Soocio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has sent an open letter to President Muhammadu Buhari urging him to “urgently instruct Mr Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture, and the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to withdraw the apparently illegal Broadcasting Code and Memo threatening to sanction any broadcast that denigrates, disrespects, insults, and abuses president, governors, lawmakers, and other elders and leaders in authority.”
SERAP also asked President Buhari to “instruct Mr Mohammed and the NBC to immediately rescind the fine of N5m imposed on Nigeria Info 99.3 FM radio station, following reported comments by a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Obadiah Malafia, during an interview with the station.”
The NBC last week reportedly issued a stern warning to journalists and broadcast stations, stating: “To denigrate our governors, lawmakers, elders and leaders in abusive terms is not our culture. We respect our leaders as a positive cultural value. The Commission may be compelled to impose sanctions where stations fail to curb this practice”.
In the letter dated 15 August 2020 and signed by SERAP deputy director, Kolawole Oluwadare, the organization said: “Rather than pushing to enforce a culture to respect president, governors, lawmakers, elders, and other leaders, Mr Muhammed and the NBC should use their entrusted public office and mandates to promote a culture of public debate, access to information, transparency and accountability in government.”
According to SERAP: “nothing can be more destructive to people’s exercise of basic human rights, and to democratic politics than the suppression of the media, and media freedom. The alleged ‘cultural codes’, which Mr Muhammed and the NBC are now using to punish journalists, broadcast stations and other Nigerians are patently contrary to the public interests.”
SERAP said: “the implementation of the code and the memo would further deter meaningful citizens’ engagement, and have a chilling effect on Nigerians’ human rights, particularly the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, undermine the idea of representative democracy, as well as make public officials less responsive to the people.”
The letter, a copy of which was sent to Mr Lai Muhammed, read in part: “We would be grateful if the requested action and measures are taken within 7 days of the receipt and/or publication of this letter. If we have not heard from you by then that the measures have been taken, the Registered Trustees of SERAP shall take all appropriate legal actions to compel you to do so in the public interest.
“Our requests are entirely consistent and compatible with the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 (as amended), and the country’s international legal obligations, including under the UN Convention against Corruption, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which the country is a state party.
“SERAP is seriously concerned that the implementation of the code and the memo would lead to unjust punishment and self-censorship among journalists and the media, and exacerbate the growing level of impunity for attacks on media freedom.
“Self-censorship would undermine media freedom and the right to receive and impart information, public debate and further impair the ability of Nigerians to hold to account public officials and politicians accused of grand corruption.
“SERAP is concerned that the action by Mr Muhammed and NBC has further undermined public trust in government and politicians, as it shows that public officials are taking for granted their entrusted public functions, and accountability to Nigerians.
“The speed at which the code and the memo have been issued and applied may lead to public suspicion that the authorities are deliberately pushing to undermine the ability of journalists and the media to report on public interest issues, such as the growing poverty, widespread violence and killings, poor quality education, poor infrastructure and lack of access of millions of Nigerians to basic public goods and services.
“SERAP is concerned that rather than addressing these matters of public interest and revelations of massive allegations of corruption and mismanagement in ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs), your government is devoting time and energy to stop the media and journalists from reporting on the issues.
“Transparency would build trust and confidence in the government. The public interest in transparency and public monitoring of the use and management of the country’s natural wealth and resources by politicians outweighs any perceived cultural injunctions of ‘respect for president, governors, lawmakers and other leaders.
“Transparency will mean little without media freedom, which is important to shine a light into government activities and bring matters to the attention of the public. Public debate and access to information would promote a culture of transparency, and accountability, which in turn would facilitate Nigerians’ right to participate in their own government.
“In a truly representative democracy that Nigeria is striving to become, those who venture into public life, whether in the capacity of president, governor, or lawmakers, must expect to have their constitutional and public functions subjected to scrutiny and public discussion.
“By allowing journalists and the media to freely and independently perform their roles of informing the public, Nigerians will be able to monitor and keep politicians on a tighter leash, which will contribute to good government.
“The code and the memo are illegal, unconstitutional and amount to a misuse of public office insofar as they blatantly fail to follow due process of law, meet basic constitutional and international fair trial standards, and a strict three-part test of legality, necessity and proportionality.
“According to the UN Human Rights Committee, the free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives is essential. This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint and to inform public opinion.
“Similarly, the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly held that freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. It is applicable not only to information or ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.
“According to our information, the NBC on Thursday 13 August, 2020 reportedly sent a ‘memo’ to journalists and broadcasters threatening to ‘sanction and punish them if they violate a culture stopping them from denigrating, disrespecting, insulting, and abusing president, governors, lawmakers, and other elders and leaders in authority.
“In the memo reportedly signed by Mr Chibuike Ogwumike, Zonal Director of the NBC Lagos office, the NBC cited the provisions of the Broadcasting Code: Section 3.1, Professional Rules: 3.1.1, and Broadcasting Code: 3.1.19 to justify the existence of such culture to respect public officials and other elders and leaders in authority in the country.”
SERAP therefore urged Mr Buhari to urgently:
- Instruct the Mr Lai Muhammed and the NBC to immediately withdraw the code and memo to journalists and broadcasters threatening to sanction and punish them on the basis of cultural codes prohibiting them from denigrating, disrespecting, insulting and abusing president, governors, lawmakers, and other elders and leaders in authority;
- Instruct Mr Lai Muhammed and the NBC to immediately rescind the apparently illegal fine of N5m imposed on Nigeria Info 99.3 FM radio station;
- Propose and promote rules and codes that would ensure a culture of public accountability, prevent grand corruption, curtail abuse of power by public officials and politicians, as well as improve a democratic relationship and engagement between citizens and the government;
- Publicly commit to enforce constitutional and international human rights of journalists and the media and all Nigerians, and to faithfully fulfil your constitutional oath of office;
- Publicly commit to restore public trust in government, and to respect and protect the constitutional rights of journalists and the media to report on allegations of corruption and other socio-economic challenges confronting the country.