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Licence debt: Federal court restrains Buhari, NBC from shutting 53 stations

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Court Stops Buhari, NBC From Shutting Down 53 Broadcast Stations

The Federal High Court, sitting in Lagos, on Monday stopped President Muhammadu Buhari and the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) from revoking the licences of 53 broadcast stations in the country, and consequently shutting down them for allegedly failing to renew their licenses.

In a statement by the General Secretary of Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Mr Iyobosa Uwugiaren and the Deputy Director of Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Mr Kola Oluwadare, the two groups reported that Justice Akintayo Aluko granted an order of interim injunction, following the hearing of an argument on ‘’Motion Exparte’’ by both groups.

Last week, NGE and SERAP filed a lawsuit against the President and NBC, asking the court for a declaration that Section 10(a) of the Third Schedule to the NBC Act used by the commission to threaten to revoke the licences of 53 broadcast stations and to shut down the stations is “unconstitutional and unlawful, as it violates freedom of expression”.

In the suit, the two groups had asked the court for “an order of interim injunction restraining Buhari and NBC, their agents from revoking the licenses of 53 broadcast stations in the country and shutting their down operations, pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice filed contemporaneously in this suit”.

The suit has been adjourned to 8 September for the hearing of the motion on notice for interlocutory injunction.

The suit followed the decision by the NBC last week to revoke the licences of the 53 broadcast stations and shut down their operations within 24 hours over alleged N2.6 billion debts.

In announcing the revocation of the licences on 19 August, NBC said that the 53 broadcast stations debts for licence fees was 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.

Another extension followed before the NGE and SERAP went to court.

In the suit number FHC/L/CS/1582/2022, both groups asked the court to determine “whether Section 10(a) of the Third Schedule to the NBC Act used by NBC to threaten revoke the licenses of 53 broadcast stations and shut them down is not in inconsistent with freedom of expression and access to information”.

They also sought “a declaration 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 are a violation of the constitutionally and internationally guaranteed right to fair hearing”.

The suit read in part: “The provisions of the Nigerian Constitution and human rights treaties on freedom of expression indicate that this right can be exercised through any medium.

“Effectively, these provisions recognize 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 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 two groups had argued that 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, adding the media has the task of distributing all varieties 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 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. Any registration system for the media shall not impose substantive restrictions on the right to freedom of expression’”, the suit stated.

In the suit, the two groups argued further that revoking the licences 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.

According to the suit, “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 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.

“The media, including the affected 53 broadcast stations, serve to distribute Nigerians’ thoughts and information while at the same time allowing them access to the ideas, information, opinions, and cultural expressions of other individuals”.

The suit explained that the plaintiffs recognise the mandates of NBC to regulate broadcasting; but the exercise of such mandates including renewals or revocation of licenses must follow the thresholds and guidelines set by the right to freedom of expression.

The two groups averred further: “The NBC Act and Broadcasting Code cannot and should not be used in a manner that is inconsistent and incompatible with plurality of voices, diversity of voices, non-discrimination, and just demands of a democratic society, as well as the public interest.

“Broadcasting is a means of exercising freedom of expression. Any restrictions on freedom of expression must meet the requirements of legality, necessity, and proportionality”.

NGE and SERAP said that the regulation of broadcasting must aspire to promote and expand the scope of the right to freedom of expression, not restrict it.

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