NBC, NPC: Gagging media on all fronts
That the Federal Government is bent on using the preponderance of fake news and hate speech to tinker with the regulatory framework guiding journalism practice is not news. On multiple fronts, the government is poised to amend the laws meant to regulate the media in Nigeria almost in a manner that stakeholders fear could hamper independent journalism.
Just as it is reviewing the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the Nigerian Press Council laws, it is working to introduce a law to regulate social and online media.
What could be the motivation for the zeal to regulate the media on all fronts when there are laws that could be explored to deal with issues of libel and defamation? Sections 59(1) and (2) of the Criminal Code Act and Section 418 of the Penal Code could be used to try libelous and defamatory offences. This is aside from the Cybercrime Law, passed during former President Goodluck Jonathan administration in May 2015. The law, among other things, addressed threats to cyberspaces including Internet usage and safety with regard to prevention, prohibition and combating cybercrime.
Inspite of the Cybercrime Law being in place, months after President Muhammadu Buhari got into office in 2015, there was an attempt to regulate the social media with the introduction of the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill. Many Nigerians were against the bill, as its provisions were seen as repressive designed to infringe on their rights.
Yet, last week, the House of Representatives appeared to have found itself in a tight corner over its resolve to consider a wide range of proposed legislations aimed at stifling free speech in the country.
Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila who spoke during a two-day public hearing organised by the Odebunmi Dotun-led information committee on the proposed legislations warned stakeholders to be wary of their contributions since the bills could influence the creation of media and advertising contents, regulate free speech and establish institutions that will impact on generations of Nigerians to come.
The Speaker, who was represented by the Deputy House Leader, Mr Peter Akpatason, urged stakeholders to ensure that legislations that emerge from the process are of the highest quality and do not allow for infringements on the human rights of citizens.
Of the five proposed legislations deliberated upon, the ones that sought to amend the National Broadcasting Act and the Nigeria Press Council Act drew the attention of stakeholders, particularly in the media industry. The Bill for an Act to amend the Nigeria Press Council Act CAP 128 laws of the federation of Nigeria 2004 sought to remove bottlenecks affecting its performance and make the council in tune with current realities in regulating the press.
Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, who bared his mind on the controversial bills during the hearing, reiterated the need to regulate the social media in the country.
Urging the lawmakers to grant full regulatory powers to government over internet broadcasting and all online media outfits, he asserted that the country’s laws must not be subservient to international telecommunication union treaties in view of the need to protect peculiar situations in our country.
The Minister faulted moves to compel the NBC to pay all monies accruing to it into the federation’s account in accordance with section 162 of the constitution.
He noted: “We have a problem with this because it is not in line with the thinking of the Executive. Very soon, the NBC will exit the number of parastatals whose salaries are paid by the federal government. In other words, the NBC would need to be paying its own salaries, pay for its overheads and operations.
“If that is the way the Executive is thinking, it will be a drawback if you now pay everything into the Treasury Single Account. It means that the government would have to continue to pay our salaries and take care of all our needs. This will defeat the objective of the federal government that certain parastatals should contribute more to the revenue of government.
“I think I need to reconcile this with the Minister of Finance before we proceed. The practice now is that 30 percent of whatever we generate, we retain and 70 percent is what is paid to the Central Bank. In 2020, we were given letters that from next year, we need to be self-sufficient and that we will no longer enjoy the privilege of our salaries being paid by government. We have to fend for ourselves. So, we need to look into this area.”
On the power to grant licence, he said: “The spectrums do not belong to licensees, but to the federal government and can use it either for broadcasting, telecom or any other thing. The impression is given that those enjoying it today can do so forever. The federal government can decide whom to give the spectrum to. We must be careful not to give spectrum permanently to foreign companies who may decide to do whatever they please with it.
“It is our hope that when we eventually transit from analogue to digital broadcasting, the spectrums that will be left will now be sold to fund developmental programmes. Saying those enjoying the spectrum now should continue to do so is like taking away the powers of the government to allocate spectrum.”
Mr. Lanre Arogundade, in his presentation on behalf of the International Press Centre (IPC) and the Centre for Media Law and Advocacy, faulted the prevailing situation whereby the NBC not only operates as an island, but has a boss who decides what constitutes an offence, decides on the nature of punishment and goes ahead to apply the sanctions, which includes shutdown of broadcast stations.
The rights activist maintained that there was no way the NBC would be allowed to remain the accuser, the prosecutor and the judge in its own case.