SERAP, NGE sue FG as stakeholders urge downward review of TV, radio fees

• Experts kick against five-year advance payment for renewing licences
• NBC cannot padlock the air, insists Akinfeleye
• It’s too expensive, BON scribe says
• Fees not exorbitant, charges minimal, Ilelah clarifies

Though the National Broadcasting Commission’s (NBC) deadline for payment of debts owed by broadcast houses, amounting to N2.66 billion, is today, stakeholders in the industry have, however, called for a downward review of the licence fees, adding that the five-year advance payment method makes it difficult for many stations.

The Guardian gathered that in the past, licence fee for network stations was fixed by bidding. Silverbird got its licence for N500 million. Daar Communication (AIT), which lost to Silverbird, was later allocated network licence, making it the third after NTA and Silverbird. It was learnt that NBC later reduced the fee to N250 million.

Following this development, for radio, Rhythm FM and Ray Power FM came on board after Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN).

The Guardian gathered that during the early history of licensing, state-owned broadcast stations covered only their states, while commercial stations covered their respective zonal territories, usually comprising three to five states. So, state stations had single states and paid per state, which were N1 million per annum per state, and N5 million for five years.

Also, the cost of renewal for state stations was said to be N5 million for five years, which when broken down, stood at N1 million per annum.

It was gathered that while fees for private radio in Category A locations, which include Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano and Abuja was N20 million for a five-year period, and renewable after five years for N15 million, the fee for other locations outside these four cities was N15 million for same period, renewable after five years for N10 million.

This, however, has changed, as licences are now city based, so, commercial stations are now seeking licences only for cities where they know are commercially profitable. State radio stations are mandated to cover their states, whether viable or not, which is why every state has a radio station.

Professor of Mass Communication and Africa’s Representative at the World Journalism Education Congress (WJEC), Ralph Akinfeleye, said NBC should reduce the fee by 50 per cent.

According to him, “NBC code must also be reviewed. NBC cannot be insensitive to the current trend. They must always engage private operators so that people will not read meanings to their decisions. Rush hour decision is injurious.”

The media expert said: “They should understand that in a democracy, it is give and take. NBC cannot padlock the air. I’ve told them before that they are not regulators, but traders. They didn’t like it but that is what they are.”

For him, the timing is wrong and punishment is harsh. “The affected stations should be given time and payment plans,” he said.

He added that the regulators should be more flexible in enforcement because of the operating environment. “The law is there and the operators should obey the law. We have heard the operators complaining about the high cost and harsh environment. There ought to be more stakeholders engage on this, otherwise, government will be perceived as having other ulterior motives especially in this political season. The operators should also come up with a joint comprehensive plan on how they intend to deal with the issue.”

ALREADY, a Lagos-based rights group, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), yesterday, filed a lawsuit against President Muhammadu Buhari and the NBC over “the arbitrary use of the NBC Act and broadcasting code to threaten, revoke and shut down 53 broadcast stations in the country for allegedly failing to renew their licences.”

Joined in the suit as defendant is Mr Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture. The NBC had last week revoked the licences of the 53 broadcast stations and threatened to shut down their operations within 24 hours over alleged N2.6 billion debt. The NBC has now asked the stations “to pay all outstanding licence fees on or before August 23, 2022 or shut down by 12a.m. on August 24.”

In the suit number FHC/L/CS/1582/2022 filed at the Federal High Court, Lagos, SERAP and NGE are asking the court to determine “whether section 10(a) of the Third Schedule to the National Broadcasting Act used by NBC to threaten revoke the licenses of 53 broadcast stations and shut them down is inconsistent and incompatible with freedom of expression and access to information.”

SERAP and NGE are asking the court for “a declaration that section 10(a) of the Third Schedule to the National Broadcasting Act used by NBC to threaten to revoke the licences of 53 broadcast stations and to shut down the broadcast stations is unconstitutional and unlawful, as it violates freedom of expression.”

The appellants are seeking “an order of interim injunction restraining them, their agents or privies from revoking the licences of 53 broadcast stations in the country and shutting down their operations, pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice filed contemporaneously in this suit.”

No date has been fixed for hearing of the suit, which was filed on behalf of SERAP and NGE by their lawyer, Kolawole Oluwadare.

Speaking with The Guardian, Secretary General of the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON), Yemisi Bamgbose, stated that the licence fee, especially for stations with network licence “is too exorbitant, and to compound the problem, they pay in advance.”

He also said, “the idea of paying in advance should be looked into. Let us assume that for a starter, to show commitment that you are serious, just like if you want to rent a house, they ask you to pay two years in advance, but immediately after the expiration of the two years, you continue to pay on yearly basis.”

