By Francesca Iwambe, Abuja
The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has issued a 48 hour ultimatum on the Federal Government withdraw the ‘last warning' and threat to revoke the licenses of broadcast stations and shut them down over their coverage of elections and post-election matters.
The group in a letter dated March 11, 2023 and signed by SERAP deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare urged President Muhammadu Buhari to “instruct the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed and the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to as a matter of urgency with draw the order.
According to SERAP, the ‘last warning' and threat by the NBC if not immediately withdrawn would limit freedom of expression and the ability of broadcast stations to cover important issues around the 2023 general elections.
The group noted that 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 elections.
“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.
“The threat may produce a direct impact on the work of broadcast stations in ways that are inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom.
“Your government has a legal responsibility to ensure an environment in which a diverse range of political opinions and ideas around the general elections can 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 Nigerian Constitution and human rights treaties impose legal obligations on your government to refrain from imposing restrictions which are 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.
“The threat also represents a serious hindrance to the exercise of journalism, media diversity and media freedom, and participation.”
“This kind of threat to journalism has furthermore serious implications on the public's right to information, in particular in the context of the general elections where the role of the media is of particular importance.
“SERAP notes that Section 39(1) of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 (as amended), Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Nigeria is a state party protect everyone's right to maintain an opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers.
“Under the Constitution and these human rights treaties, restrictions on the right to freedom of expression must be ‘provided by law', and necessary for ‘the rights or reputations of others' or ‘for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health and morals.
“Similarly, the Nigerian Constitution and human rights treaties provide for the rights of individuals to be protected, inter alia, against unlawful or arbitrary interference, and provide that everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference.
“‘Unlawful' means that no interference may take place except in cases envisaged by the law which in itself must comply with the requirements of human rights and the rule of law.
“Media coverage of the general elections and post-election matters, and media freedom are closely connected, as access to information is an essential requirement for the realization of the rights to freedom of expression and participation.
“Similarly, phrases such as ‘unguarded statements, divisive and dangerous comments', ‘negative conversations' used by the NBC lack sufficient clarity and can be arbitrarily or discriminatorily applied and enforced.
“The ‘last warning' and threat by the NBC would seem not to meet the strict requirements of the Nigerian Constitution and the country's international human rights obligations. In particular, it is unclear the scope or object of what these wordings seek to prohibit.
“Under the constitutional and international requirement of legality, it is not enough that restrictions on freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom are formally stated in press releases and regulations.
“The NBC legislation and codes do not confer unfettered discretion for the restriction of freedom of expression on those charged with their implementation.
“The requirement of legality also serves to define the scope of legal discretion conferred on implementing authorities in order to provide adequate protection against arbitrary implementation.
“General prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including ‘unguarded statements, divisive and dangerous comments', ‘negative conversations' are incompatible with legal requirements and should be immediately withdrawn.
“According to our information, Mall. Balarabe Shehu Ilelah, Director-General of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) on Tuesday 7 March 2023 reportedly made the NBC's ‘last warning to broadcast stations'. The NBC ‘will not hesitate to shut down any station or revoke its licence once it is convinced that the activities of the station is capable of undermining the peaceful co-existence of the country”.
The NBC had last week threatened to revoke the licenses of broadcast stations and shut them down “if they continue to allow unpatriotic individuals on their platforms to make utterances that are subversive, hateful, and inciting, and negative conversations particularly in the post-2023 Presidential Election.”