History tell us that in most heterogenous societies, multiple centrifugal forces make it easy for the fragile fabric that binds society together to give way at the slightest provocation. To avoid the dismemberment of such societies, therefore, the remedy is to always pursue policies that can unite the different groups that make-up any such society. Nigeria is a good example of a nation whose constituents have for long been restive about what many see as basic inequality in the management of public affairs. This has over the years tended to accentuate ethno-religious intolerance compelling government to rely more on prescriptive criteria than merit in many policies.
Under the circumstance, Nigerian leaders have found it expedient to take steps to consciously dissuade the use of intemperate language that can inflame passion and cause anarchy in society. But this has to be done without encroaching on the fundamental principle of freedom of expression which democracy guarantees.
According to Section 39, of the Nigerian Constitution 1999: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” However, Section 45 of the same constitution makes it clear that freedom of expression must not be used to make reckless statements that can adversely affect other persons.
In other words, government has a duty to ensure that laws such as that on defamation are made to protect the rights of other citizens. Bearing in mind that the mass media have the capacity of disseminating information far and wide, the conduct of the media has to be regulated to avoid disseminating insensitive materials that can pitch one group of society against the other.
Therefore, a regulation such as the National Broadcasting Code which among other things, seeks to prohibit fake news and hate speech that are injurious to society is tolerable, provided, it is neither politicized nor used for witch-hunting. Put differently, no regulation should be negatively constructed to become a fault-finding tool or an instrument to gag the media.
On August 10, 2020, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who is currently a Directing Staff at Nigeria’s authoritative Policy Research Institute in Kuru, Jos, Dr. Obadiah Mailafia, while participating in a radio programme alleged that a serving Nigerian State governor was one of the commanders of the dreaded Boko Haram group. In the reported words of Mailafia: “Some of us also have our intelligence networks. I have met with some of the bandits; we have met with some of their high commanders – one or two who have repented – they have sat down with us not once, not twice. They told us that one of the northern governors is the commander of Boko Haram in Nigeria.”
As was expected, two relevant Nigerian Agencies, the Department of State Services and the broadcast regulator, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, quickly reacted to the subject. While the DSS invited Mailafia for questioning with a view to extracting more facts on the authenticity of his claims, the NBC examined the broadcast against the backdrop of its mandate to ensure that no broadcast station is used to undermine the continued existence of the country.
The two agencies have since made a number of declarations on the subject. On its part, the NBC instantly found the radio station, Nigeria Info 99.3, guilty of what it called “unprofessional broadcast” and imposed a fine of N5 million on the station. In the case of the DSS, the conclusion arrived at was that it was indecent on the part of Mailafia to have disseminated such information without using his well-connected links in society to verify the heavy allegations before making them public. Thereafter the DSS warned all highly-placed citizens to show greater restraint in their public utterances. Before reaching her conclusion, the DSS invited Mailafia twice for interrogation, thereby giving him ample opportunity to defend himself.
When compared with the summary trial which the NBC gave to the Nigeria Info radio station, it is obvious that at least on this matter, the DSS has been more humane than the broadcast regulator. Although the DSS has all the instruments of coercion at her disposal, she was not coercive. Indeed, Mailafia’s lawyer testified that the service was civil in her conduct with his client.
Many people, particularly broadcasters, this writer inclusive, have since remained baffled by the speed with which the broadcast regulator found the radio station guilty of “unprofessional conduct” in its transmission. First, the interview was organized by the station on one of its regular slots: “Morning CrossFire,” where different personalities are invited to air views on burning issues, in which case it was a normal programme which had no trappings of mischief. Second, the guest was by every standard a first-class political news maker, capable of throwing light on issues of public interest being a bonafide Nigerian political leader who would have been our President if the party which sponsored him as a Presidential candidate had won last year’s Presidential elections. Third, the programme was a LIVE broadcast that could not have been subjected to editorial control unlike a recorded programme that could be edited to remove unwanted portions. Fourth, following global realities in broadcasting, LIVE programming is today the new trend making it untenable to question the format and philosophy of Morning CrossFire.
Based on the above, we think the NBC’s posture is not a plus to society just as it cannot improve the broadcasting profession in Nigeria. Rather, the huge fine on a purported offence, could only have instilled fear in broadcasters to now embrace self-censorship and timidity. The NBC needs to move away and very quickly too, from that old perception of radio as an organ for telling the people what the government wants them to hear. Public expectations of the media in society have since gone beyond that narrow prism.
Today, the media is expected to undertake a surveillance of the environment, while monitoring the process of governance as mandated by Section 22 of the Nigerian Constitution. It is also to serve as a link between the government and the people; as well as criticize and analyze events. More importantly, the media is not only to inform the people but also to protect their rights to know while at the same time pointing out danger signals in the horizon for people to avert a woeful end.
As heavy as Mailafia’s allegation appears to be, there is no conclusive proof that it is false just as the allegation is neither different nor heavier than the old unproved belief that Boko Haram was founded by a governor. The intelligence services should therefore see Mailafia’s addition as a new vista for understanding the advent and growth of insurgency and how to bring it to a peaceful end in our country. Electioneering campaigns going on in Edo state at the moment, are replete with hate speeches thereby confirming that the greatest culprit of hate speech is the political class. We cannot make progress if offending politicians receive sermons only while the media, they use are heavily penalized by a regulator, whose component parts – Minister, Board and Management are singing discordant tunes.
Prof. Iredia was former Director General of both the Nigerian Television Authority and National Orientation Agency.