NBC and the Freedom of the Press

By Niyi Adesina

The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has come under some undeserved scathing criticism in recent times and a lot of these upbraiding are targeted at the Director General of NBC, Mr. Balarabe Shehu Ilelah, possibly because the world class reforms he stands for has ruffled feathers across board.

It is interesting that those that have issues with Mr. Ilelah’s piloting of affairs at the NBC, and by extension Nigeria’s broadcast industry, are rarely industry people but are rather mercenaries and soldiers of fortune that are out to profit from an industry that rebounded from the crippling impact of the emergence and growth of new media against all expectations.

Being non-experts and without industry knowledge, critics of Mr. Ilelah and the NBC usually hinge their attacks under the false accusation that he is using the broadcast regulator as a tool for suppressing press freedom. This erroneous impression derives from certain premises; one, that the Commission’s demand for broadcasting companies to pay up their outstanding debts – these include license fees and annual operation fees. Second is the NBC’s renewed insistence to sanction stations that clearly and wilfully contravene the Broadcast Code.

Those that have been criticizing and alleging repression of the broadcast media, which they broadly interpret as efforts or attempts to gag the press, the entire press, frame the issues of applicable broadcast fees and compliance with the Broadcasting Code in a manner that obscures the real issues and muddle facts in order to incite public opinion against the NBC and by extension get at the government of the day.

Contrary to this soft blackmail, those stoking the fire of hatred against the NBC DG usually omit to mention that there is one form of broadcasting fee or the other applicable to each jurisdiction across the world. In some countries owners pay radio and television licences fees on their gadgets, on some other countries it is the broadcasters that pay, while there is yet another instance of an hybrid arrangement whereby the users and broadcasters pay certain fees. Of course, these fees are paid to the industry regulator, which in the case of Nigeria is the NBC.
What our rabble-rousing critics are fantasizing about in Nigeria is a scenario in which broadcasting stations do not pay any kind of fee and they simply exist along the model of internet radio and television, unregulated. They are quick to point at examples in Europe and the United States of America without familiarizing themselves with the dynamics of these countries or jurisdictions. The online broadcasters in these countries are not unregulated as our activists here in Nigeria want to think, in fact they are over regulated – the parent companies of these online radio and televisions still must pay applicable taxes and fees as corporate citizens of the countries in which they are domiciled. Advertisers also wield powers over such platforms, no advertiser will be overtly support a platform that is acting against national interest, which means NBC’s role of protecting national interest in the broadcast industry is something that corporate institutions in other countries actively assist in implementing.

Another fact that is glossed over by the critics is the fact that a broadcaster’s inability to pay requisite fees is indicative of systemic lack of capacity to operate and thrive as a business.

A cursory review will show that the stations that are in default on these fees are the ones that are in the habit of owing staff salaries or simply not paying their staff at all, which unleashes an army of unpaid media workers on the system, who in turn depend on blackmail, extortion and other unprofessional conducts to make end meet. The situation is a reminder that more fare reaching reforms are needed in the broadcast industry, more than Mr. Ilelah is presently implementing. For instance, it is no longer practical, neither is it desirable to continue to ignore the imperative for consolidation in the broadcast industry – practitioners must at this point question the rationale behind one city having 25 FM radio stations that do not pay staff salaries when they can merge into, say five entities, improve their revenue base, conserve resources and meet regulatory obligation, including paying the requisite fees.

The second leg of this matter derives from the low financial capacity arising from broadcast organizations not being professionally run. A station that owes salaries and do not pay license fees, will not have the capability to train its staff. The practice is for these stations to pick people off the streets or straight from school and plod them right in front of cameras or microphones and that is their own idea of broadcasting. There is no training at entry point, no refreshers courses and no targeted training on reporting or covering certain sensitive or emerging issues unless for the few instances when donor organizations or NGOs provide such trainings, which tragically come with certain agendas.

Consequences of this failure to train can be seen in the way some of the staffers of these organization constantly commit faux pas on air. There have been instances when on air personality egg on terrorists report insurgents as if they are a parallel state with rights to challenge the serenity of Nigeria. It also reflects in the normalization of incitement and hate speech on air with some broadcasters unable to divorce themselves from sectarian, ethnic or group affiliations that end up tainting what they feed to their audience with personal biases in contravention of the journalistic ethics to be objective. Recent events in the nation have shown the danger of this parlous situation with broadcast organizations in Nigeria – instead of straddling the middle they have become channels of propaganda for mobilizing their audience against the government irrespective of whether that the people are demanding for is based on facts or not. We have broadcast organizations that do not properly vet the content they put out such that audience classification and content rating has been thrown to the dogs.

We must also not lose sight of the fact that when a broadcast organization holds down a license on which it is not paying applicable fees and is not being optimally operated then it is a waste of scarce resources – the spectrum and frequency on which it transmits could have been better utilized by another organization that possibly has a more robust approach to existing as a business. We must not as a nation steep ourselves in this culture of waste whereby an organization that is owing operation and licence fees is allowed to keep flaunting the rules simply because the regulator has been blackmailed into staying inactive in order not the accused of stifling press freedom. The reality is that freedom comes with responsibilities and those responsibilities include an organization paying what it owes the country and not operating in a manner that jeopardizes national interest.

The charge to Mr. Balarabe Shehu Ilelah, Director General of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) therefore is that he must make his organization stand its ground as a regulator who has the burden of sanitizing the system and rid it of quacks. The blackmail of those pressuring it to look away is something it must ignore, press ahead with making debtors pay what they owe and create an environment that restores trust and confidence in the industry. If the reforms is implementing has to ruffle feathers then he cannot afford to shy away from that because that is the assignment the country has entrusted to him.

It is pertinent to at this point admonish those behind the attacks on NBC to note that what they are doing is unfair and uncharitable as it has consequences for the country’s long-term stability. Broadcast organizations have always been free to the extent that if press freedom is to be gauged based on that industry alone then Nigeria’s press freedom will be rated high because our radio and television stations have always been free. So, rather than constantly framing national issues from the negative perspective, these activists should approach the issues from the positives they should rather be sensitizing citizens on the need for everyone to support NBC to do better.

It bears mentioning that the broadcast organizations should engage the NBC in instances where they are unable to meet their financial obligations after making genuine efforts to. This is a better approach instead of recruiting critics to undermine their regulator. The damage being done is one that the NBC will survive but one that some media houses may not weather in the long run. The efforts some of these organizations have committed to fighting their regulator in a bid not to pay pending debts could have been channelled into repositioning their companies to perform better while supporting the NBC to offer them the necessary regulatory backing. They should explore new funding models that take the emergence of social and new media into consideration so that they can better compete cross-industry and cross-platform. When they being to treat the NBC as a resource instead of a problem they will see positive results.

Adesina wrote this piece from Badagry, Lagos.

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