Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and twenty-four concerned Nigerians have sued the government of President Muhammadu Buhari and National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) at the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja over “the arbitrary use of the NBC Act and broadcasting code to target, harass, sanction, and fine independent television and radio stations in Nigeria, and to restrict Nigerians’ freedom of expression and access to information.”
SERAP is asking the ECOWAS Court to declare “illegal and contrary to Nigeria’s international human rights obligations the provisions of the NBC Act and broadcasting code frequently apply by the Federal Government and NBC to target, harass, intimidate, and impose sanctions on independent television and radio stations in the country.”
The suit is coming in the wake of the “‘bridge [breach] letter’ by the NBC asking Channels TV to explain why it interviewed the spokesman of a proscribed organisation; the ban on Jay FM 101.9 Jos for playing songs such as Falz’s ‘This is Nigeria’, Wande Coal’s ‘Iskaba’ and Olamide’s ‘See Mary, See Jesus’; and the N9m fines imposed on Channels TV, AIT and Arise TV [N3m each] over their coverage of the #EndSARS protests.”
In the suit number ECW/CCJ/APP/19/21 and filed last week, the Plaintiffs are arguing that, “The rights to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom allow Nigerians to seek and attain truth, which is an inherently good activity. These rights also allow Nigerians to participate in representative governance, social and political decision-making, which the Federal Government and NBC are obligated to foster and encourage.”
According to the Plaintiffs: “Attempts to justify restrictions on these fundamental rights and freedom on the overly vague grounds of incitement, morality and subversion of the constituted authority contradict the principles of the universality of human rights. Freedom of Expression is a fundamental human right and cannot be denied without lawful justification.”
The Plaintiffs are also arguing that, “the application of the Nigerian Broadcasting Act 1992 and broadcasting code to sanction independent television and radio stations is arbitrary, and has created an environment in which independent media houses are censored, or resort to self-censorship.”
The Plaintiffs state that, “Despite the Freedom of Information Act in Nigeria which guarantees the right to access public records, the Federal Government and its agents and several states of Nigeria have routinely refused to release information sought.”
The Plaintiffs are also arguing that, “A lot of Nigerians at home and abroad rely on independent television and radio stations including online on their coverage of topical issues of public interest to access impartial, objective and critical information about ideas and views on how the Federal Government and its agents are performing their constitutional and international human rights obligations.”
The suit filed on behalf of the Plaintiffs by their lawyers Kolawole Oluwadare and Opeyemi Owolabi, read in part: “The low level of political tolerance for views perceived to be critical of government or offensive means that the press continues to be subject of scare tactics, harassment and intimidation.”
“Censorship restricts the flow of information from the Federal Government and its agents about issues of public interest, preventing people from accessing critical information, expressing themselves, and denying them opportunities to assert other fundamental human rights.”
“It also violates the rights of people to openly discuss issues relating to transparency and accountability in government, and prevents them from accessing information on a wide range of related concerns.”
“The Federal Government and NBC should be stopped from using the broadcasting code or any other regulations and/or law to erode the sacred rights to freedom of expression, information and media freedom, which is the bedrock of the rule of law and sustainable democracy.”
“The Federal Government and NBC have routinely breached the fundamental principles of media freedom and media plurality, which are a central part of the effective exercise of freedom of expression and access to information, and thereby undermined the ability of Nigeria’s independent media houses to function effectively.”
“The persistent use of the NBC Act and broadcasting code by the Federal Government and the NBC is a blatant violation of the rights to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom, as well as prohibition against self-censorship.”
“The rights to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom promote diversity in forms of individual self-fulfillment and human flourishing, which the Federal Government and its agents ought to cultivate to achieve a tolerant and welcoming environment for the sake of good governance, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
“The Federal Government and NBC have violated the right of Nigerians to objective and impartial news coverage and reportage, as they continue to impermissibly restrict individuals’ rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom in Nigeria.”
“The Federal Government and NBC have seriously undermined the ability of independent media houses to practice journalism free from undue interference, to cover diverse views that are crucial to the exercise of many other rights and freedoms.”
The Plaintiffs are therefore asking the ECOWAS Court of Justice for the following reliefs:
1. A DECLARATION that the application of the provisions of the National Broadcasting Commission Act 1992 and the Nigeria Broadcasting Code by the Defendant and its agent to impose sanctions and penalties on independent television and radio stations is inconsistent and incompatible with the right to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom guaranteed under Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
2. AN ORDER setting aside the sum of Five Million Naira or any other form of penal sanction unilaterally imposed by the Defendant and its agent on Channels TV and/or on any such other television and radio stations.
3. AN ORDER directing the Defendant and its agents to immediately repeal and/or amend the National Broadcasting Commission Act and the Nigerian Broadcasting Code and bring them into conformity with Nigeria’s international human rights obligations.
4. AN ORDER OF PERPETUAL INJUNCTION restraining the Defendant and its agents from unlawfully imposing sanctions fines or doing anything whatsoever to harass Channels TV and any other television and radio stations in violation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
5. SUCH FURTHER order or orders the Honorable Court may deem fit to make in the circumstances of this suit.