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Nigeria regulator gives broadcasters 48-hour directive

Journalists surround a politician at the start of the Osun state governorship election in southwest Nigeria on August 9, 2014. (Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye)

Requirements from Nigeria's broadcast regulator that radio and television stations nationwide should give notice of any live transmission of political programs has angered some journalists and raised questions about implementation.

The regulator, the National Broadcasting Commission, on May 30 directed stations nationwide to notify the commission in writing at least 48 hours before live-transmitting any political program. Authorities said they were worried that the content of political programs was threatening Nigeria's unity and peace ahead of the 2015 general elections. "[The NBC] can no longer tolerate the repeated abuse currently observed with this genre of program, particularly inciting, provocative, and highly divisive comments frequently served to the public as live political broadcasts," the directive said.

Some journalists swiftly objected. "This directive bears the imprint of a government that has matured into a full dictatorship," The Punch newspaper said in an editorial. The Nigerian Press Organisation--comprising the Nigeria Union of Journalists, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, and the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria--said the order amounted to "unbridled censorship" and that it was "against the spirit and letters of all electoral laws in Nigeria."

The NBC said its directive was due to "rampant violation" of section 1.5.1 of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code, which requires broadcasters to submit quarterly programing schedules at least a week before the beginning of each quarter.

Awwalu Salihu, the NBC's head of public affairs, told me that with elections fast approaching, stations were live-broadcasting political events--paid for the politicians, parties, or other organizations being covered--not listed on their quarterly schedules. Politicians from all political parties used these live events to insult opponents, make accusations, and stoke religious and sectarian sentiments, he said. The NBC did not provide specific examples. News outlets including the independent daily newspaper Leadership accused authorities, through the NBC, of targeting perceived opposition broadcasters and political parties.

The NBC said its directive would allow it to monitor programming to ensure stations meet the statutory quota that their licences require, and to collate accurate data on Nigeria's broadcast industry. Chapter 13 of the Broadcasting Code says that stations which fail to comply face sanctions ranging from a warning to fines between 50,000 to over 1 million naira (US$309-US$6,175), to a withdrawal of a station's licence, Salihu told CPJ.

"If not directly stated, it is implied that you are supposed to tell us of any change to the station's program schedule submitted at the beginning of the quarter. The NBC Act gives us permission to withdraw the licence of any station that does not tell us its program schedule," Salihu said.

Several journalists for privately-held and public broadcasters told me they perceive the NBC to be unrealistic. Many times, stations need to take on-the-spot decisions to cover events live. An assistant director with the government-owned Nigeria Television Authority told me, "The 48-hour directive is not practicable" as the NTA often receives only a few hours' notice to mobilize and live-transmit impromptu political events organized by the government.

Adding to journalists' confusion and frustration, some news outlets incorrectly reported that broadcast stations would be required to submit names of political commentators 48 hours before undertaking interviews on live shows. Salihu issued a press release emphasizing that this is not required.

Salihu also said the NBC acknowledges the spontaneous nature of live broadcasts which may not permit a 48-hour notification. He advocates for broadcast journalists to exercise good faith, regardless of the timing, to notify the NBC of a change in their schedule before transmitting any live political program. Such written notification could be transmitted via email or courier. "Even if they don't have 48 hours, stations should communicate the exigencies of these events to us. The NBC will understand you in such circumstances. It is a question of good faith," Salihu said.

But good faith is what the Nigeria government is lacking. Impunity in journalists' murders and numerous unpunished attacks on Nigeria's press corps in recent times have put journalists on red alert. The NBC's directive on live broadcasting came around the same time Nigerian security forces, citing national security concerns, laid siege to newspaper outlets, with soldiers destroying print runs and disrupting the distribution of hundreds of thousands of copies of at least 10 newspapers across Nigeria's 36 states and capital, according to CPJ research. News organizations, distributors, transporters, vendors, advertisers, and other stakeholders incurred huge losses, and the government has not responded to calls for compensation.

It has been two months since the 48-hour directive. While Salihu said he is not aware of any station violating the directive, broadcast journalists from several media told me their stations have not begun to comply.

The NBC and journalists alike say the real test will begin when political parties officially kick off their 2015 elections campaigns in November this year. Aduratomi Bolade, the head of Cool FM, Nigeria Info, and Wazobia FM stations, told me the NBC would then have to overturn the perception of critics that its directives are targeting privately owned broadcasters. "It doesn't look good if the NBC put out a directive and they can't enforce it with government stations. That will be the challenge to ensure they are not seen as selective," Bolade said.

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