NBC’s controversial memo and increasing bullying of the media

Political paralinguistics, the experts call it; seemingly high sounding, some of its simple meanings include those aspects of political communication that send messages through body language, facial expressions, gestures, as well as the tone, tenor and pitch of verbal expressions. Hence, to illustrate the feature when police forcibly disperse a peaceful protest and arrest protesters, or invade the home of Sunday Igboho, campaigner for Yoruba nation, they are emphasising and gesturing that the regime of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) will no longer tolerate those aspects and other types of dissent. Political body language resonates well beyond the specific action that conveys it. In like manner, the recent memo by the National Broadcasting Commission constitutes an omen and bellwether of ongoing and impending censorship of that media genre. Even before the recent attempt to amend the National Broadcasting Code to give the NBC more latitude, harassment of broadcast journalists had been very much on the menu of state-media relations. In the last few months, there have been arbitrary fines of broadcast houses such as the N5m sledge hammer in the place of N500,000 imposed on Nigeria Info 99.3 FM for airing an interview with a former deputy governor of the Central Bank and political activist, Dr Obadiah Mailafia. There also was the fine handed out to Jay FM 101.9, Jos for playing Falz’s song, ‘This is Nigeria’. That is not all. In the wake of the #EndSARS protests last year, heavy financial sanctions of N3m each were meted out to Arise TV, Channels TV, as well as African Independent Television/Raypower Radio for what was defined by the NBC as subversive framing of issues.

Please note that in all these cases, the NBC was both the accuser and the judge with no intervening authority able to mitigate the sanctions. Over time, there have been complaints about the abuse of the power of the NBC, which is constituted by the Federal Ministry of Information headed by the Minister of Information and Culture. The recent controversial memo by the organisation ostensibly seeks to nudge broadcast journalists in the direction of social responsibilities with respect to the coverage of security issues. However, a close reading of the memo suggests that broadcasters are about to be put under tighter leash with free expression increasingly becoming the casualty. How, to take an instance, do you draw the line between reportage and ‘glamorising insurgents, terrorists, kidnappers, bandits’, considering that the NBC is ultimately the judge and enforcer of sanctions against alleged transgressors? There are other aspects of the memo that are equally oblique and fuzzy. For instance, the warning not to give too many details about the onslaught of kidnappers for fear of jeopardising security interventions. Again, the question is, at what point do details become too many? Ordinarily, one would have assumed that detailed narratives offer good material for investigation, follow-up and the eventual arrest – there are tragically so few of them – of bandits, terrorists, insurgents and kidnappers. In addition, the NBC’s articulated concern about broadcast stations doing newspaper reviews with their detailed format is hard to understand since the stories are already in the public space, anyway, and broadcasters are only bringing them more to public attention without amplifying them. There is also the complaint by the commission regarding comments made by invited participants with the subtle suggestion, as someone put it, that broadcasters will now call the invitees aside and make a plea like, ‘Please, gentlemen, you have to self-edit your remarks in order not to incur the wrath of our regulator which is busy monitoring every remark’. Can you imagine a supposedly independent broadcast station doing that without losing credibility? Consider that the death knell of state-media institutions in Nigeria was sounded by over-regulation of media content by successive governments which micromanaged them and turned them into propaganda outfits. That is why not many people sit around their TV sets to watch the Nigerian Television Authority despite repeated technological improvement in production, because there is this feeling that the news and news slant cannot be trusted.

Nigeria, as far as I know, is one of the few countries where public service media such as the British Broadcasting Corporation for instance had been turned into mouthpieces of ruling parties and administrations, with serious consequences for the erosion of credibility. For now, independent broadcasting offers a refreshing alternative to the drab and regurgitative approach of state-owned broadcasting which can spend hours featuring the birthday ceremonies of the First Ladies rather than informing or educating the populace on burning national issues. If the NBC has its way, independent media will be chloroformed into something like the comatose state broadcasting from which many viewers have turned off. The story was told of a television journalist who once interviewed a federal ministry official. The official went on and on narrating the so-called achievements of his administration in a monotone. Of course, there was no interrogation of the claims of the official neither did a stimulating conversation proceed from the monologue. Unsurprisingly, the journalist fell asleep in the course of the interview and had to be suddenly jerked awake when the official finally concluded his litany of doubtful governance achievements. The takeaway from the anecdote is the futility of one-sided official, so-called interviews which do not admit of the kind of trustworthy dialogue that democracy entails and feeds upon. Democratic theorists have long canvassed the values of adversarial conversation which end up refining, even reforming policy dialogues deepening democracy in the process. The German scholar, Jürgen Habermas, indeed conceived of democracy as a running dialogue, sometimes oppositional between the governed and their governors. What the NBC is doing following a pattern of official censorship is to bully and intimidate critical media into the kind of stupor and self-censorship that castrated the official state-owned broadcasting media.

One of the ways to reverse this unhappy trend is for the NBC to become less intrusive, less dictatorial and less over-bearing in playing the role of regulator lest it makes the regrettable transition from regulator to undertaker of broadcast media in Nigeria. A more fundamental angle is to revisit the way in which the commission, especially its chairman, is constituted or appointed. For as long as the commission is a hand-maiden of government and sees itself as an extension of the Ministry of Information, so long will it be ineffectual and function as Man Friday of the information apparatus of government. The hand will be Esau’s but the voice will be ultimately Jacob’s, to borrow a religious metaphor. Can we try, if we can muster the political will, something like the National Media Commission of Ghana, appointed by the legislature and including representatives of opposing political parties, that has turned the Ghanaian media into a public service one?

The other issue is the need for government to de-escalate repressive tactics and bullying methods against the media and free expression, as those approaches are usually counter-productive. The media, let it be emphasised, do not manufacture crises, they only report them and should not be made scapegoats for doing so.