Many Nigerians and nongovernmental organisations reacted with anger Thursday after the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) imposed a fine on a radio station for conducting an interview the government considers “inciting”.
The regulatory body said it fined the channel, Nigeria Info 99.3FM, N5 million for “providing its platform to be used to promote unverifiable and inciting views that can incite crime, public disorder.”
While announcing the penalty earlier today, NBC had cited the alleged unprofessional conduct of media house in the handling of the programme, “Morning Cross Fire”, aired on Monday between 8.30am and 9.00am.
A former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Obadiah Mailafia, had while speaking during the programme alleged that a northern state governor is a commander of the terror group, Boko Haram.
“Dr Mailafia Obadia’s comments on the ‘Southern Kaduna Crisis’ were devoid of facts and by broadcasting same to the public, Nigeria Info 99.3FM, is in violation of the following sections of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code: 3.1.1 No broadcast shall encourage or incite to crime, lead to public disorder or hate, be repugnant to public feelings or contain offensive reference to any person or organisation, alive or dead or generally be disrespectful to human dignity,” the statement read.
Under the new code, the commission has also threatened sanctions on media houses for allowing their platforms to be used for “insulting” public officials, Vanguard reported.
The code, since its amendment, has stirred controversy with many Nigerians kicking against its provisions. Many view the move as a backdoor attempt to clamp down on free speech, dissent and the media.
The National Broadcasting Commission board has however distanced itself from the ammendment of the code, insisting it was ‘erroneously’ done by the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed.
Former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, said the fine on Nigeria Info radio was a “threat to an evolving democracy like Nigeria’s.”
“While there is no disputation over the fact that hate speech portends an existential threat to the enterprise of journalistic reporting and, in fact, inhibits the workings for a free society, it is absolutely repugnant that powers that be would instrumentalize the prevention of hate speech as a means of constricting free speech,” Mr Abubakar’s media office said in a statement Thursday.
“It is globally acknowledged that one of the core functions of the mass media is to inform the society on all ranges of issues, not even to the exclusion of national security issues. The mass media has a role to play in ensuring that all possible shades of opinions are given access to the media platform.
“In many advanced democracies the world over, criminals on even wanted lists of law enforcement agencies have reached out to the media to express their opinions about the crimes that they had perpetrated and the media space was not denied to them.
“As a matter of fact, it seems somewhat contradictory that a country like ours, which is in the throes of national security skirmishes, would choose to shrink media access to critical information . It is not known if any society had won the war against terrorism by placing a restriction to access to information, in the way the NBC had done.”
The statement also disagreed with the argument of the NBC that the interview that the station had with Mr Mailafia constituted any infringement.
“Whether or not what Dr. Mailafia said on the radio station was a false claim, it is outside of the objectives of a responsible regulatory framework to sanction a radio station for a comment an individual made, more so that the personality in question, Dr. Obadiah, had been quizzed and released by law enforcement agents,” the statement partly read.
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The statement said if for any reason the authorities were not satisfied with his explanations, they are at liberty to prosecute him in court, but not to make a scapegoat of the media platform that provides opportunities for citizens to ventilate their views.
“We, therefore, call on the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to cause a review of the hate speech prohibition code because the very interpretation of same is offensive to the notion of free speech which is an essential ingredient of participatory democracy that Nigeria operates,” it said.
It also demanded the fine on the radio station be quashed.
Similarly, the International Press Centre (IPC) expressed dismay over the imposition of the fine.
The executive director of IPC, Lanre Arogundade, said the 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,” Mr. Arogundade said.
The group 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.
Mr. Arogundade demanded the immediate reversal of the decision saying that was the only path of honour left for the NBC to follow having embarrassed itself with the unreasonable fine against the radio station.
The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), in its statement of Thursday, urged President Buhari to caution the NBC to refrain from threatening Nigerians with punishment if they insult Publix officials.
The group threatened legal action if the commission fails to comply.
“We’ll see in court if the NBC continues to undermine Nigerians’ human rights. Nigerian authorities should stop using “insult” as a pretext to stifle freedom of expression, and as a tool of repression,” it said.
“The ‘crime’ of insult is entirely inconsistent and incompatible with the Nigerian Constitution, 1999 (as amended), and international human rights law.”
Several Nigerians also aired their opinion on Twitter, protesting the fine.
According to @ayemojubar, “They want citizens to respect them as elders but why would Lai Mohammed and NBC fine NigeriaInfo FM N5m because they granted Obadiah Mailaifa an interview. See the consequence of giving power to wicked souls.”
@OJEZS wrote: “NigeriainfoFM should sue Lai Mohammed and NBC to court; there’s nothing wrong for @NigeriaInfoPH to grant Obadiah Mailaifa an interview. They should go to court to challenge the FG for that 5MN fine.”