The Ecowas Court of Justice has barred the Federal Government of Nigeria, through the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) from censorship of political programmes by broadcasting stations across the country.
The Ecowas Court judgment was delivered on a matter brought before it by a Port Harcourt-based legal practitioner, Mr Festus Oguche Esq, and Crownfield Solicitors, challenging what the NBC called “Additional Regulations for Live Political Broadcasts” as contained in a letter to all broadcasting stations, dated 30th May 2014.
The NBC’s directive was issued in the heat of the feisty campaigns that trailed the 2015 general election, in which it said it “has noted with worry the increasing cases of abuse of political programmes as the country journeys towards 2015, such that contents that threaten the unity and peace of the country are transmitted.”
The Commission had, therefore, directed that it must be notified by broadcasting stations in writing, at least 24hours, before the live transmission of a political programme. The Commission also charged broadcasting stations to conform with provisions of the NBC Code, and for all broadcasters to take their social responsibility requirement seriously.
However, the plaintiffs wrote the NBC, requesting the withdrawal of the “additional regulation for live political broadcasts”, which it described as “tendentious and unnecessary and is totally unacceptable in a democratic dispensation” such as practiced in Nigeria.
Festus Oguche also declared that the letter of the NBC to broadcasters in May 2014 was inconsistent with provisions of section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution regarding freedom of expression and free press, and inimical to the Fundamental Objective and Directive Principles of State Policy contained in section 22 of the Constitution, among other grouse.
But without a favourable response from the NBC, Mr Oguche approached the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS) to challenge the action of the commission, being an agent of the Federal Government, which was named as the defendant.
The plaintiff backed his case with provisions in Article XIX of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.
More than 3 years after the matter went to court, the ECOWAS Court of Justice, Tuesday 11th December 2018, upheld all seven points declarations sought by the plaintiff, including an order of perpetual injunction restraining the Federal Government, its agencies, servants and proxies from further doing anything, either by way of official policy, directive, instruction and/or investigation that will in anyway impede against the existence and operations of free press in a democratic society, which is guaranteed as fundamental freedoms.
The Court also reportedly held that the action of the defendant’s National Broadcasting Commission in directing that all live political broadcasts by broadcasting stations in Nigeria be referred to it tantamounts to censorship of free press and is contrary to the fundamental freedom enshrined and guaranteed under African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.
Other declarations upheld by the Court include that the NBC’s directive is against the provisions of the fundamental freedom enshrined and guaranteed under Sections 22 and 39(1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The ECOWAS Court reportedly declared that it was reckless by National Broadcasting Commission to have issued such instruction to broadcasting stations.
The Federal Government had at the preliminary stages of the matter entered appearance through its lawyers and raised objection to the jurisdiction of the court, which was overruled by the Court.
Speaking on the judgment, Mr Festus Oguche said its significance is that broadcasting is regulated by law and not at the whims of the Federal Government and its agents.
Oguche said the ECOWAS Court has proved its mettle as one regional court that will not allow government and its agencies to act arbitrarily and unilaterally in a manner that curtail freedom of the press and expression.
He said by the Court’s order to the NBC to make a retraction of the May 2014 directive in a letter to all the broadcasting stations in the country and publishsame in national newspapers, he feels satisfied.