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The NBC-DAAR tango

To begin with, the basic facts. On June 6, the National Broadcasting Commission, the regularity agency of the electronic media in the country, announced the…

To begin with, the basic facts. On June 6, the National Broadcasting Commission, the regularity agency of the electronic media in the country, announced the indefinite suspension of the operational licence of DAAR Communications Plc, owners of the AIT and Raypower. The NBC action was the culmination of the simmering feud between it and the broadcasting outfit. It made two allegations against DAAR: that it failed to renew its operational licence and that despite repeated appeals to the broadcast outfit to return to the path of professionalism within the ambits of the NBC act in its reportage and programming, it continued to defy the commission and carried on in a manner considered irresponsible and unacceptable.

Condemnations came fast and furious from both the news media and the general public over the NBC action. The shout went up, ‘Buhari again?’ The journalists felt that the press freedom was under assault, a touchy issue in the news media all over the world. People quickly reconnected the action of the NBC to President Buhari’s press gag law in 1984. In his first major media interview with the National Concord in 1984, Buhari promised to tamper with press freedom. He was as good as his word. Within a couple of months, he rolled out Decree 4 of 1984. Most people who never even read the law, remember it by the two famous adjectives that described it: draconian and obnoxious.

Decree 4 was a dusted off version of decree 11 of 1976 by the Murtala/Obasanjo military administration. We did not seem to know that at the time because that law sat in the books undisturbed. No one was prosecuted under decree 11. But two Guardian journalists, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson, were prosecuted under Decree 4 and jailed for one year each for publishing ‘a speculative’ story of ambassadorial appointments by the Buhari administration. The story was speculative but not false. Buhari got worked up over it most probably because he believed only he had the authority to confirm such a story.

That such an innocent story, not unusual in the news media, was deemed to have contravened the decree caused no small anguish in the news media; not least because the media felt they aided and abetted the ousting of the Shagari administration and thus paved the way for the return of the military and for Buhari to become head of state. They expected some chumminess with the new administration in appreciation, not the hostile action demonstrated in Decree 4.

The NBC action was the first cane across the back of the media since our return to civil rule some twenty-one years ago. It immediately stood out like a looming danger. NBC is a federal government outfit. No matter how independently it might act within the limits of its enabling law, no one would be prepared to believe it is not dictated to by the federal government. It did not help matters in this case that the owner of the broadcast outfit, Dr Raymond Dokpesi, is a PDP man. If a government is looking for its enemies, the first places to look for them are usually the newsrooms. Critics of government, who are not really enemies, but those who are in the habit of strongly expressing their disagreement with government actions and policies, find the means of voicing their views in the newsrooms. But quite often the messenger takes the rap.

I am glad that the crisis is over, bringing no small measure of relief to journalists who feared that they heard the voice of Jacob but felt the hands of Esau in the NBC action. Both the commission and DAAR Communications Plc worked out terms of agreement last week approved by Justice Inyang Ekwo of a federal high court, Abuja, to whom the broadcast outfit ran for protection under the law. But what saved the day was the prompt intervention of the Nigerian Press Organisation in an honest effort to make peace between the two organisations and re-assure the public that press freedom is not under assault. The venerable Sam Amuka-Pemu, Isamaila Isa and others led by the NPAN president, Nduka Obaigbena, should have the eternal gratitude of the news media. They did not jump to conclusions; they sought to be fully informed on why it happened and, therefore, convened a meeting with NBC and DAAR on June 9.

I am re-visiting this incident to point out some important points worth bearing in mind by our news men and women in assessing media-government relations, not always friendly at the best of times. Both sides operate on the delicate edge of mutual suspicion. The following points stand out:

1. DAAR did not pay its operational licence. This is a breach of the NBC act.

2. The NBC action was not government directed and could not, therefore, be seen as evidence of government intolerance and clamp down on those who express contrary views.

3. The director-general of NBC, Is’haq Modibbo Kawu, a journalist with many years in the media under his belt, showed conclusive evidence both before the peace envoys and the court, that the commission did not act arbitrarily. It acted within the limits of its law to stop the broadcast outfit from breaching the law with some predictable consequences for it, the media and the country. It was good to know, according to Kawu, “We Are guided strictly by the law.”

4. The commission repeatedly took steps to return AIT/Raypower to the path of professionalism from which it felt they were deviating. Those facts were not disputed by the broadcast organisation. Its admission that it erred professionally was a huge disappointment. Under the seven-point settlement approved by the court, DAAR Communications, agreed, according to news reports, “to ensure balance in its news coverage, especially political commentary on its stations across the country and shall also take full editorial responsibility for the use of contents sourced from social media and any other outlet.”

One cannot make the point too strongly. Freedom either of the press or of speech or any other freedom for that matter, comes with obvious responsibilities that must be scrupulously discharged to make that freedom meaningful. There is enough evidence in the laws of the land to show that no freedom is absolute, least of all press freedom. It is one freedom that has been repeatedly assaulted since the Newspapers Act of 1964 tried to define the limit beyond which the media must not go. Caging the media or placing them on a leash, is attractive to all rulers in all countries.

Nothing in the tradition of the news media permits them to observe the basic laws made in the interest of the polity in the breach. It came as a huge surprise to me that AIT/Raypower ignored the dangers in lifting stories from the social media and passing them off as their own without independently investigating the source and the authenticity of the stories. This was blatant unprofessionalism. The social media have proved to be unreliable in almost every case. The action of a main stream media trucking with these purveyors of falsehood, fake news and hate speech cannot be professionally defended by the media men and women, no matter how liberally they may wish to stretch the argument.

A robust and critical media are the pillars of democracy and the freedom of the press and of speech. As media men and women, we must jealously guard our right to be robust and critical. But we must do so within the ambits of the law. If by any act of commission we set up ourselves as men and women above the laws of the land we can only invite unpleasant repercussions for which we must take the blame. Let no media organisation make our ogas at the top jittery enough to reach for the sledge hammer. We have had enough of that.

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