Friday’s onslaught on the broadcast media by the National Broadcasting Commission is a great obstacle to press freedom in a country in which the civilian regime of Muhammadu Buhari has gradually assumed the full traits of totalitarianism.
In the last few years, the dwindling economic situation has made a mess of the Nigerian media. The situation was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic in the last two years, with resultant effects of job losses in the name of downsizing and restructuring by many a media house.
In the newspaper industry, the drift to the digital media has further compounded an already bad situation: readership as well as circulation figures have dropped across the board. Advert sales plummeted to dangerous levels that many newspapers downsized by about 50 percent. Many newspaper houses even turned many of their workers to contract staff, paying stipends for long hours of work, to cut cost and stay afloat.
The broadcast media, too, is feeling the pain, as revenue plummeted with substantial loss of airtime commercials and significant drop in programme sponsorships. In many cases, many media outfits could no longer sustain permanent workers, but rely heavily on freelancers, at the expense of quality. This is an open invitation to chaos! You just need to listen to broadcasts these days to see the level of rot: horrible grammar and pronunciation offend your ears.
It’s bad that many broadcast media could no longer renew their operating licences regularly, but it’s worse that many of them lack good managerial acumen to keep their organisations afloat. The case of AIT/Raypower (Daar Communications) was particularly pathetic. The media organisation, some years ago, deceitfully floated its shares on the stock market as if it would use the capital gain to keep afloat. But the money was misused. It has refused to pay dividends since then even after it got a huge sum from the Goodluck Jonathan administration through Dasukigate, as payment for election service!
About two years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic nearly sniffed life out of the newspaper industry, the Nigeria Union of Journalists called on the government to grant the industry a bailout, but none was granted. Again, how do you grant a bailout to your oppressors to keep on oppressing you?, as the government views newspapers!
In a saner clime, government would have considered some cushioning effects (policy) to help the media stay afloat, not just because it’s the fourth estate of the realm, but more so as to prevent job losses which will further suffocate the economy. Thomas Carlyle described the press as the fourth estate of the realm because it acts as a watchdog on the constitution, thereby becoming an integral part of the democratic process and government.
Such cushioning effects could come in the way of waivers in the annual renewal fees; waiver in import duties on broadcast equipment, and interest-free loans to the industry.
Today, the media industry has lost more than 50 percent of its workforce to retrenchment. And it is likely this will continue unabated.
Fewer broadcast media have their implications on the politics and government. One, it means many voices, especially of the opposition, will be silenced. Two, the clampdown will further create job losses and suffocate the economy. There’s a likelihood of high crime rate with a high unemployment rate.
These are indirect limitations to press freedom. It is not only when a government physically clamps down on the press that there is press limitation.
The NBC might need to reconsider this latest clampdown in the interest of peace and stability in the economy as we approach an election year.