Journalism in the service of society

For broadcasting, a future ungarnished

‘…this administration has not been miserly with license approvals except that lived reality doesn’t portray the President as media-friendly. If anything, this government has a notorious disdain and distaste for the nation’s media industry, with quite a number shut at some point while some have had to endure a torrid season of fines. This has been the sore point between media practitioners and the government that the latter should be more accommodating of dissenting views’

IT was pretty good news for the broadcast space the other day when the broadcast regulator, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), gave a report sheet dating back to 2018. For a country seemingly wallowing in chaos, it was a breather to steer us away from the nail-biting Naira scarcity out there and the consequential outrage that has snowballed into riots in some parts of the country.

Just listening to the opening lines on television, my immediate reaction was that the present administration, headed by President Mohammadu Buhari, has started to prepare its handover notes. Having seen a copy of the speech by the Director General of the Commission, Malam Balarabe Shehu Ilelah, that first impression is hardly faulted. The entire report is centred on the good things the President is doing for the broadcast industry.

Cashing in on the approval of 67 new broadcast licenses to reflect on the  achievements, Malam Ilelah gushed on the President’s intrinsic democratic values for encouraging plurality of voices in the broadcast industry. The history of approval, which documents 473 licenses under his administration, “has shown that President Buhari is actually a democrat and media friendly who uphold media freedom and pluralism

“I am publicly unveiling the list to the general public today. This is a great milestone in furthering pluralism and freedom of expression,” Ilelah enthused.

The licenses were released in the following order. 210 licenses in 2018, 159 in 2021, 32 in 2022, another 5 in 2022, and 67 in 2023, with more in view, according to the broadcast regulator.

The foregoing is evidence that this administration has not been miserly with license approvals except that lived reality doesn’t portray the President as media-friendly. If anything, this government has a notorious disdain and distaste for the nation’s media industry, with quite a number shut at some point while some have had to endure a torrid season of fines. This has been the sore point between media practitioners and the government that the latter should be more accommodating of dissenting views.

Being mindful that the independence of regulatory agencies has been a major challenge under the Buhari administration, Ilelah happily announced that the President has given the regulator the independence to handle broadcast license processes without encumbrances.

“Mr. President has approved for the independence of NBC from any political interference in the exercise of its regulatory functions particularly with respect to issuance and withdrawal of broadcasting license. This has helped immensely in the reduction of violations by broadcasters as we used to see before,” Ilelah said.

Unfortunately, my position in respect of the above is very discomforting. While I am equally happy that quite a number of licenses have been approved, I want to observe that the process has been so arbitrary that there were grumblings, not so long ago, that some licenses were issued by the Minister of Information and Culture without the goodwill of even inviting any input from the regulator. Are those licenses included in the batches listed by the regulator?

Please also permit me to say something about the independence of the regulator. While it would have been salutary for the President to grant the regulator such independence which is denied it by the Broadcast Act, such speculation remains a pipe dream. This writer has the information that the recent approvals were communicated directly to the Minister by the Chief of Staff to the President, instead of communicating with the NBC through the Minister. This hardly demonstrates any independence.

The Act says that the NBC should process licenses through the Minister while the President remains the final approving authority. Through that process some of the broadcast requests to the President have been adulterated with people infusing all kinds of interests in the space between the Minister’s office and the Presidency. The abuse has been more rampant under this administration.

Coincidentally, the independence of the broadcast regulator was one of the troubling issues raised at a two-day programme, themed: Conversations Between Industry Stakeholders in Broadcasting Legislative/Regulatory Issues, which held in Abuja early February.

Organised by the Institute for Media and Society with support from the European Union, the participants drawn from the academia, the civil society, media and government were vociferous in calling for a free and well-funded broadcast regulator,  equipped well enough to tackle the challenges of constantly changing technology and other modern regulatory headaches, including the meddlesomeness of government.

“We need to fix the broadcast regulator in order to fix the broadcast industry, because democracy has no meaning without a strong media,” they said.

One other issue raised at the meeting was the need to cover the broadcast open spaces and service gaps or underserved areas in the border communities. A participant shared his experience in Kazaure in Jigawa State where the locals receive radio broadcasts only from Niger Republic and none from Nigeria. The meeting observed that such development could lead to information manipulation and challenged the NBC to embark on creative regulation that could take broadcast services to those environments. NBC officials were present and they know how very concerned everybody was. My little question here is, does any of the new licenses address the needs of the border communities?

Malam Ilelah was frank enough to admit that even with presidential support there have been challenges on the path of implementing the Digital Switchover process. A project sanctioned by the ITU to migrate broadcasting to digital platforms and free up frequencies for telecommunications services, has stalled nearly inexorably in the country. With all the shenanigans, the process has been extremely rudderless under this administration.

“The Commission is currently working on simultaneous delivery of Nigeria to the life changing experience of digital broadcasting using SIMULCRYPT. Against this background, ITS and NTA-Star Nigeria have signed an agreement to actualizing this in the earliest possible time. To rejig DSO, the Board of the Commission has approved licensing the 3rd signal distributor. This is in addition to the existing ones; ITS and Pinnacle,” Ilelah said.

With profound respect to preceding information, I want to state that there is hardly any flesh attached to the bone. The word, SIMULCRYPT, is plainly anticipatory tech obscurantism which has little to do with elevating the switchover process other than the fact that customers of the two signal carriers, ITS and NTA-Star, will be able to use the same decoder/set top boxes to receive their signals. That will hardly help a process that is not working at the moment.

There is also the suggestion that a third signal distributor will be licensed to make the DSO process run better. I am sorry to state here that the third signal distributor will not come with a magic wand but instead will only complicate the process. The Ministerial Committee that replaced a Presidential Committee hardly understands the process and, if it does, receives orders from a source without knowledge of the entire process.

Concerning the DSO, the problem is not licensing, the problem has to do with capacity, and the bigger problem is the embedded interests that are making money from a process that is atrophying away. The regulator must call time, do a genuine self-introspection and strive to restart the process all over again; this time for the good of the people, not the good of a few.

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ELECTION, ONLY 3 DAYS HENCE

Dear Readers, please don’t wait another minute before making your Voter’s Card ready. Be the first to head to the Polls on Saturday and strive to change all the things we have so often complained about in our daily life, in the newspapers and on radio and television. Take an action that will impact life and the future of this country. Don’t whine or complain ever again. Take a definite step! Vote the Candidate of your Choice and be Man or Woman enough to ward off every pressure. God bless Nigeria.

*Aihe writes from Abuja

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