By Henry Okonkwo
The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project has sent an open letter to President Muhammadu Buhari urging him to use his leadership position “to urgently instruct Mr Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture, and the National Broadcasting Commission to withdraw the directive containing a sweeping gag order banning journalists and broadcast stations from reporting details of terrorist attacks and victims across the country”.
The NBC had in a letter dated July 7, 2021 issued a directive asking journalists, television and radio stations in Nigeria to stop “glamourising and giving too many details on the nefarious activities of terrorists and kidnappers” during their daily newspaper reviews.
Reacting, SERAP in a letter dated July 17, 2021 and signed by its Deputy Director, Kolawole Oluwadare, said, “The contents of the directive by the NBC to journalists and broadcast stations are entirely inconsistent and incompatible with Nigeria’s obligations under article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“We would be grateful if the repressive directive is withdrawn within 24 hours of the receipt and/or publication of this letter. If we have not heard from you by then, the SERAP shall take all appropriate legal actions in the public interest.
“Grave concern that the contents of the NBC directive would impermissibly restrict the rights to freedom of expression, information, and victims’ right to justice and effective remedies that are central to public debate and accountability in a democratic society.
“Reporting on the growing violence and killings in many parts of the country is a matter of public interest. The NBC directive to journalists and broadcast stations to stop reporting these cases, coupled with the possibility of fines and other punishment, would have a disproportionate chilling effect on the work of those seeking to hold the government accountable to the public.
“The broad definitions of what may constitute ‘too many details’, ‘glamourising’, ‘divisive rhetoric’, and ‘security issues’ heighten concerns of overreach, confer far-reaching discretion on the government, and suggest that the NBC directive is more intrusive than necessary.
“These words and phrases do not indicate precisely what kind of individual conduct would fall within their ambit.
“The vague and overbroad definitions of ‘too many details’, ‘glamourising’, ‘divisive rhetoric’, and ‘security issues’ also raise concern that the NBC directive unduly interferes with the rights to freedom of expression and information, and is disproportionate to any purported legitimate governmental aim. Ill-defined and/or overly broad directives are open to arbitrary application and abuse.
“The use of these words and phrases by the NBC, given their opaque and ambiguous meaning, leaves open the possibility for application beyond unequivocal incitement to hatred, hostility or violence. Such words and phrases may function to interpret legitimate reporting by broadcast stations, journalists, and other Nigerians as unlawful.
“Exacerbating these concerns are growing restriction of civic space, the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, and the attempts by your government to push for the amendment of the Nigeria Press Council Act and the National Broadcasting Commission Act, to further suppress media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information.
“Allowing the media to freely carry out their duties is essential to building a secure society and leaving no one behind. Conversely, imposing impermissible restrictions on broadcast stations, journalists and other Nigerians undermine the security that builds a healthy and vibrant society.
“Article 19(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights establishes the right to freedom of opinion without interference. Article 19(2) establishes Nigeria’s obligations to respect and ensure this right, which includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, and through any media of one’s choice.”