Fred Itua, Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja, Romanus Okoye and Lukman Olabiyi
All is not well with the Ministry of Information and Culture as Minister, Lai Mohammed, has come under fire from Chairman of the Board of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Alhaji Ikra Bilbis, who has dismissed the recently unveiled code as an illegality. Briefing journalists in Abuja, Bilbis stated that the move by the duo of Mohammed and\ Acting Director-General of the NBC, Prof. Armstrong Idachaba was nothing but usurpation of the powers vested on the NBC.
He said the sixth edition of the NBC code which he termed Mohammed’s version, fell short of basic regulation-making and standards since it was characterised by indifference to stakeholder’s inclusiveness.
This came as NBC slammed N5 million on Nigeria Info 99.3FM. NBC had cited alleged unprofessional conduct of Nigeria Info 99.3FM, in the handling of the programme, “Morning Cross Fire” aired on August 10.
“The station provided its platform for the guest, Dr. Mailafia Obadiah, to promote unverifiable and inciting views that could encourage or incite to crime and lead to public disorder,” it said.
However, Bilbis, former minister of information and communications, said Mohammed breached the schedule of his legal responsibility when he amended the code in a manner that threatened to destroy investments and lead to loss of jobs in the country.
He disclosed that none of the past ministers of information interfered with the review of the code, even as he said the NBC Act empowered the commission to regulate industry practice standards other than the minister.
He added that the process of the code review, which holds every four years is usually marked by the involvement of past directors-general, retired directors and staff of the NBC, broadcast organisations and media scholars.
Bilbis also said the new amendment was at the instance of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) because FEC wanted the NBC strengthened in order to ensure that NBC can stop a repeat of the divisive broadcasts the nation witnessed before, during and after the 2019 general elections.
He added that based on the decision of FEC, President Muhammadu Buhari, approved the review of the code which Mohammed later misunderstood.
“Instead of studying and following the law, relevant rules and regulations, and direct the appropriate authorities as stipulated by the law to act on, he erroneously embarked on the review alone.
“The minister has constantly dropped the name of President Muhammadu Buhari as having approved his own version of the code review. The NBC Code is a regulatory framework put together jointly by stakeholders to guide their operations in the industry. It is therefore not a unilateral government instrument and is already covered by law, hence not requiring any further presidential approval.
“This might be the reason why till date, the minister cannot show us a copy of the presidential approval,” Bilbis said.
Meanwhile, outrage and wild condemnations have greeted the imposition of N5 million on a Lagos-based radio station.
Reacting, the International Press Centre (IPC), in a statement by its Executive Director, Mr. Lanre Arogundade, said NBC gave the impression that it was the radio station that put the words in the mouth of the guest and went on to impose a fine without any evidence whatsoever that the alleged statement had degraded any person or groups of persons, which would have amounted to hate speech.
“Even if a case of hate speech can be established, it is totally out of place in a democratic setting that NBC would be the one to accuse, prosecute and judge its own case against the station.”
He said the hefty fine represented an assault on media independence, freedom of expression and the right of citizens to know about issues of public interest. He demanded the immediate reversal of the decision saying it was the only path of honour left for the NBC to follow having embarrassed itself with the unreasonable fine against the radio station.
The Emeritus Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, also flayed the fine as misuse of power.
He questioned the sections of the broadcast code said to have been violated by Nigeria Info 99.3FM, saying, “those rules, are they being made for the sake of Nigeria?”
The former president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) also said he was one of those who believed that Mailafia was not the first person to voice out his recent comment.
He noted that others have said similar things, including a former Chief of Army Staff, General Theophilus Danjuma (retd) who was even more direct almost two years ago.
Onaiyekan also said not only nothing being done to remedy the situation, but much has been happening that seemed to even confirm the allegations made by Mailafia.
“That is misuse of power. That means when we are talking to any radio station, we should never say anything that government doesn’t like to hear because this is what it boils down to.
“I think somebody should advise them in government that this is not the way to stop unpalatable news moving around. The best thing for government to do is not to allow anything to happen that can lead to this kind of discussion.
“But I do hope too because Mailafia has stood by his words and the Northern Governors Forum have asked for investigation and I think even Mailafia wants proper investigation and I too and all the peace loving Nigerians, we want this terrible allegation to be investigated seriously and put to rest.” Onaiyekan also said.
Senior lawyers, Mr Femi Falana, Chief Mike Ozekhome, Paul Ananaba, Seyi Sowemimo and others also described the sanction as illegal.
According to Falana: “The NBC Board Chairman has said the fine was not approved by the Board. More importantly, the Board cannot accuse a criminal suspect with criminal offence, prosecute, convict and impose a fine. The investigation being conducted into Dr. Obadiah’s interview by the State Security Service has not been concluded. So, why was the NBC in a hurry to violate the fundamental right of the broadcasting station to fair hearing?”
“Armageddon is here. Nigerians should not be surprised; many years ago, I predicted that when they finish with the judiciary, opposition parties and human rights activists, they will come for the press. It is a sign of despotism. It amounts to gagging the press. When government fails, it blame everybody except it. They are looking for scapegoat. The man (Mailafiya) did no wrong. He did not say anything new except that he is an elite and Oxford educated person who should know. Aside that, do they not know the gravity of paying ransom to Boko Haram which the bandits in turn use to buy arms. The matter should be challenged in Court.”
“It is an opportunity for the law to be tested in court so there can be judicial interpretation of what hate speech is. The radio station should challenge the matter in court and all the journalism associations should ask to be joined as interested parties. It is only a court that is competent to find one guilty.”
“It is obnoxious, absurd. The station cannot be guilty. If at all, anything is wrong, it should be the man. But he did not say anything wrong except telling the government the truth. Who determines what hate speech is. If not challenged, it then means that anytime, anyone makes statement unfavourable to the government; he should be tagged to have made hate speech.”
“It is an attempt to gag the press. I don’t think it is right. It is not the court that will determine who is guilty of hate speech. It is very strange and unbelievable and portents serious danger to our freedom of speech. It is illegal, unconstitutional and very astonishing.”
“It is an aberration and absurd. How can an interviewer on a live programme know what the respondent will say when you cannot determine what another person has in mind? Let them challenge it in court. It amounts to gagging the press.”
Kabiru Akingbolu: The imposition of fine by the NBC is rather unfortunate for a lot of reasons. One, we are not in military regime. Secondly, impossition of fine on the radio station in the circumstances is most uncalled for and smacks of unconscious invitation to anarchy. Thirdly and worse still, it’s a technical way of gagging the press and finally, the NBC does not have the vires to impose fine apart from a court of law.