The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Nigeria’s broadcast regulatory agency, has issued a formal query to Channels Television Station over an interview granted by Governor Samuel Ortom on the station’s current affairs programme, Sunrise Daily.
Governor Ortom while answering questions on moves by the Federal Government to reactivate the colonial-era grazing routes and reserves, made very specific allegations against the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government for indulging Fulani herdsmen and condoning their unrestrained killing of other Nigerians. He voiced his opposition to the policy and declared that he would not hesitate to approach the Courts to challenge the Federal government if it insisted on creating grazing routes in Benue State.
Sadly, and predictably, NBC immediately launched an attack on the TV Station by issuing an inchoate query and inviting the anchors of the programme to its headquarters in Abuja, where the journalists were questioned and kept till late in the night. This is clearly an act of professional intimidation, disrespect for democratic ethos and a flagrant abuse of regulatory power.
The National Association of Seadogs (Pyrates Confraternity) deplores this reaction of the NBC to the interview granted by Governor Ortom. We wish to restate our concerns over the Commission’s incredible disdain for professional journalistic ethics and political neutrality, a blatantly partisan interpretation of its core mandate and a growing intolerance for freedom of expression by Nigerians, and by extension press freedom. Its predilection to suppress views considered dissenting or critical of the government through harassment, and intimidation of broadcasting stations is unbecoming of the professionalism and patriotism expected of a regulatory agency. NBC has regrettably reduced itself to an appendage of the current administration, awkwardly abandoning its core mandate to create an enabling environment for broadcasting to thrive in our country.
NBC’s latest assault is a subtle follow-up to last month’s letter issued to broadcast stations directing them to downplay the worsening security situation in the country. Since the #EndSARS protests, the regulatory agency has been clamping down on the rights to free speech by fining media organisations and intimidating journalists. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international organisation that monitors and reports on press freedom violations ranked Nigeria 120 out of 180 countries on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, dropping five points from its 115 ranking in 2020. Nigeria is behind Nambia ranked 24, Ghana 30, South Africa 32, Burkina Faso 37, Bostwana 38, Papua New Guinea 47 and Senegal 49. RSF describes Nigeria as “one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists'' and the situation seems to be getting worse.
The NBC must be reminded that the media has an obligation to hold government accountable on behalf of the people as guaranteed in Section 22 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), which states “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people”. And whenever the Federal Government fails to carry out its primary purpose to protect and secure the lives and property as enshrined in Section 14(2) (b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which states,”the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government”, it is incumbent on the media to hold government accountable on its constitutional responsibility. This role of the media is sacrosanct and not a patrician gift of the NBC that can be withdrawn or granted on personal whims.
The government by its reaction to Governor Ortom’s interview has missed an opportunity to reassure the public of its good faith and positive intentions, on the serious security concerns of the citizenry. Rather than react to Governor Ortom’s allegations with irrefutable facts, it resorted to clandestine tactics to escape the necessary scrutiny of a democratic system that derives its powers from the designated sovereign will of the people.
To be sure, it must be stressed that press freedom is not a matter of choice that is dependent on prescribed behaviour, but a fundamental pillar of a healthy democratic system. The Nigerian media has the resilience to outlive draconian regimes; the President Buhari government will not be an exception. The current administration should concentrate on delivering on its mandate to secure the lives and property of our people, promote their welfare, and stop chasing shadows by using government agencies to harass Nigerians.