NBC: War On Hate Speech Or Free Speech?

At a meeting with media houses on August 10, 2017 in Lagos, the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) communicated new rules for radio and TV broadcasters. The NBC says the new rules are meant to curb “hate speech”. The rules include the following provisions:

● Stations allowing callers to air “perceived hate speech” to be fined ₦500,000 per incident.
● Stations must pass calls through screeners before airing.
● Newspaper reviews limited to once daily.
● Limit of 5 call-in shows per day.
● Cost of calls to be borne by stations, not callers.
● Ban on discussion of ongoing court cases.

The NBC Director who announced these rules was quoted as saying that stations must control the comments Nigerians make on air because the country is currently volatile.

There is a long history of governments using this “state of emergency excuse” to limit freedoms, so we cannot, and should not accept it at face value. We must ask questions. Nigeria is indeed volatile, but have call-in shows caused this? The anti-Igbo song currently passing from phone to phone via WhatsApp in the North has not been broadcast on radio or TV. The Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) did not issue their “quit notice” to Igbos via a phone-in show. Nnamdi Kanu’s incitements were not the subject of newspaper reviews. So why is NBC seeking the dead in the land of the living, as it were?

Secondly, are NBC’s new rules targeted enough to tackle hate speech while leaving political and other free speech untouched?

The answer to this is “No”.

It would appear the NBC is using the current clamour against hate speech as a pretext to restrict all speech on air. The regulator is attacking both the Free Press and Free Speech.

Hate speech is a subjective term. The new rules will give NBC extraordinary leeway to decide what constitutes hate speech, and therefore what utterances stations can be fined for.

The Nigerian government has always proven touchy about criticism, so this is not a power we should be comfortable giving it. The half a million naira fine the rule prescribes is heavy enough to cripple most stations if applied repeatedly. One must see this station-killing fine, and the discretionary grounds for imposing it, for what they are: a new weapon for the government in its War On Criticism.

The limit on newspaper reviews is an assault on press freedom that cannot be justified by any public benefit especially in a democracy. What danger do multiple newspaper reviews in a day pose to the public? Rather, they are a public benefit. Reviews have turned our radios and TVs into Nigeria’s largest “free readers’ association”, informing people of news topics they would otherwise miss. Essentially, NBC is making a rule that will reduce the amount of information on radio and TV.

Another point t note is that call-in shows tend to focus on politics. This means the ban is limiting political speech, not hate speech. It is alarming that NBC would meddle so directly in a matter of programming choice. It is as absurd as placing a limit on the number of times a station can air news bulletins.

Restricting the number of call-in shows a day is yet another arbitrary limitation of press freedom. NBC is going beyond its brief, and venturing into scheduling decisions.

Another alarming aspect to the NBC’s decision is the ban on discussing ongoing court cases. The courts are open to the public for a reason. Citizens have a right to be informed about court proceedings. This lets us monitor the government (in this case, the Judiciary and Executive) as it interprets and enforces the rights of citizens. The Press, as the Citizen’s Informant, therefore has the right to report on, and discuss ongoing cases. This is a question of Law, which I suspect the NBC will soon be made aware of. Furthermore, once we start having Lists of Banned Topics for on-air discussion, we have stepped on a slippery slope. Court cases today, election campaigns tomorrow, National Assembly proceedings after that.

Most of these rules, directly or indirectly, will impede the rights of radio listeners to free speech.
While it may seem that removing the cost of calls from listeners will increase participation, putting the cost on stations will force them to reduce the number of calls they take. The NBC’s new rule will therefore reduce public participation, not increase it.

The limit on the number of phone-in shows per day is actually a limit on how often private citizens get a chance to air their views. For talk radio stations, this rule will cut daily phone-in time by more than half. The talk radio format is popular because Nigerians want an opportunity to speak their minds to a wide audience. The government should not deny them this opportunity, because of “hate speech” from a fringe.

It will be difficult and expensive for stations to install the equipment needed for compliance with the new rules before October 1st. Screening equipment costs anything from $3000 to $5000.
Obviously this would not have been on most stations’ budgets for this year. Less than two months is simply not enough notice. Most radio stations are barely able to cover operating costs from month to month. An unexpected expense of this size may sink some, and the new rules do not simply impose one-time costs. Making radio stations responsible for bearing the costs of on-air calls will add new daily costs to running shows.

This is not the first time the Nigerian government has attempted to limit political speech among citizens. The National Assembly’s recently scuttled Social Media Bill comes to mind. For our democracy to survive and mature, we must prevent our elected government from limiting the avenues and spaces for free speech, especially political speech. We cannot demolish the edifice of press freedom to catch the mouse of hate speech that may or may not be hiding inside it.

The NBC must realize that news and public opinion should not be policed in the same manner and with the same tools as hit songs. Speaking to and hearing from ourselves are the rights on which all other rights depend.

Andrew Obuoforibo is Managing Partner at Harcourt Lane, a Communications Agency.

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