Media Rights Agenda (MRA) has filed a lawsuit at the Federal High Court in Abuja asking it to set aside the fines imposed on three broadcasting stations by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) in 2020 and restrain the Commission from imposing fines on any of the stations or any other broadcast station in Nigeria for any alleged offence committed under the Nigerian Broadcasting Code.
In the suit filed on its behalf by its lawyers, Mr. Uche Amulu, Ms Chioma Nwaodike, Mr. A.C. Nwabunor, and Ms Obioma Okonkwo, MRA is claiming that the procedure adopted by the NBC in sanctioning the stations and imposing fines on them violates the human rights provisions of the 1999 Constitution and amounts to a breach of the rules of natural justice.
The affected stations are Breez FM in Akure, Ondo State; Adaba FM, also in Akure; and Albarika FM in Ilorin, Kwara State. Breez FM and Adaba FM were fined N500,000 each while Albarika FM was fined N250,000 on May 27, 2020.
Specifically, MRA is seeking:
• A declaration that the sanctions procedure applied by the NBC in imposing the fines on the three broadcast stations is a violation of the rules of natural justice and the right to fair hearing under Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, and Articles 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act (Cap A9) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 in that the Nigeria Broadcasting Code, which created the alleged offences of which the broadcast stations were accused was written and adopted by the NBC, and also gives powers to the Commission to receive complaints of alleged breaches, investigate and adjudicate the complaints, impose sanctions, including fines, and ultimately collect the fines, which the Commission uses for its own purposes;
• A declaration that the NBC, not being a court of law, has no power or competence to impose fines on broadcast stations as punishment or penalties for the commission of an offence as the competence to establish that an offence has been committed and to impose criminal sanctions or penalties belongs to the courts;
• A declaration that the Nigeria Broadcasting Code, being a subsidiary legislation that empowers an administrative body such as the NBC, to enforce its provisions cannot confer judicial powers on the Commission to impose criminal sanctions or penalties such as fines;
• A declaration that the NBC, not being the Nigerian Police or a law enforcement agency, has no power to conduct a criminal investigation or an investigation that could lead to the imposition of criminal sanctions and accordingly, that the investigation purportedly conducted by the Commission leading to the sanctioning of the three broadcast stations for alleged offences under the Nigeria Broadcasting Code is ultra vires, null and void;
• A declaration that the fines purportedly imposed by the NBC on each of the stations as punishment or sanctions for the alleged commission of various offences by each of the stations is unconstitutional, ultra vires, null and void;
• An order setting aside the fines purportedly imposed by the NBC on the three stations as well as an order of perpetual injunction restraining the Commission, its servants, agents, privies, representatives or anyone acting for or on its behalf, from imposing fines on any of the stations or any other broadcast station in Nigeria for any alleged offence committed under the Nigerian Broadcasting Code.
Saying that it has observer status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, MRA described itself as a human rights non-governmental organization registered under Nigerian Laws with a mandate to promote and defend human rights, including promoting and defending the right to freedom of expression, media freedom, access to information, digital rights and Internet freedom, among others.
It explained that the suit is a public interest litigation in the field of human rights and is aimed at upholding the rule of law, and advancing the fundamental rights to freedom of expression through the promotion and defence of media freedom.
According to MRA, Paragraph 3(e)(iv) of the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedure Rules, 2009 empowers it to institute and maintain a human rights application in the public interest while under Paragraph 3(e) of the same Rules, it is also authorized to institute a human rights application on behalf of any potential applicant.
It noted that the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedure Rules define “public interest” to include “the interest of Nigerian society or any segment of it in promoting human rights and advancing human rights law”.
MRA argued that by virtue of section 46 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, any person who alleges that any of the fundamental rights provisions in Chapter Four of the Constitution has been, is being or likely to be contravened may apply to a High Court for redress.
It contended that the arbitrary act of the NBC in sanctioning and imposing fines on each three stations in violation of the rules of natural justice and the fundamental right to fair hearing for the alleged breach its code in the first quarter of 2020 created a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression and media freedom, which undermines the ability of the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people, as the Constitution requires of the media.
Besides, it said, the manner and procedure through which each on three stations which allegedly breached the Nigerian Broadcasting code were sanctioned with the imposition of fines on them by the NBC contravened the principle of fair hearing.
MRA stressed that the procedure adopted by the NBC in sanctioning the three stations is contrary to law and not justified under the Constitution and the African Charter.
It explained that it brought the suit to enforce the fundamental rights to fair hearing under Section 36 of the Constitution and Article 7 of the African Charter.
No date has been fixed for the hearing of the suit.