The Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) and Media Rights Agenda (MRA), yesterday, berated the decision of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to close down the operations of 52 broadcast stations in the country over an N2.6 billion debt.
The said stations include the African Independent Television (AIT)/Ray Power FM, Silverbird TV and Rhythm FM.
Also closed down were Lagos State Broadcasting Corporation, Anambra State Broadcasting Corporation, Rivers State Broadcasting Corporation, Osun State Broadcasting Corporation, Ogun State Broadcasting Corporation, and Ondo State Broadcasting Corporation, among others.
Director General of NBC, Balarabe Shehu Ilelah, who revealed the revocation yesterday in Abuja, said that the revocation of the operating licenses of the affected stations had no political undertone, saying that the stations owed the commission license fees to the sum of N2.6 billion.
He disclosed that the affected stations had been operating unlawfully since the end of their licenses, stating that their action resulted in a threat to national security.
Ilelah said that all affected media houses must stop operations within the next 24 hours, noting that if the stations could pay their debts within 24 hours, the revocation would be put on hold.
He said: “National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) published in the national dailies, the list of licenses that are indebted to the Commission, and granted them two weeks to renew their licenses and pay their debts or consider their licenses revoked, frequencies withdrawn and the withdrawn frequencies reassigned to others who are ready to abide by the necessary requirements.
“Three months after the publication, some licensees are yet to pay their outstanding debts, in contravention of the National Broadcasting Commission Act CAP N11, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, particularly Section 10(a) of the third schedule of the Act.
“In view of this development, the continued operation of the debtor stations is illegal and constitutes a threat to national security. Therefore, after due consideration, NBC hereby announces the revocation of the licenses of the under-listed stations and gives them 24 hours to shut down their operations. Our offices nationwide are hereby directed to collaborate with security agencies to ensure immediate compliance.”
Reacting to the development, the NUJ stated that the suspension of the licenses of the affected stations was ill-advised.
NUJ stated that though the Director General of the Commission, Malam Balarabe Shehu Ilelah, notes that this development had no political motives, the action was ill-timed and reckless.
In a press release, yesterday in Abuja, the National President of the union, Chris Isiguzo, noticed that the wholesale revocation of licenses at this critical time of insecurity in the country seems to be a decision taken without careful prior discussion, consultation or counsel.
Isiguzo advised NBC to exercise more restraint on the issue in consideration of national security and permit for more discussion and consultation to find a better way of dealing with the situation.
He said: “While we regret the inability of these broadcast stations to fulfill their obligations to NBC, in view of dwindling resources, we caution against such large scale clampdown on broadcast stations in disregard to security issues and the attendant consequences. We cannot afford the unpleasant outcome of such a media blackout at this time. We call on NBC to exercise more restraint on this issue in consideration of national security and allow for more dialogue and consultation to find a better way of dealing with the situation.”
Also, the HURIWA yesterday said the decision of NBC was not acceptable.
In a press release by its National Coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko, HURIWA reported that the decision was predetermined.
The press release read in part: “The decision by the NBC to revoke the operating licenses of some notable broadcasting stations in Nigeria on the nebulous and superfluous claim that they are indebted to the NBC is totally and completely unacceptable.
“It is a decision that was predetermined, authored and unleashed directly from the office of Mr President and targeted at clipping the wings of independent voices and it is a coup against media pluralism.
“The fact is that for many people today, the media are the main source of their knowledge and entertainment and are part of the very structure of their lives.
“The government of President Muhammadu Buhari lacks transparency and accountability. The government’s financial policies are opaque and because there is no intention to infuse transparency and accountability as the core modus operandi and the fundamental objectives of the current administration, therefore the only way to hide the truth is to shut out the real, unbiased and raw information about government financial transactions and the way to do that is to attack the media and so it is clear that this decision has been long in coming because the Minister of Information, Mr Lai Mohammed, has always told Nigerians about the plot of government to clamp down on independent media.
“Not long ago, a lot of bills emanated at the National Assembly aimed at whittling down the powers of independent media but the voice of the people defeated this sinister plot.
“So this is just a manifestation of dictatorship and tyranny because if a commercial dispute should arise regarding payments of licencing fees or renewal fees, there are processes and mechanisms of arbitration to sort out these administrative issues rather than revoke operational licenses of media houses that provide employments to thousands of Nigerians in this period of economic austerity. This decision is provocative and undemocratic. By the way, does the government pay money for the public relations stories by way of press statements that these broadcasting stations air for this same government? So, why the use of a sledgehammer to kill off independent voices in the media in a bid to kill off their willpower to exercise their functions as the conscience of the nation as stipulated under Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria?”
“We ask the government to revoke the revocation of these licenses now and invite these stations to resolve the commercial disputes the government regulatory body has with them. Government should not be the creator of unemployment.”
Also, the Media Rights Agenda (MRA) has portrayed NBC’s action as ill-advised, insensitive and antithetical to the interests of the Nigerian public.
In a communique by the Head of its Legal Department, Ms Obioma Okonkwo, MRA stated that by the revocation of the broadcast licenses of so many stations for alleged non-payment of their license fees, NBC was prioritizing its desire to make money off the broadcasters over the interest of citizens, noting that the main effect of its action was to deny millions of Nigerians access to information as well as their rights and ability to freely express themselves through these stations.
Okonkwo said: “We are shocked by this naked display by the NBC of a lack of appreciation of its principal role which is to contribute to the emergence of a knowledge society. Rather, it has chosen to create an environment in which millions of Nigerians will wallow in ignorance, deprived of access to crucial information that they need to make critical decisions in their lives or to enhance their livelihoods.”
She debated that “the action of the NBC has only worsened the prevailing lopsidedness in the broadcasting landscape in Nigeria which was already dominated by government-owned broadcasting stations but is now under the monopolistic control of Federal Government-owned stations, which will be almost unchallenged, with the result that citizens will now be fed unmitigated propaganda by these remaining stations.”
Okonkwo blamed NBC of being insensitive to the harsh economic environment under which the broadcast stations have functioned over the last two and a half years, stating that the national economy has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic itself and the precautions taken by the government in reaction to the pandemic.
She said that the broadcasting stations were also negatively affected by the inability of the government to create a conducive environment for them to function, such as providing appropriate infrastructure like electricity supply, noting that with the stations having to find alternative sources of power supply even as the price of diesel continues to skyrocket daily, they were simply striving to survive
She added: “The fact that so many broadcasting stations have been unable to pay the license fees raises serious questions about the fairness and appropriateness of the fees being imposed on broadcasters by NBC in such a challenging economic environment. As the NBC, which imposes the fees and collects them for its own use, there needs to be an independent inquiry into this apparent conflict of interest where the motivation of the commission is apparently to make as much money for itself as possible.”
She urged NBC to go back on its decision in the public interest to prevent creating a society of predominantly ignorant citizens, explaining that the need to ensure that Nigerians are well informed through the media should replace any other consideration by NBC.
She urged the commission to work with the broadcasting stations to identify the challenges facing the industry and come up with realistic solutions to the identified crisis.