The Nigerian Broadcast Commission, NBC, recently laid the cane across the back of Trust Tv and two other private television stations in the country for an alleged breach of its code. It fined each of them N5 million. What was their offence? They rebroadcast a BBC documentary on the bandits and their murderous activities with impunity especially in Zamfara and Katsina states. In a fit of a hollow exercise of power, NBC even threatened to “deal” with the BBC.
It is a dangerous development. It is important that we interrogate this particular incident, if only to remind the commission that its code and its enabling law oblige it to be fair, just and responsible, even if it finds it necessary to resort to the cane or the sledgehammer to chastise errant organisations in the industry. NBC is the regularity agency for the electronic media industry in the country. Its statutory duty is to police it to ensure that its operators act within some laid down regulations. To this end, it has a written code intended to guide the electronic media in how they do their job in order to best serve the government, the country, and its citizens. The code consists of general guidelines and does not pretend to be the penal code. The code also imposes on the commission to exercise power within reason.
Some facts about the incident are worth examining here. The first is that the BBC documentary was not false. At least, the NBC has not proven that it was. The venerable old lady did not set out to embarrass the Nigerian government as the commission tends to believe in its knee-jerk reaction. And it did not. Its documentary spoke truth to power.
The local tv stations rebroadcast what the rest of the world had already known long before the BBC aired its documentary about the bandits and how they operate with impunity, making life brutish for the people and making the Nigerian state and its security agencies look inept. Nigerians too had watched the documentary on the BBC. Its rebroadcast on the local television stations does not make it unprofessional on the part of those stations. They merely brought home what is already at home but seen through the eyes of a foreign news medium.
It must be said and admitted, even shamefacedly, that what the BBC did shamed our own local print and electronic media. Their role is much more critical than merely reporting each time the bandits strike in whatever corner of the country. Our news media ought to do more to educate us about the dangers we face by going behind the news to tell us who these people are and why they dare to take on the might of the Nigerian state and brazenly boast about their exploits and yet beyond the reach of the laws of the land.
Secondly, the NBC code does not bar local electronic media from the media tradition of interdependence in which a story broken by one news medium feeds other news media. It only requires them to ensure that the stories are authentic. No responsible newspaper editor or television or radio producer needs to be reminded that the integrity of their news media cannot be built on falsehood. The BBC is a credible news media organisation. As a human institution it may not always get it 100 per cent right, but we rely and have always relied on its facts in reports most of the time. Our local news media have always relied on the BBC for much of their international reporting because the old lady has the reach and the capacity to go to where our local media cannot. We are not alone. The media in other countries do the same. The BBC and CNN are the global news media leaders we all rely on.
The reaction of the commission was typical of government-funded regulatory agencies that tend to see their role as a duty to please the ogas at the top at all times. Consequently, they do not outgrow the tendency to blame and, if possible, punish the messenger while ignoring his message. Playing the ostrich comes easily for such agencies because they believe that what they do not see either does not exist or is not seen by others. The commission could not claim to be unaware of the reign of terrorists in Zamfara and Katsina, and other states of the federation. Perhaps, they heard about the daring rescue operation at Kuje which their detained or imprisoned members were freed. To act as if they were hearing about the bandits and terrorists for the first time through the rebroadcast of the BBC documentary is both dishonest and irresponsible.
Thirdly, as far back as March this year, Trust Tv aired a documentary similar to that of the BBC on the bandits and their criminality in the same two states where there is blooming hunger and poverty, thanks to the bandits. Peasant farmers cannot farm; cattle herds lose their herds to the bandits and are thus deprived of their means of livelihood. Either the thingmabobs in the commission did not see that documentary or if they saw it, they saw nothing wrong with it. It was as factual as that of the BBC. Trust Tv rebroadcast the BBC documentary to further authenticate its own documentary as part of its efforts to make officialdom wake up to the dangers facing Nigeria and its citizens in the hands of bandits and sundry criminals who have proven increasingly more powerful than the Nigerian state that negotiates with them from the position of weakness.
Fourthly, the action of the NBC seeks to take us back to a more or less settled question, to wit, how should the news media, print and electronic, treat crimes and criminals? This question enjoyed a robust debate in the seventies and eighties, but it appears to have been settled in favour of the role and the responsibilities of the news media to their communities and their countries.
There were genuine fears then, and even now, that the news media in reporting crimes tend to inadvertently glamorise crimes and criminals. Crimes are pervasive features of every nation. Some nations are safer from crimes than others, but less crime does not mean no crime. Crimes, especially violent crimes and criminals are inherently self-glamorising. The exploits of daring criminals, such as the late armed robber, Lawrence Anini, excite the public. This may be unfortunate, but the media are hardly to blame for the glamorisation of crimes and criminals. Given the grip of crimes and criminals on all societies, they cannot be ignored. Crime reporting takes a disproportionate space in the news media.
The issue, therefore, is not whether crime reporting glamorises crimes and criminals. Rather the issue is, given the pervasive nature of crimes and criminals, it would be naïve, foolish even, for anyone or a regulatory agency to expect the news media to treat criminal activities as non-events for fear of being accused of glamorising them. The Nigerian state does not face the challenge of the news media glamorising criminals in the land; its challenge is to get rid of them and make our country and its people safe.
That is the first and the most important duty imposed on our governments at national and sub-national levels by our constitution. Punishing the news media for doing no wrong, as the NBC has done, is to tread the path of the arrogance of power. We do not need that. Our country and our news media are under pressure. It is not right to make the situation worse with punitive measures that glamorise power at the expense of the people’s right to be informed and educated on terrorism rapidly morphing into an existential threat for our country and its citizens.