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NBC’s tyranny cannot hide their moral cowardice



Adelakun Adunni Abimbola

The Nigerian Broadcasting Commission’s imposition of a N2m fine on AriseTV for the sin of airing a contrived report about a presidential candidate is one of those curious instances of bureaucratic efficiency. Coming after some government agencies had indicated they would not be pursuing the substantial issue of this presidential candidate’s association with narcotics, it is funny how the shoddy reporting quickly stood out to the NBC as worth a penalty. I am skeptical that the NBC would have taken similar action if a false report had been about a different politician or another candidate not of the ruling party. Not much about their conduct suggests that they know how to adhere to the ethical code that prescribes political neutrality for government bureaucracies.

The NBC did not jump at the throat of AriseTV because there are values that they needed to enforce. This is the tyranny of a bunch of partisan hacks and moral cowards pretending to enforce some ethical codes. Just in case anyone is about to ask, this is not a defence of AriseTV. Yes, their reporters could have been more circumspect, especially in an election season where different shades of madness collide in the public sphere. At the same time, rushing to fine the station over a minor infraction is an abuse of power. Media houses get something wrong now and then. It should have been enough that the Independent National Electoral Commission—the agency from where the letter in contention purportedly emanated—disassociated itself from it and the station apologised.

If the NBC officials who flip through several broadcast channels while fondling a sledgehammer have not thought about it by now, I am happy to break it to them: the punitive measures they keep applying on the media houses backfire. What sells a media organisation is not all news reports but integrity. When a media house serially reports false stories, it steadily destroys its own business. When agencies like the NBC rush to swing their hammer to force a media station into supposedly maintaining standards, they achieve the opposite effect of garnering public sympathy for them. They come across to the public as persecutors and arouse the sentiment that will make an otherwise discerning observer excuse the ‘fake news.’

In an earlier article, I raised the question of the usefulness of organisations like the NBC in the age of globalised media technology where you can broadcast through multiple channels and potentially garner far more viewership worldwide than all the electronic stations in the whole of Nigeria put together can achieve. Even the NBC administrators seem to have realised that they have outlived their usefulness, and they are trying too hard to push back on reality. That is why they are all over the place, micromanaging the exchange of information by slapping sanctions and issuing fines.

In August, they fined both the BBC and Trust TV N5m each for broadcasting documentaries on banditry in Nigeria. Their sin? They glorified terrorism. Now, here is the hilarious part of the charade of the code NBC claims they enforce. We already live in a country where governors have serially confessed to paying off bandits, lawmakers stand up in the Senate and say bandits should be sent abroad to be educated, and a state agency like the Department of State Services pays bandits a hefty sum to retrieve dangerous weapons, but the journalists that featured the bandits is the one that glorifies terrorism? How do the people who sit in their executive lairs manage to contrive this nonsense and pronounce them in public without reflecting on the deformity of their thinking? We should laugh to keep from crying!

In 2020, the NBC also fined Arise TV, African Independent Television and Channels Television between N2m and N3m for their coverage of the #EndSARS protest, claiming their report escalated violence across the country. This is another funny example of their warped logic when they wield the big stick. The government’s poor handling of issues during the protest did not cause the mayhem, but the reporting did? The same 2020, they also fined Nigeria Info 99.3 FM N5m for interviewing a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. He supposedly promoted ‘unverifiable and inciting views’ that could lead to public disorder. In 2021, they fined Channels TV and Inspiration FM N5m each for their reporting of the Indigenous People of Biafra activities claiming the broadcasts “promoted secessionist, divisive, violent, and inflammatory comments.” In 2017, they fined 23 radio and television stations for “hateful speech, vulgar lyrics and unverifiable claims.” In 2019, they fined another 45 more stations for a range of offences such as “hate speech, abusive, and inflammatory broadcast.”

You look at the chain of fines and wonder, but by which objective means did the NBC officials calibrate the weight of these speeches to conclude they were dangerous? Who are those people taking it upon themselves to determine what is hateful and inflammatory, and what exactly qualifies them to make such ethical valuations? I have serious problems with a government agency that looks the other way when the All Progressives Congress errand boys go on television to defend their scandal-prone presidential candidate through blatant lies, but easily sanction others for hate, vulgarism, and falsehood. Do these people even think through the contradictions in their judgement, or hiding behind ‘the code’ has sapped them of rudimentary reflective capabilities?

Their whole claim of protecting society from combusting because one or two people said something on the radio or the television is suspect. The main threat to the country is not the media houses being punished, it is the leadership and its failures. It is irresponsible and merely tyrannical of the NBC to cede the responsibility for social order to electronic broadcast stations while overlooking the real sources of tension in the polity. If Nigeria goes up in flames, it will be because people are deprived, not because they listened to some broadcasts. If someone reports fake news, let them be called out; let the listening public determine whether they want to keep buying what a media station shorn of integrity sells. By clamping down on the media, the power-drunk NBC officials are stifling private businesses.

Businesses cannot flourish in an atmosphere where the government either uses taxes as a punitive measure or cheaply imposes fines for every perceived infraction. How much is the annual revenue of many of these electronic stations that the NBC imposes fines to the tune of millions of naira? If money were that easy to come by, why has the government not raised the minimum wage?

Rather than keep paying the fines, the media houses should learn to stand up to NBC and demand a complete overhaul of an agency that has become malicious and malevolent. Part of me wanted to blame Nigerian media houses for not doing enough diligence to report the Bola Tinubu’s chain of scandals, but can one blame them at this rate? Regulatory agencies like the NBC constrain initiatives to what some humourless tin-pot dictators in their airless offices approve.

In a democracy, media houses cannot always be expected to conduct themselves perfectly because they will cater to a segment of the public disaffected with the government of the day. Dealing with their output should be a matter for critical reflection and public education, not this tireless resort to Decree 4. Nigeria is no longer in a military era, but NBC’s organisational psyche is still so militarised that broadcast stations can hardly take two breaths before being slapped with punishment.

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