On Wednesday, June 12, 2019, many activists, who had been ‘standing on June 12,’ finally got their wish. President Muhammadu Buhari set the date aside as Democracy Day and marked the first edition in Abuja at the Eagle Square with a colourful ceremony. In spite of the less than warm mood about democracy since February 23, 2019, a lot has been made of the 20 years of unbroken democracy since 1999.
Two decades is a long enough time for any idea to take root. However, it would appear as if some government agencies are still grappling with how to operate in a democracy. A few days before the June 12 fanfare, on June 6, the National Broadcasting Commission, under the leadership of Modibbo Kawu, shut down AIT (and its subsidiary stations) based on the provisions of Section 10 of the Third Schedule of the NBC Act Cap N11 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, and surrounded the company’s premises in Abuja with heavily armed security operatives.
AIT’s offence? According to a statement by the NBC, AIT was allegedly being “patently partisan and one-sided, and deliberately inciting and heating the polity.” The NBC also determined that AIT “has been used in a manner detrimental to national interest,” has repeatedly failed to “operate substantially as set forth in the licence” and failed “to observe any cease and desist order issued by the commission.”
The commission also queried Kakaaki Social, the segment of the AIT breakfast show which highlights comments from social media. One of such problematic comments cited by the NBC is: “Nigeria irritates me.” The NBC’s statement, which sometimes bordered on quarrelsome (instead of being professionally detached), talked about AIT not paying its fees “as and when due,” how it sometimes “used the channel to fight personal battles” and concluded with this head-scratching sentence, “Needless to state that Daar Communications have over the years turned themselves into a bad example of how a professional broadcast outfit should not be run.” Come again? Read between the lines– AIT’s original sin can be traced to the documentary it aired on the presidential election tribunal.
Anyway, all is now well in the land. By the next day, a court ordered the stations to be reopened. The Nigeria Press Council has intervened, and AIT and NBC have reportedly settled their differences. AIT will withdraw its court case while the NBC will withdraw its men referred to as “goons” by human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN).
AIT should never have been shut in the first place. Press freedom is one of the dividends of a democratic government and Femi Falana said as much.
“NBC has to be made to appreciate that it can no longer operate outside the ambit of the constitution as was the case under military rule,” he stated while making allowances for emergency situations that could warrant a shut down. “For instance, a broadcasting house that decides to announce fake results of a general election may be temporarily shut down.
“The NBC will be required, as soon as possible thereafter, to apply for a court order to legitimise the closure. Alternatively, the NBC may request the Attorney General to charge a media house to court for breaching the provisions of the NBC Act or penal statutes.”
Nonetheless, there were differing shades of opinions in the immediate aftermath of NBC’s shut-down order. Nowadays, nothing in Nigeria is too serious not to be reduced to banter. Many won’t allow even facts or legality get in the way. When you add the fact that it’s actually some people’s jobs, you can understand why outrageously stupid opinions are never in short supply. According to those who supported the closure by the NBC, AIT and its parent company, DAAR Communications Plc owe salaries, and its founding chairman, High Chief Raymond Dokpesi belongs to the main opposition party, PDP. There’s also his EFCC case. If we were to pursue this line of thinking, we would also look at the other side – NBC. If AIT’s conduct can only be viewed by its principal’s PDP connections, we must also put the NBC under the same lens. The NBC’s DG belongs to the ruling APC, and he even took part in the primary to be the party’s candidate for the position of governor of Kwara State. He has also been accused by his employer, the Federal Government, of an alleged N2.5bn fraud – that case is still with the EFCC. Fortunately, we cannot query the democratic commitment of the Federal Government. We know for a fact that President Buhari is a reborn democrat, far different from his Decree 4 days. Herein lies the problem with rationalising and justifying things after the fact. Who knows where this would end?
The one thing that we must agree on unequivocally is that the NBC shouldn’t go around intimidating broadcasting stations with ‘goons’ or worse still, shutting them down. So much is wrong with the Nigerian broadcasting industry as I often lament but evidently, it appears that it’s only when the government is being criticised that the NBC feels the need to wield the big stick. How can Nigeria, under a democracy, strive to be the only place on earth where the media does not reflect what the citizens feel? Bandits can be having a field day in the North; people from my village could be living in fear of Fulani herdsmen; somewhere in the South-East, some villages can claim they pay ransom to these same people…but to hear or see that on the airwaves is hate speech?
Meanwhile, as an Abuja resident, I have been reportedly called a ‘necessary evil’ by no person other than our esteemed president. Before then, I was a ‘five per center’. Do you know how many times some sacred groups have gone on air to threaten a certain section of the country? Where’s the gag on that?
The NBC must prove it’s an impartial regulator.