The Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) have dragged President Muhammadu Buhari and the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to court over what they called the “arbitrary use of the NBC Act and broadcasting code to threaten, revoke and shut down 53 broadcast stations in the country for failing to renew their licences”.
Last Friday, revoked the licences of the 53 broadcast stations for their alleged failure to pay licence fees valued at N2.6 billion. Following appeals by industry organisations and others, the commission however extended deadline for payment to Wednesday 23 August, or face closure by 12am on 24 August.
In the suit by the NGE and SERAP, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed was joined as defendant.
In the suit, FHC/L/CS/1582/2022 filed on Tuesday at the Federal High Court, Lagos, the plaintiffs asked the court to determine whether Section 10(a) of the Third Schedule to the National Broadcasting Act used by NBC to threaten, revoke the licenses of 53 broadcast stations and shut them down is not inconsistent and incompatible with freedom of expression and access to information as contained in the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
In a statement by the NGE General Secretary, Mr Iyobosa Uwugiaren and the SERAP’s Deputy Director, Mr Kolawole Oluwadare, the two groups asked the court for a declaration that Section 10(a) of the Third Schedule to the National Broadcasting Act used by the NBC to threaten to revoke the licenses of 53 broadcast stations and to shut down the broadcast stations is unconstitutional and unlawful, as it violates the freedom of expression”.
The NGE and SERAP are also seeking an order of interim injunction restraining the defendants, their agents or privies from revoking the licenses of the 53 broadcast stations and shutting down their operations, pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice filed contemporaneously in this suit.
In the suit, the two groups argued that, “the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution and human rights treaties on freedom of expression indicate that this right can be exercised through any medium”.
NGE and SERAP also averred: “Effectively, these provisions recognise that every individual has the right to an equal opportunity to receive, seek and impart information through any communication medium without discrimination.
’The use of NBC Act and the NBC Code in this case would inadmissibly open the door to arbitrariness and would fundamentally restrict the freedom of expression that is an integral part of the public order protected the Nigerian Constitution and human rights treaties to which Nigeria is a state party”.
The suit reads in part: “The media plays an essential role as a vehicle or instrument for the exercise of freedom of expression and information – in its individual and collective aspects – in a democratic society.
“Indeed, the media has the task of distributing all variety of information and opinion on matters of general interest.
“The public has a right to receive and assess this information and opinion independently. Therefore, the existence of a free, independent, vigorous, pluralistic, and diverse media is essential for the proper functioning of a democratic society”.
According to the groups, the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, licensing processes shall seek to promote diversity in broadcasting and that any registration system for the media shall not impose substantive restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.
The plaintiffs said: “Revoking the licenses of 53 broadcast stations and shutting down their operations because they have not renewed their licenses would both seriously undermine the rights of millions of Nigerians to express their thoughts, and their right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, in any medium they choose.
“Freedom of expression includes the public’s right to receive, and the right of those who express themselves through a medium of communication, to impart the greatest possible diversity of information and ideas’’.
The lawsuit averred further that the right to freedom of expression is based on the right to establish or use a media outlet to exercise freedom of expression and on society’s right to have access to a free, independent, and pluralistic media that allows for the most and most diverse information.
NGE and SERAP therefore asked the court for the following reliefs:
“A declaration that the arbitrary and unilateral action by NBC to threaten and or revoke the licenses of the 53 broadcast stations and to shut down their operations because of the alleged failure to pay their license fees is unnecessary and disproportionate sanction, and therefore contrary to the public interest and the guiding principles of freedom of expression.
“That section 10(a) of the National Broadcasting Act used by NBC to unilaterally revoke the licenses of the broadcast stations and shutdown the stations is a violation of the constitutionally and internationally guaranteed right to fair hearing.
“That section 10(a) of the National Broadcasting Act or any such other laws enabling NBC to unilaterally revoke the licenses of 53 broadcast stations and to shut down the stations is inconsistent and incompatible with the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 (as amended), and therefore null and void to the extent of its inconsistency and incompatibility.
“That the arbitrary action by NBC to revoke the licenses and shut down the operations of the broadcast stations is directly in conflict with sections 6 and 39(1) of the Nigerian Constitution and human rights treaties to which Nigeria is a state party, and therefore null and void and ultra vires.
“An order nullifying and setting aside the directive by NBC to revoke the licenses of the 53 broadcast stations for being inconsistent and incompatible with freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom.
“An order compelling the President to direct NBC and the Minister to withdraw the revocation orders in compliance with the provisions of section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution, and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act.
“And an order of perpetual injunction restraining President Buhari, NBC, and Muhammed whether jointly or severally or any other authority, person or group of persons from unilaterally revoking the licenses of the 53 broadcast stations and shutting down the stations”.
No date has been fixed for the hearing of the suit.