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Is there free press in this democracy?

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Is there free press in this democracy?

The last one week has been loaded with altercations between DAAR Communications, owners of African Independent Television (AIT) and RayPower FM 100.5, and the management of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). The crux of the matter was the allegation by the NBC that the AIT has breached certain aspects of its broadcasting codes. The NBC claimed that after series of warning letters written to AIT to stop further exposure of one particular programme, KAKAAKI SOCIAL, and the production and airing of a documentary on the need for the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa to recuse herself, it decided to wield the big stick; shut down the station indefinitely. That action is typical of military gangsterism to say the least. Does anyone have the unilateral power to interpret the provisions of a law without going through the due process of court? I doubt not. Does anyone have the power to take precipitate action when infractions are perceived to have been committed, without going through the rigorous process of court? How do you come to the final judgement that a particular news item or programme constitutes an infraction or violation? Even when infractions are seen to have been committed, shouldn’t the courts be the final arbiter, especially under a democracy that dwells so much on the rule of law and separation of powers?
The closure of AIT last week by the NBC was an exercise in overkill. It was meant to give democracy a bad name and gag the media and perhaps bring them under magisterial control as though we are in a military regime. The painful aspect of the whole scenario is the fact that the Director General of the NBC, Ishaq Modibbo Kawu, a leftist who was a nemesis of previous governments through his caustic writings and analyses is the chief architect of this clampdown. What is it with Nigerian activists that once they get into government, they become part of the problem rather than be part of the solutions to our numerous challenges? Why is it difficult for such activist to rein in government on the right path to justice and equity, rather than being the purveyor of morally reprehensible actions of government? Why do they behave so withdrawn from their earlier beliefs system which they have written so loudly about in the past? Why do they get carried away by the symptoms of bad governance? Is it a function of trying to defend the actions and inactions of government because they are now involved or what exactly is the motivation?
I got confounded last week when I watched the NBC Director-General dishing out orders like a military General to his troops in preparation for an onslaught. I was like, could this be the same Ishaq Modibbo known for very acerbic commentaries in his columns against government’s under-performance and misgovernance in the past? What has changed? He told a nation in mourning mood about its several warnings to AIT while declaring that DAAR Communications has become an incurable debtor for failing to pay licensing fees. If an organisation has failed to pay licensing fees, as a creditor, you sue them or press for payment rather than using the issue of non-payment of licensing fees as the denominator to vent your anger for airing a documentary that offends the government you are serving. Second, for asking AIT to discontinue a programme, KAKAAKI SOCIAL on its early morning flagship programme, KAKAAKI, is to assume the role of both a regulator and the programme director of the television station. First, any media outfit all over the world must have its own editorial opinion on any issue. It is the position of the media platform on a given subject matter. It is like telling the public, this is our own position on this matter. Such right is guaranteed in the constitution of Nigeria and other enabling laws. It is a global standard that is not limited to Nigeria alone.
When a documentary is played and the media platform is honest enough to claim it as its editorial position, in this case, on the need for Justice Bulkachuwa to recuse herself, it is not the responsibility of the NBC, an agency of the Executive arm of government to raise alarm. It is the duty of the Judiciary, as an arm of government, to raise queries if any, and channel same to the media house, especially if certain facts are not correct or if injury has been done to any of its officers. And the media house, as a legal entity, is duty bound to act on such queries if in its judgement, the issues raised in the query, are germane and deserve rebuttal. We have seen occasions where media houses run rejoinders to put the records straight on information they had earlier published or aired that are found to be untrue, or somewhat not totally accurate.
The moment I saw the Director General complain in a letter to AIT about the documentary, I sensed a foul play. The presidency as it were, must insulate itself away from playing this role of an Ombudsman to other arms of government; the Legislature and the Judicature. It must allow the other two arms to operate, using its own instrument, without undue interference and usurpation of functions and responsibilities.
A regulator of any kind must be one that has an objective mind and standpoint on issues brought before his jurisdiction. He must be above board and ensure that he is seen to be so. He must apply his rules with evenness to avoid being accused of preferential treatment. While sanctions are good to ensure a sane society, what constitutes an offence has to be seen from an objective binoculars and not the judgement of biased minds and partisan executors of government’s hidden agenda. If it is an offence in AIT, for example, is it also an offence in NTA, the government-owned platform, or in Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN)? If it is an offence in Channels TV, is it also an offence in any of the government owned platforms? The moment the standards are skewed to favour certain interest, the more conflict you are bound to have on your hands. Does it make any sense for a regulator to be a card-carrying member of any political party? Does such position not jeopardise the non-partisan status which a regulator should have? The current DG of the NBC is said to be a card-carrying member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
All the above, when subjected to further crucible, makes the Director General, a pawn in the game of political chess game, a willing tool who cannot assume to be neutral on any issue, except those that further the interest of his employer. And this is where the problem lies. On account of the DG’s partisan status, no matter how objective he may appear to be, he would still incur the condemnation of the onlookers and Nigerians. Does he have the balls to take such a precipitate action on NTA, a public platform that has become the mouthpiece of any government in power? Most news on the NTA platform are centred around government and what it does. I was invited during the campaigns for the 2019 general election to feature in one of the political programmes of the television station. This invitation came as a result of complaints that the NTA does not court opposition views and in line with political broadcast, every party ought to enjoy a level playing field in terms of media time. Getting to the waiting room of the station, I was pleaded with “not to be hard on government”, whatever that means. The guy who invited me was so nervous, because his superiors have reprimanded him for daring to invite me for the programme. In order to save the young man’s job in this era of prevailing unemployment, I had to live within his dictates. Each time he saw me dissecting the foibles and failings of the government on air, he felt almost undone. That is what NTA has become under this present democratic era, and its current Director General has worsen the situation.
Aside from enjoying government’s subvention from taxpayers’ money, I doubt if NTA pays anything in the region of hundreds of millions of naira annually to renew its broadcast license, like the privately owned television houses. The press must be allowed to operate freely without equivocation. In doing so, the press will also be conscious with applying the brakes when it has to do with national security and unity of the country. I am not saying there shouldn’t be any form of regulation, but such regulation must be seen to be democratic and not dictatorial. If there is a breach of codes, approach the court. Gestapo tactics don’t flourish in any democracy, and even where such exists, they should be condemned wholesomely without let or hindrance. Under the PDP-led Federal Government, AIT was shut. “Leadership” newspaper was also harassed under Jonathan administration. Daily Trust newspaper was also a victim of military occupation not too long ago under this government. These are actions that explain away our primitive approach to contending with media issues. Government gets easily paranoid when it is made to realise its failings and failures, when the bitter truth stares it in the face.
It is not an accident of history that the media is called the fourth estate of the realm. It serves to check the excesses of the three arms of government by being the voice of the voiceless and the oppressed. It serves to hold government accountable to the people. It helps to break the barriers of dictatorship and authoritarian ism. It whips government to line when it is derailing. A responsible media is one that helps the society to advance healthy discourse and constructive engagement. In this era of new media, information travels at the speed of light and there is absolutely nothing a government can do, to control this. What government needs to do, is to engage the media and make them to buy into policies and programmes that will augur well for the majority of the people. The present law of the NBC needs to be tinkered with. Written in 1992 and later became an Act of parliament in 2004, it is due for total overhaul. The vestiges of military hangover are still hovering around the Act, reason why the National Assembly should take the necessary step to fine-tune it to suit our present democratic status. Allowing the present doctrine to prevail is to sustain a dictatorship in the name of a regulator.

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