembly, called for an urgent holistic review of the NBC law. For instance, he proposed an amendment to ensure that the appointments of the agency’s directors and director-general were subjected to the confirmation of the National Assembly to avoid a situation where the positions were occupied by people loyal to the ruling party.

It is noteworthy that the extant laws came into effect in 1992, which makes them products of the military era. Times have changed, and the laws need to reflect the country’s democratic character.

In the United States of America, which is regarded as a bastion of democracy, for instance, “The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech… protects programming that stereotypes or may otherwise offend people with regard to their religion, race, national background, gender, or other characteristics. It also protects broadcasts that criticise or ridicule established customs and institutions, including the government and its officials.” Also, the US regulator “recognises that, under our Constitution, people must be free to say things that the majority may abhor, not only what most people may find tolerable or congenial.”

The NBC must respect democratic freedoms, and its role must be informed by democratic standards. Anything short of that is unacceptable.

by The Nation

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