BY BRIGHT JACOB
The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project has urged President Muhammadu Buhari to “instruct the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, and the National Broadcasting Commission to urgently withdraw the ‘last warning’ and threat to revoke the licenses of broadcast stations and shut them over their coverage of elections and post-election matters.”
The NBC had last week threatened to revoke the licenses of broadcast stations and shut them down, saying it was “giving its last warning to broadcast stations and will not hesitate to shut or revoke the license of any when convinced its activities are capable of undermining the peaceful coexistence of the country.”
This was disclosed in a statement following a meeting between the NBC’s Director-General, Balarabe Ilelah, and broadcast stations on the coverage of the February 25 presidential and National Assembly elections.
But in a letter dated March 11, 2023 and signed by SERAP deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare, the organisation said the ‘last warning’ and threat by the NBC if not immediately withdrawn, would limit freedom of expression and the ability of broadcast stations to cover important issues around the 2023 general election.
According to SERAP, threatening to shut down and revoke the licences of broadcast stations simply for carrying out their ‘watchdog role’ is clearly incompatible with Nigeria’s constitutional and international human rights obligations.
The letter read in part, “Political expression is a fundamental right. The threat by the NBC creates a significant risk that legitimate expression may be prohibited.
“Such unlawful prohibition may prevent transparency and dissemination of information on legitimate issues of public interest around the 2023 general election.
“We would be grateful if the requested action is taken within 48 hours of the receipt and/or publication of this letter. If we have not heard from you by then, SERAP shall take all appropriate legal actions to compel your government to comply with our request in the public interest.”
SERAP said the threat may produce a direct impact on the work of broadcast stations in ways that were inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom.
It said the Federal Government had a legal responsibility to ensure an environment in which a diverse range of political opinions and ideas around the general election could be freely and openly expressed and debated.
“The threat by the NBC is neither necessary nor proportionate, as it would unduly intrude upon Nigerians’ right to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom.
“The use of vague and undefined phrases such as ‘unpatriotic individuals’ ‘subversive, hateful, and inciting utterances, particularly post-election’, as grounds to threaten to shut down broadcast stations is inconsistent and incompatible with human rights requirements,” the organisation added.
SERAP said the Nigerian Constitution and human rights treaties imposed legal obligations on the FG to refrain from imposing restrictions which were not consistent with human rights requirements, including on discussion of political and election-related issues.
“It is also inconsistent with constitutional and international human rights requirements to threaten broadcast stations solely for their coverage of the issues around the general elections on the basis of vague phrases such as ‘unguarded statements, divisive and dangerous comments’, ‘negative conversations’ used by the NBC.
“The threat may stifle reporting on political and election-related issues, as well as have a deterrent effect on the public’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression on political and election-related issues, in particular issues deemed controversial or critical,” it added.