NBC: Sanitiser or Censor ?

NBC: Sanitiser or Censor
NBC

Ray Ekpu

The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) is the policeman for broadcasting in Nigeria. As a regulator, it is supposed to be a moderator and an arbiter of good taste in broadcasting.

This is an important but also delicate assignment in a country with heterogeneous characteristics. Drinking beer is not a problem in Lagos but in Kano it is. Many crates of beer were destroyed there last year. You can be sent to jail for even presiding territorially over some bottles of beer. Beauty pageants, with skinny girls trotting about in skimpy skirts and bikini, have been held in Lagos without any fuss. When the Miss World Beauty Pageant was taken to Abuja a few years ago a riot broke out.

Some muscular moralists thought it wasn’t a fit and proper show for the Federal Capital even though they may have no qualms about sneaking into Lagos to watch strip tease shows at some night clubs. That is the problem with making laws in Nigeria for all Nigerians. The perspectives are different in various parts of Nigeria.

A few years ago, I was a member of the Board of the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON). We were supposed to approve an advert that featured a girl in bikini for use on billboards in Lagos. The NBC representative said it was indecent and should not be approved. I voted for its approval on the ground that it would not offend the sensibilities of Lagosians because they are used to seeing women in bikinis on billboards and on the various beaches that dot Lagos.

Besides, I said, that Lagos is a modern, cosmopolitan city that is capable of assimilating various levels of tastes from the conservative to the radical. The NBC guy said that we have only NBC code for all practitioners. My answer was that the implementation had to be based on the different social and cultural perspectives of the zone in which the advert was to be consumed. That argument saved the advert from being guillotined.

The argument that needs to be made now is that in its regulatory framework the NBC must avoid extremes. Since it has only one code it should stay in the middle of issues and leave a lot of latitude for those who manage our radio and television stations. If it does not do that it will kill the electronic media in Nigeria because radio and television are the most rigidly regulated right now. This extreme regulation amounts to censorship in a democracy. Censorship is an iron curtain while freedom of the press is a picture window. This censorship approach to regulation has a history to it.

Since the first coup in 1966, coup plotters have always used radio and television for their take-over pronouncements even before the opening up of electronic media entrepreneurship to private investors by President Ibrahim Babangida. But the times have changed. There is media convergence today.

Radio, television, newspapers and magazines are operating not on one, but multiple platforms. So it is going to become increasingly difficult to check or control what is broadcast on radio or television because they all have social media platforms too. When they go viral, they go viral. So there is a sea change in the media universe and NBC should keep its hammer aside and take up its chalk. That is to say it should do more of teaching the broadcasters than hitting them with its sledge hammer.

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The NBC’s reaction to Dr. Obadiah Mailafia’s interview on a Lagos radio station called Nigeria Info 99.3 FM seems to be an overkill. It has slapped the station with a five million naira fine, up from the original 500,000 naira. This arbitrary raise was said to have been made by the Minister of Information, Mr. Lai Mohammed who has a rigorously propagandist view of public communication.

That is what a famous communication scholar, Walter Lippmann describes as “a polite euphemism for deception.” This increase has generated acrimony between the Chairman of the NBC Board, Mr. Ikra Bilbis and the Acting Director-General, Professor Armstrong Aduku Idachaba. Bilbis thinks the decision not only violates due process but will discourage investors in the electronic media and may lead to loss of jobs. Idachaba thinks it is okay. I think it is far from okay.

In present-day Nigeria, even without COVID-19, most Nigerian media were not having a cakewalk. The burden they were carrying was about bursting their hump but they carried on as gracefully as they could. Now with COVID-19, most media are struggling, simply struggling, to see whether or not tomorrow will be better. It is the equivalent of flying blind because our economy, our security and our entire life as a nation is in a dramatic free fall. Despite this, the media are still striving, without help from any source, to shine the spotlight on the many issues that haunt us like an inscrutable mystery. The media need help now, not harassment.

What did Dr. Mailafia say that is causing earth tremors in security circles? He said that repentant soldiers said that one of the northern governors is the commander of Boko Haram in Nigeria and that “Boko Haram and the bandits are one and the same. They have a sophisticated network. During this lockdown, their planes were moving up and down as if there was no lockdown.” Even if those remarks seem incredulous they were not designed to destabilise the country. Any serious security outfit should seek to know the truth or falsity of the information. Maybe that is why they are dragging Mailafia in for questioning.

Nigerians have a river of grievances about insecurity as people are being killed or kidnapped daily. With the kind of steam-rising frustration that they experience daily, they are saying all sorts of things, true and false, believable and unbelievable, about those who prosecute the Boko Haram war and those who man our security generally. President Muhammadu Buhari has been holding a whirlwind of meetings with security high-rollers with little positive impact on the security situation.

The demons are still ramping up pain and punishment on Nigerians. Certainly, in security matters, Nigeria is punching below its weight and it is not expected that the security managers will be given the cup of adulation except peace returns to our lives. The security personnel must have been reading in various media speculations about why the Boko Haram war has not ended, one of them being that money for chopping is the issue, another being that some big men are sponsoring them for selfish reasons. There may be or there may be no truth in these speculations but they are there. These speculations and rumours are products of frustration.

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We will never be short of them except the security situation changes for the better. Censorship is not a cure for rumour-mongering. Performance is the cure. Since 2009 we have been battling against Boko Haram who occupy a small enclave in our country. The NBC is mistaken if it thinks that it can stop rumour-mongering or loose talk by its big fines. What will it do to the thousands of social media platforms that dot our landscape but who send all sorts of messages to the world daily, twenty-four seven. Let’s admit it, our politics is a pageant of shamelessness.

Do you expect the people to give a standing ovation to our politicians who are bringing the country to its knees with their unbridled corruption, their unconscionable carpet-crossing, their insensitivity to the problems of their people? Things are very bad now but without the press, they would probably have been far worse. The press does make mistakes sometimes but it does get it right most of the time. In announcing the fine in the Nigeria Info 99.3 FM radio station, NBC said: “The station provided its platform for the guest Dr Obadiah Mailafia to promote unverifiable and inciting views that could encourage or incite crime and lead to public disorder.

Well, Mr. NBC, his views have not led to public disorder because the people have even said worse things about the inability of our leaders to protect them. The failure of the present security personnel to cope with the security situation is the reason the federal government is voting N13 billion for Community Policing. It is the reason the South Western states are mounting Amotekun and other zones contemplating the establishment of their own security outfits. These measures are meant to open a new horizon of hope on security. We hope that these will substantially reduce the raging uptick in crime and prevent people from making a feast out of rumour-mongering.