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NBC: Caution as new code raises dust

No doubt, with the establishment of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) in 1992, Nigeria has since witnessed a resurgence of positive growth and development in its broadcast industry. Today, obtaining a licence for a broadcast station has become one of the most democratised in the country. That is one thing that has outgrown the ubiquitous petty politics found in every facet of development in Nigeria.

Tensions and hurdles have been calmed and dismantled through the vision of experts handling affairs at the Commission. However, in the past couple of weeks, there seems to be a bursting air of unavoidable crisis at the Commission that demands urgent attention and intervention following the release of a new code.

Following a few months of vacation from the headlines occasioned by the sordid N2.5 billion corruption scandal that led to prosecution and eventual suspension of its Director-General, Malam Ishaq Modibbo-Kawu, NBC, perhaps unsurprisingly, has carried a whiff of farce, if not another scandal.

The Commission draws its strength from Act 38 of 1992, and Act 55 of 1999, as amended, which not only made the establishment of the Commission possible, but also gave it the instruments for regulating broadcasting in the country. Specifically, section 2(1) sub-section ‘h’ of Act 38 states that the Commission shall have the responsibility of “establishing and disseminating a National Broadcasting Code and setting standards with regards to the content and quality of materials for broadcast.”

On 27 May, the Commission released its 6th Broadcast Code to the surprise of many prominent industry stakeholders, who were not happy that there was no industry consultation before the code, allegedly containing controversial amendments, was finalized and released to the public. In addition to its failure to consult, NBC also angered stakeholders by introducing amendments seeking to criminalise television content exclusivity, mandate content sharing with competitors and make the Commission the final determinant of the prices at which content could be sold by a rights holder to prospective sub-licensees.

Recall that in June 2002, the Commission hosted Chief Executives of public and private broadcast stations in Minna, Niger State, for four days to deliberate on and produce a revised edition of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code.

Essentially, as observed from the Minna gathering, the document was edited and all unpardonable print errors removed without changing the substance of the text. That exemplary engagement was widely appreciated because of the atmosphere of inclusiveness. In the recent development, following the expression of outrage by industry figures, NBC, on 12 June, issued a statement, saying its board was to smoothen the rough edges in the code. It also invited input from stakeholders, a step that should have taken place before the release of the code. From there, the farce began.

The next working day, a Monday, at a press conference addressed by its acting Director- General, Armstrong Idachaba, NBC announced that it was going ahead with the implementation of the code.

Three hours after the press conference, it reversed itself, announcing that it would take stakeholders’ input. On 26 June, it published a newspaper advert inviting position papers from stakeholders.

The advert was signed by Salihu Bamidele Aluko on behalf of the Chairman of NBC Board, giving 9 July as the deadline for the submission of position papers. Three days later, a public notice signed by the D-G appeared in newspapers repudiating the Board’s position by explicitly stating the publication signed by the Board was not endorsed by NBC’s management. It called on stakeholders to wait for the next instalment of amendments.

While parties involved in the current impasse have their reasons, what should be uppermost in the current circumstance is how tampering with the original code will affect broadcasting in the country, especially since the industry has been growing in leaps and bounds in recent years. Good enough, NBC has explained that the amendment of the code does not prevent investments in the industry, but to reposition and to make it more responsive to emerging realities. One area that is of interest is the observation by the Commission’s management where it lamented that locals were no longer able to create contents, which has led to the influx of foreign production companies, some of them unlicensed by the Nigerian government.

These companies have taken over the local content production space and, by extension, the advertising and broadcasting space, relegating the local entrepreneurs to oblivion. Thus, those opposed to changes in the code view the flip-flopping as a sign of unseriousness as well as an indication that the NBC management is being nudged by unseen hands to take on the board. We decry the failure of NBC to exhaustively engage with stakeholders before finalising the code, something that never happened even under the military.

We also view the proposals to legislate on exclusivity, compel content sub-licensing and determine content costs as a Soviet-era approach. As it appears before stakeholders, NBC clearly seeks to take powers it does not have as it is not the Nigerian Copyrights Commission, neither is it the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, which respectively have powers to administer the copyright space and ensure the Nigerian consumer is protected against exploitation.

While the crisis lasts, we advise that it should not be allowed to degenerate to the extent of robbing the country of positive contributions the Commission has made to the nation’s forward looking broadcast industry.

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