Bamigbose said: “It is true that if you pay for five years, the assumption is that you should be able to save for another five years, but who says that a station is going to be in existence in five years time that you ask them to pay five years in advance? If you hear that AIT is owing N500 million, that N500 million is meant for five years and it is five years in advance.

To me, it is exorbitant and needs a review. I have been discussing with members of BON that there is need to review this.”

According to Bamgbose, the cost of running radio and TV stations is really very high. He said when you look at the commercial stations, the cost ranges from N3 million per year, and you are expected to pay N15 million in advance, that one too, when you juxtapose it with the economic situation in the country today, knowing full well that there is no shortcut to running a radio or TV station other than being on power 24 hours, either through public electricity supply or a generator.

He continued, “we are aware of the epileptic nature of our public power supply, which means, all stations are heavily relying on generator and you know that you use diesel. Today, if you determine the cost of diesel, there is no station that can sustain it. Even the Federal stations can’t. For any station to sustain 24-hour transmission, that station must be spending over N1 million on daily basis.”

The BON scribe also said the broadcast media landscape is no longer viable. To him, “adverts are diminishing everyday and companies are relocating out of Nigeria to other countries and the advertisers are no longer dishing out adverts and media buyers are no longer able to buy airtime to promote their products.

“Again, social media is now taking out of the little advert revenue. When you look at it and put all that together, it is not that the stations are not willing to pay but the fact of the matter is that every kobo they realise is spent on operations and the revenue is dwindling.”

OBSERVING that there has been series of complaints from different stakeholders on the cost of licence and considering what is happening not only in Nigeria, but globally, Director General of the NBC, Balarabe Shehu Ilelah, insisted that the fees are not really exorbitant.

According to Ilelah, “what we are charging them is only N1 million per annum, which is N5 million for five years. I can’t understand why a state cannot pay N1 million per annum, but at the same time, the same people are paying millions to private stations across the country and outside the country for them to cover their activities. The issue is, we should look inward and help the local media houses.

“You can agree with me that it is not too much. I have been talking to them, it is no longer going to be business as usual, we have to live up to our own obligations, you came to the Commission, you paid N15 million to get the licence and then you are unable to pay N1 million afterwards and you don’t pay every year, you renew after five years with N5 million (which is N1 million every year if you divide it). Still they cannot pay, I don’t know why people are crying over this.”

He noted that during the COVID-19, government gave 60 per cent discount to all the broadcast stations to enable them offset the accumulated debt but most of them failed to take advantage of the opportunity.

“We said, if your money was N1 million, take 60 per cent out of that N1 million and pay the balance of 40 per cent but they refused to use that opportunity to pay and we gave them a window of almost a year, this is almost two years, but they still refused to come and enjoy the privilege,” the NBC boss said.

Reminded that apart from the severe impact of COVID-19 on the media industry, the high operational cost due to diesel, exchange rate and other factors pose serious challenges to the industry, the NBC boss said, “this debt is not what we are asking them to pay this year or last year, it is an accumulated debt for 10 years when diesel was between N90-N100.00 and now they are saying they cannot pay because of high cost of diesel, you cannot use diesel as an excuse because it is not a debt of this year or last year, it is an accumulated debt of seven to 10 years. The way forward is for us to do what we are supposed to do so that the Commission can work.”

Speaking in a similar vein, IPC’s Press Freedom Officer, Melody Lawal, called on NBC to exercise caution and ensure that it exhausts engagement channels before wielding a stick that may not only lead to thousands of job losses but also shrink the information dissemination space.

To her, NBC should stop acting as a revenue generating agency that is unconcerned about the business environment of broadcast stations.

She added that NBC has continuously constituted itself to the accuser, the prosecutor and the judge in its own case.

Prof. Anthony Kila of Centre Director, Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies (CIAPS), stressed that regulators should consider revoking of licenses as a very last and dramatic option.

He argued that as an arm of government, regulators should be conscious of their actions, noting that it is easy to at least suspect, if not imagine that this action is aimed at gagging independent media.

President of the Nigerian Union of Journalists, Chris Isiguzo, told The Guardian that rather than embark on comprehensive clampdown or revocation of licenses, NBC and by extension the government should find a way of granting a sort of rebate or waiver to these stations, adding that the incentive could serve as a bailout of some sort to the affected stations.

He stated that though nobody is justifying the fact that these broadcast stations are indebted to the NBC but at the same time, “we must not lose sight of the global economic reality and revocation should not be an option, at least for now.”

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