Why media regulatory turf needs reform
By Ozolua Uhakeme
Assistant Editor (Arts)
THE need for the review of the media regulatory frameworks is not in doubt. Even government functionaries have mouthed it at several fora, except that the talk is yet to be marched with action. In fact, at a one-day policy dialogue on Community Radio Development in Nigeria held recently in Abuja, Information and Communications Minister, Professor Dora Akunyili raised the hope of having those obstacles to efficient media performance removed with immediate effect.
Represented at the function by the Director-General, National Film and Video Censors Board, Mr. Emeka Mba, Akunyili said: “I am aware that we require action on our regulatory frameworks to enable us address grey areas of our activities and take pluralism to a higher level. A little misunderstanding among stakeholders has affected the operations of the Nigerian Press Council for some years. A media sector policy reform process, which involved the review of the 1990 National Media Policy and the design of a Communication Radio Policy has not been completed. A legal reform process affecting the establishment laws of agencies in the Information and Communication sector has also slowed down.
“I am confident that in this new dispensation, the government in collaboration with other stakeholders, including us that are gathered here today, should be able to address these issues and produce worthwhile results in good time. Like other stakeholders, the government wants appropriate and up-to-date policies, law and regulations in place to guide implementation of programmes.
“The completion of the two policy processes will provide a solid platform for our activities in the sector. The community radio policy, for example, will guide us in licensing stations in conformity with international standards and best practices. Putting in place a well-functioning Press Council will strengthen media professionalism.”
With the re-opening of debate at the two chambers of the National Assembly on the review of the 1999 Constitution, stakeholders in the media are optimistic that those cobwebs in the statute book that affect the media (including broadcasting sector) will also engage the attention of the federal legislators.
The issues, which have continuously been raised by media sector practitioners and watchers include the fact that the 1999 Constitution prescribed obligations/duties for the media in Section 22 (to hold government accountable to the people), without providing the corresponding framework of freedoms as stipulated in Section 39 which deals with media issues. The section, it has been argued, should provide, in addition to the general freedom of expression for all citizens, a freedom of the media. Stakeholders have been canvassing that the provision should also be extended to specifically provide for a clear right of access to information for all citizens, including journalists.
Another critical point is the realisation that the Section 39 vests the power of authorization/approval of private broadcasting licences in the President of the country. But the global and standard practice today is to vest full regulatory powers (which include licence authorisation) in an independent regulatory body.
Also, the fourth schedule of the 1999 Constitution vests the power to collect fees on ownership of radio and television sets in local government councils, while the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) Act 38 of 1992 (as amended by NBC Act 55 of 1999) gives this power to the NBC as stipulated in Section 7 of the 1999 NBC amendment Act No 55.
But because the constitutional provision is superior to the NBC Act, the local governments have been collecting these fees and spending them without making them available for the development of the broadcasting stations.
In fact, a fresh twist has been introduced to the collection of these fees, especially in some parts of Lagos. The situation is degenerating as some overzealous revenue task forces from local government areas in the state have embarked on harassing and mounting pressure on proprietors of private schools in Lagos to pay the radio and television license tax.
Stakeholders in the media, especially the professional groups such as the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) have not only canvassed for the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill, but also the review of certain regulatory frameworks that obstruct free flow of information and Nigerian right to free expression.
This campaign has been emboldened by the support from media NGOs such as Institute for Media and Society (IMS); Media Rights Agenda (MRA); International Press Centre (IPC); Journalists for Democratic Rights (JODER) and others.
The synergy among these stakeholders arose from the realization that information sector is probably the only sector in Nigeria without an up-to-date National Mass Communication Policy as well as National Community Radio Policy. This review process has dragged for too long, they argued and urged the Federal government to see to its urgent completion and issue a new policy.
In mid-2004, the Federal Government started a media policy reform process when it instituted a 24-member committee to review the 1990 National Mass Communication Policy.
The 1990 policy became obsolete: most of its recommendations had been implemented while others were out of tune with new developments in information and communication technologies. Against the letter and spirit of global trends and good practices, the policy retained government monopoly in ownership and operation of broadcasting. The policy said: “The time is not yet ripe for private ownership of the broadcast media.”
In its report submitted in November 2004, the review committee recommended such policy objectives as that the broadcast media should be made accessible and affordable to all Nigerians, and that the development of public and private broadcasting should be promoted. It also recommended implementation strategies which include, that “there shall be an equitable spread of the categories of licence to ensure that no community or segment of the population is denied access to information through electronic (broadcast) media” and that “the development of community broadcasting shall be promoted.”
Government solicited and took further inputs from its agencies and public before subjecting the document to a series of internal reviews. In their contributions into strengthening the report, community radio stakeholders made submissions such as:
• The Policy should provide for a clear recognition of a three-tier structure of broadcasting in line with African Charter on Broadcasting: Pub1ic Service, Commercial and Community.
• The development of community broadcasting shall be promoted as distinct from decentralised state broadcasting.
•Broadcasters in all tiers' should be required to promote and develop local content.
•The NBC and NCC should be merged into an independent regulatory body.
•Broadcast station licensing should be fair, transparent and based on clear criteria.
•Media concentration should be discouraged.
•Community radio should be allowed to derive funding from sources, which include specific community-related commercial activities, community contributions, grants and an independent Community Radio Trust Fund.
In 2006, government undertook similar exercise as regards National Community Radio Policy when a 17-member committee was set up to produce a draft Community Radio Policy. The committee presented its report to the government in December 2006. The report made recommendations on key issues, which include:
• Access, participation and ownership: community groups and individuals should be involved in financial/other contributions and represented in the control, management and operations of community radio stations.
• Licencing: The broadcasting licence should be free, without prejudice to reasonable processing fees; application and processing should be simple, transparent and community-friendly.
• Programming, content and language: broadcasting will be in language(s) of the community served as much as possible will reflect the socio-linguistic realities of its environment; content, planning and production will be participatory, involving representatives of the audience.
• Governance and management: of the community radio should be community driven, accountable, transparent and responsive, based on efficient practices and appropriate tools; prior to establishment, the participatory methodology should be deployed in creating awareness and sensitising the people on community radio.
•Technical arrangement: The regulator should prepare a frequency plan which ensures sufficient frequencies for community radios throughout the country 10 to 15 percent of FM broadcast frequency spectrum for community radio stations; stations should be granted transmission power of 1 00 watts, although higher levels where justified.
•Sustainability and funding: Community radio licences should be registered as not-for-profit entities with at least 60 per cent local ownership; there should be no regulatory restrictions on source of revenue other than to encourage sustainability through diversity of financing and to avoid dependence on anyone source, they shall raise funds through advertising, sponsorship and other diverse sources, although no single source should account for more than 50 percent.
•Research and capacity-building: The regulator and other stakeholders shall encourage and promote research and training into the sustainability, social and development impact of community radio.
•Monitoring and evaluation: both the regulatory body and community members should be involved in monitoring and evaluation activities.
Lawmakers are urged to fast track the completion of work on these policies while other regulatory frameworks in the statute book that are due for review are also accommodated in their renewed efforts to bequeath a functional Constitution to the country.