On March 27, 2023, Nigeria’s broadcasting regulator National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, slammed a fine of NGN5 million (about US$10,500) on a privately-owned network, Channels Television, over an interview it held with Datti Baba-Ahmed, the vice-presidential candidate of the Labour Party in the presidential election held on February 25, 2023.
NBC’s fine was conveyed in a letter to the network’s chief executive titled, ‘Broadcast of an Inciting Interview, A Sanction.’ It was signed by Balarabe Ilelah, the commission’s Director-General. The regulator said it monitored the broadcast of the interview on ‘Politics Today,’ a daily evening show anchored by journalist Seun Okibaloye, on March 22, 2023. It said the broadcast was volatile and capable of inciting public disorder and therefore violated some sections of the broadcasting code.
In the said interview, which has been seen by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), Baba-Ahmed called on President Muhammadu Buhari and the Chief Justice of Nigeria Olukayode Ariwoola not to swear in Bola Tinubu, the winner of the February 25 presidential election and candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC.
The presidential election has been considered to be the most controversial and divisive in Nigerian history, marked by violence, political thuggery, and religious and ethnic bigotry across many areas in the country.
In the end, Tinubu got 37 per cent of the votes to be declared the winner, according to results announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, the electoral umpire. Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president and presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, got 29 per cent of the votes. Youth-favoured Peter Obi of the Labour Party polled 25 per cent of the votes, coming third. Both the PDP and LP have dismissed the poll as a sham and demanded a rerun.
In the March 22 feature on Channels Television, LP vice-presidential candidate, Baba-Ahmed, insisted that the presidential election was rigged and said: “Whoever swears in Tinubu has ended democracy in Nigeria.”
“Mr President, do not hold that inauguration. CJN, your lordship, do not partake in unconstitutionality. I am taking this risk for the sake of my country,” Baba-Ahmed said.
“Yes, it is extreme and I am saying it. It was more extreme for [Mahmood] Yakubu [the INEC chairman] to issue that certificate [of return]. It was reckless. He is putting all our lives in danger. All of us. I am telling you that on the 29th of May 2023, swear in Tinubu as this result is, you have ended democracy whoever you are.”
“You cannot swear in people who have not met constitutional requirements. If you do that, you have done something unlawful, something unconstitutional. And I am repeating it, whoever does not meet the constitutional requirement must not, must never be sworn in. You said my name. If you like I can say it again. I am Datti Baba-Ahmed,” the vice-presidential candidate said.
“However extreme it is, I am saying it on national TV. I don’t like to take risks. I am not taking any risk,” he added.
NBC blamed Channels Television for allowing Baba-Ahmed to make the comments it considered inflammatory, saying the broadcasting code, including the section that said no broadcast shall encourage, or incite, be repugnant to public feelings or contain an offensive reference to any person or organisation, alive or dead or generally be disrespectful to human dignity.
Ilelah, the NBC chief, added that according to the broadcasting code, broadcasters shall ensure that no programme contained anything which amounted to a subversion of constituted authority. He said the Commission had engaged Channels Television many times to consider the public interest before any programme is broadcast. This, he said, was to ensure that the country was not plunged into anarchy.
“Consequently, on the following infractions, Channels Television is hereby sanctioned and shall pay a penalty of NGN5,000,000 (five million naira) only in the first instance,” Ilelah said, adding that any further infraction by the television station would attract higher sanctions.
“You are advised to pay within two weeks from the day of receipt of this letter or the penalty will be graduated,” Ilelah added.
A recurring phenomenon
This would not be the first time Channels Television, and other broadcast stations for that matter, have been sanctioned by NBC for airing broadcasts the commission deems are in violation of the broadcasting code. Considered to be pro-government and not independent, NBC’s actions on many occasions have been seen as suppressing press freedom and media rights in Nigeria.
For instance, on August 3, 2022, NBC imposed fines of NGN5 million each on BBC Africa and Trust TV for jointly broadcasting a documentary exposing banditry and kidnapping in Nigeria. The government described the airing of the documentary as “unprofessional,” saying it promoted terror.
On October 26, 2020, NBC fined Arise TV, African Independent Television and Channels Television for their relentless coverage of the #EndSARS protests. The Commission said the media houses played a part in the anti-police brutality protests that would later culminate in the Lekki Shootings.
On April 26, 2021, NBC imposed a fine on Channels TV for airing an interview with Nnamdi Kanu, the now-detained leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, a secessionist.
MFWA is disappointed with the summary punishment meted out to Channels TV. While the politician’s tone was tough, he did not call for violence, and while the NBC may differ with Channels TV and its guest, it certainly owed the media house the duty of a hearing before imposing any sanctions.
The International Press Centre (IPC), MFWA’s partner organisation in Nigeria, together with the Media Rights Agenda have jointly accused the NBC of abuse of its powers.
“NBC has in this instance again exercised quasi-judicial powers injudiciously, by constituting itself to the prosecutor and the judge over a case brought before it by a third party. In previous instances, it has also additionally been the accuser,” the two organisations said in a statement.