On August 19, in an unprecedented move, Nigeria’s broadcasting industry regulator, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), revoked the licences of 52 television and radio stations.
Heavyweights including the African Independent Television and Silverbird Television were affected by NBC’s hammering, according to a publicised statement by the regulator.
The broadcasting corporations of states including Lagos, Ogun, Rivers, Katsina, Imo, Sokoto and Kaduna were also affected.
NBC said the directive was consequent upon the stations’ indebtedness to it amounting to at least NGN2.6 billion (US$6.1 million).
The regulator explained that it had in May, via a publication in the dailies, asked the affected stations to renew their licences and pay their debts within two weeks or have their licences revoked and frequencies withdrawn.
“Three months after the publication, some licensees have yet to pay their outstanding debts, in contravention of the National Broadcasting Commission Act CAP N11, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, particularly section 10(a) of the third schedule of the Act,” NBC stated.
“In view of this development, the continued operations of the debtor stations is illegal and constitutes a threat to national security,” the regulator added.
The Director-General of the NBC, Balarabe Ilelah, told journalists at the commission’s headquarters in Abuja that all the affected television and radio stations must halt their operations in the next 24 hours.
NBC said it is collaborating with security agencies across the country to ensure the affected broadcasting houses’ compliance with the shutdown order.
The regulator’s move has, however, provoked a flurry of criticisms by media and press freedom advocates.
Chris Isiguzo, the National President, of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), described NBC’s action as “hasty, ill-timed and reckless.”
“It should be noted that this wholesale revocation of licences at this critical time of insecurity in the country appears to be a decision taken without careful prior deliberation, consultation or counsel,” Isiguzo said via a statement obtained by the Media Foundation for West Africa.
“While we regret the inability of these broadcast stations to fulfil their obligations to NBC in view of dwindling resources, we caution against such [a] large-scale clampdown on broadcast stations in disregard of security issues and the attendant consequences. We cannot afford the unpleasant outcome of such a media blackout at this time,” Isiguzo added.
Mustapha Isah and Iyobosa Uwugiaren, the President and General Secretary of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), respectively, called for an immediate reversal of NBC’s sanctions.
“The NGE is worried because media houses, which played and continue to play a key role in the nurturing and development of democracy can’t just be off air no matter the reasons,” said Isah and Uwugiaren.
“While the Guild is not against broadcast stations fulfilling their financial obligations to the NBC, we note that the current harsh operating environment that has crippled every sector in our nation was not taken into account by the NBC before its action.”
A rights group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), announced it would sue the President Muhammadu Buhari government, under whose purview the NBC operates.
“We’re suing the Buhari administration over its arbitrary decision to revoke the licences of 52 broadcast stations, and to deprive the public access to information about critical developments in Nigeria they have a right to know,” SERAP declared.
Some Nigerians wondered why NBC took the action in a period when the citizens require important information that would define their choices in the upcoming 2023 elections.
“How can NBC revoke broadcast licenses of 52 stations in Nigeria at this critical election period?????? Wrong timing and a breach on the information freedom and rights of citizens,” Dr Doris Morah, an expert in new media, wrote on Twitter.
NBC has come under fire in recent times for allegedly being used by the federal government as a tool to suppress press freedom and media rights in Nigeria.
On different occasions, NBC, perceived to be pro-government by many Nigerians, sanctioned media houses for airing or publishing stories deemed as damaging the government’s image.
For instance, on August 3, NBC imposed fines of NGN5 million (US$11,700) each on BBC Africa and Trust TV for jointly broadcasting a documentary exposing the warlords of banditry and kidnapping in Nigeria.
Lai Mohammed, the information minister, described the airing of the documentary as “unprofessional,” saying interviews were granted to bandit warlords and terror gangs, thereby promoting “terror” in the country.
Also, on October 26, 2020, NBC fined Arise TV, African Independent Television and Channels Television for their relentless coverage of the #EndSARS protests.
The broadcast regulator alleged that the media houses played a part in the anti-police brutality protests, which ended on October 20, 2020, after military forces allegedly shot and killed some protesters at Lekki tollgate in Lagos.
Again, NBC, on April 26, 2021, 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 group in the south-eastern part of Nigeria. A month later, the broadcast regulator also fined a private radio station, Inspiration FM, for airing Kanu’s interview.
Reacting to the latest mass shutdown of broadcast stations, the International Press Centre (IPC), MFWA’s partner organisation in Nigeria, said the action confirms its concern that NBC exercises its powers arbitrarily without recourse to the public interest. It condemned as aggressive the regulator’s call on security agents to move in and enforce the shutdown order.
The IPC pointed to the economic challenges the Nigerian economy is facing and its effect on the media industry and cautioned the NBC to exhaust channels for amicable settlement before taking a decision that would lead to job losses and the shrinking of the information dissemination space.
The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) joins its partner organization, the IPC and other stakeholders in Nigeria to call for a suspension of the shutdown directive in favour of further dialogue. While we acknowledge the need for media houses to discharge their regulatory duties, the enforcement of regulatory statutes must be done in a way that does not undermine the public’s right to information as guaranteed under Section 39 of the Nigerian constitution.