You are aware that the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has suspended indefinitely the operating licences of African Independent Television (AIT) and Raypower FM both of which belong to Daar Communications Plc. Daar Communications belongs to Dr. Raymond Dokpesi, a businessman and politician of the PDP stock. In taking this decision, the Director General of NBC, Dr. Moddibo Kawu said; “Following monitoring reports and complaints from concerned Nigerians about the broadcast contents of Daar Communications Plc’s AIT/Raypower broadcast stations, the NBC had over the last two years summoned on several occasions the management of the Company to address issues regarding the operations of AIT/Raypower particularly Political Platform and Kakaaki on AIT.” Kawu mentioned Kakaaki Social where he said there were such inciting comments as “Nigeria is cursed” and “we declare independent state of Niger Delta.”
From what I have read so far from the NBC about the sins of AIT none of the statements constitutes what can be categorized as “fake news” which are deadly sins. They all seem to be political opinions which have been, or can be, countered by those who disagree with them. Even on the internet and in the newspapers you do find people who proclaim loudly that Nigeria is cursed. They give their reasons. Others also counter them by giving reasons why Nigeria is not cursed. Even the militants in the Niger Delta who talked of declaring a Niger delta Republic have been told by other Niger Deltans that they don’t want or need a Niger Delta Republic but a better treatment of the region by the Federal Government. In the media there is something called the “right of reply.” It is obligatory of the media to publish a reply to its earlier publication which is a counterpoint, a rebuttal or refutal of its earlier article. Every medium has an ethical obligation to publish or broadcast such contrary opinions. As a matter of fact, the spokesmen of the Federal Government have been extremely efficient in delivering such rebuttals sometimes with words garnished with fresh pepper. So if the sins of AIT/Raypower were not sins of factlessness in their reports but sins of opinion that NBC and its mythical “concerned Nigerians” complained about then such sins were curable through the right of reply.
Secondly, if the sins were grievous and actionable, the courts are there for adjudication. It is a greater sin in a democracy for an institution called a regulator to play the role of a censorship czar and shut down a news medium based on its own jaundiced perception of how the job should be done. Dr. Kawu, the NBC Director General, is a media person but he is also a partisan politician of APC stock who contested the Governorship primaries in Kwara State and flunked. Many analysts are not likely to agree with him that he was simply doing his job as a professional without any reference to the fact that AIT/Raypower are owned by a stalwart of the PDP with whom the ruling party and government have had a very acrimonious relationship. I believe it is wrong to appoint partisan politicians even if they are media professionals as Directors General or Editors in Chief of news or news related organisations. They cannot, in view of their partisanship, uphold fairly and objectively the sanctity and integrity of the news business. They can serve as Chairmen or board members of such organisations in which capacity they will only be dealing with policy formation and not operationalisation of the news business.
The closure of news organisations was the staple and modus operandi of our various military regimes. The public roasted them for such reckless behaviour. Closing a news organization whether permanently or indefinitely or temporarily is the equivalent of a death penalty. It is not like shutting a kiosk where contaminated fruits are sold. Such a slash and burn policy of murdering a news medium comes down to these (a) it deprives the company and its staff of their source of livelihood in an economy that already has a huge unemployment figure (b) it deprives advertisers and listeners of access to their favourite news medium since every medium attracts listeners and advertisers for their unique selling points. (c) The public loses when the medium has no opportunity to increase the public’s right to know by just being available for access. (d) Closing a medium gives the country a bad name among the comity of democratic nations. President Donald Trump of the United States has had his beef with CNN and New York Times but he has not shut them down. Instead, he uses other alternative information channels such as Twitter and Fox News organization to reach the American people. And do you know what? The CNN and New York Times carry his twitter messages in their media too. (e) To shut down a news medium simply because some politician does not agree with the medium’s opinion is a negation of the policy of allowing a thousand flowers to bloom. That is the name of the game in a democracy. Let sense and nonsense clash. Nonsense will be slaughtered by a gang of sensible facts. (f) This reckless action is capable of sending fear into the populace that a government it voted for is becoming dictatorial just the way the military governments it did not vote for behaved. We are in the habit of throwing the possibility of a break-up of the country in our faces each time there is a difference of opinion. Those who do that think we ought to have a one-view country despite our diversity and accompanying idiosyncrasies. Since the end of the civil war people have been issuing threats to break up the country, to have their own republic but these have remained at the level of threats. The important thing is not to stifle dissent or the airing of it but to strive to solve the problems that have given birth to dissent and the threat to secede. That is my solution to it.
Some years ago, I was at a meeting of the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON) where we were asked to approve some adverts for airing. One of them was that of a girl in bikini which was to be displayed on billboards in Lagos. A member of the NBC objected to it on the ground that it was obscene and unfit for public consumption. We went into a heated argument. My view was that the place for exposure of the advert was more important than the picture used. There had been beauty competitions in Lagos since 1958 and women have been wearing bikinis without any fuss, but when the Miss World competition was staged in Abuja there was a riot. So I stated that while the advert may not be suitable for Kano it was acceptable for a cosmopolitan city like Lagos. But we were all looking at the same NBC code. This means that the broadcasting code as it is must be interpreted with consideration for the demands of a modern, democratic country in the age of digitalism. In the long run, it will have to be substantially reviewed if it is going to be of much relevance going forward. The media scene has undergone a sea change with digitalisation and media convergence and the NBC cannot stay stuck in the mud of an outdated code. This convergence has led to an increase in media pluralism, and a reduction in the almightiness of any single news medium today. But by this very fact of the ascent of digital journalism the main stream media are in peril. This means that they must bend over backwards to be more professional and ethical than hitherto so that the viewing and reading public may continue to look in their direction especially since the bulk of fake news today emanates from the social media.
In particular, radio and television stations must exercise extreme care with their live programmes. Why? Because most people who appear on those live programmes are uninformed about laws that guard broadcasting. They just want to express their views as robustly as possible.
One or two television stations have stated on their screens that the views expressed in their programmes by guests are not those of the TV station. That statement does not liberate any TV station from legal liability. The legal view is that if such views did not receive airing on the TV it would probably not be available for public consumption. But television stations can do a few things to protect themselves from legal booby traps during live transmissions. (a) They must select their interview subjects wisely, making sure that rabid radicals and extremists are not their guests. (b) They must brief interviewees carefully about the dangers of extreme rhetoric both to them and to the TV station. (c) The moderator must interject or politely caution a guest who is at the verge of getting the station into trouble through reckless statements and possible defamation of people. (d) Television stations should, as much as possible, do more of recorded programmes which they can edit to suit their requirement. (e) For other non-live programmes, the stations can use fact-check engines that are easily available today to ensure that they don’t sell fake news to the public.
I am almost certain that the TV stations are already taking some or all of the above precautions but they have a duty to be diligent in doing the needful.
AIT/Raypower are in the eye of the tornado because, according to the NBC, they did nothing to save their bacon despite several meetings and warnings. Media organisations that infringe the laws of the country can be punished through the law courts. In a democracy we must trust the courts more than we trust the NBC which is led by a partisan politician. To padlock a news organization because of differences in opinion or perspective is out of synch with democratic practices. It smells of bad politics.