The Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) Court of Justice sitting in Abuja on December 12, 2018, delivered a judgment restraining the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) from censoring of political programmes by broadcast stations in Nigeria.
The ECOWAS Community Court also ordered NBC to retract its circular demanding 24 hours notification form broadcast stations for live broadcasts.
The court delivered the judgment more than three years after a Port Harcourt-based legal practitioner, Mr. Festus Oguche, and Crownfield Solicitors sued NBC at the ECOWAS Community Court to challenge the NBC after it issued the a circular titled “Additional Regulations for Live Political Broadcast” dated May 30, 2014.
The regulation, directing all broadcast stations to notify the NBC in writing, at least 24 hours before a live transmission of a political programme was sent to all broadcast stations in Nigeria.
The Court upheld all seven-point declarations sought by Mr. Festus Oguche, and Crownfield Solicitors.
Mr. Festus Oguche, and Crownfield Solicitors, in their suit sought for “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 freedom.
Another declaration they sought was an order declaring that the NBC’s directive was 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 court also held that the action of the NBC in directing that all live political broadcasts by broadcast stations in Nigeria be referred to it was tantamount to censorship of free press and contrary to the fundamental freedom enshrined and guaranteed under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.
The Court declared the NBC instruction to broadcast stations was reckless and subsequently ordered that the NBC retracts the May 2014 directive in a letter to all the broadcast stations in the country and also publish same in national newspapers.
The NBC issued the directive in the heat of the campaigns leading up to the 2015 general elections. The Commission stated in the directive that “it has noted with worry, the increasing cases of abuse of political programmes as the country Journeyed towards 2015, such that contents that threaten the unity and peace of the country are transmitted,” and therefore directed that it must be notified by broadcast stations in writing, at least 24 hours, before a live transmission of a political programme.
The Commission also charged broadcast stations to conform with provisions of the NBC Code, and all broadcasters to take their social responsibility requirement seriously.
Mr. Festus Oguche, and Crownfield Solicitors wrote to NBC askin it to withdraw the “additional regulation for live political broadcasts”, describing it as tendentious and unnecessary and totally unacceptable in a democratic dispensation.
Oguche also declared that the NBC letter to broadcasters was inconsistent with provisions of Section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution with respect to 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.
Oguche approached the ECOWAS Community Court to challenge the action of the Commission, being an agent of the federal government when he did not get a favourable response.
Oguche backed his suit No. ECW/CCJ/APP/10/15, by citing provisions of 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.
The Federal Government had at the preliminary stages of the matter, raised objection to the jurisdiction of the court, but was overruled by the Court.
The judgment was delivered by a three-man panel led by the ECOWAS Community Court President, Justices Edward Asante, and supported by other Justices in the panel namely, Dupe Atoki and Januaria Moreira Costa.