On Monday, October 26, 2020, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) of Nigeria fined three media firms for reporting the October 20 #LekkiMasaccre using eyewitness reports. The regulator maintains that the media houses got the footages from unverified and unauthenticated social media sources.
The NBC slapped the companies — African Independent Television (AIT), Channels Television, and Arise Television — with the fines rumoured to be no less than ₦2 million($5,263.1).
The Commission also threatened the companies with harsher sanctions should they repeat their actions.
This appears to be one of the attempts to invalidate the videos that surfaced during and after the shooting at the Lekki tollgate precisely a week ago.
Asides the Nigerian Army discrediting every source reporting the incident, Arise TV’s YouTube channel was restricted for a while because it violated Google’s policies. There was also Facebook’s flagging of #LekkiMassacre content as misinformation, and the AFP’s unannounced removal of a video admitting the sad event on YouTube.
According to a report by AIT, “The National Broadcasting Commission has sanctioned Africa Independent Television, AIT, Arise TV and Channels for what it calls, a gross violation of the broadcast code, top of which is the use of unverifiable online video footages on the social media.”
The Commission also blames the media firms for the violence, looting, and destruction of property that happened in different parts of the country —stating that the violence would have been prevented if they had adhered to the statement released by the NBC on the evening of the incident.
The statement released by the NBC was an additional guide to control the general reportage of news media during the ‘challenging time’. And it contained the following clause which may have been violated:
The Broadcaster shall approach with restraint the use of materials from user-generated sources in order not to embarrass individuals, organisations, government or cause disaffection, incite to panic, or rift in the society at large.
Although the Commission’s role is to supervise the activities of media firms, this clause impedes press freedom and Nigerians’ civic responsibility according to the 1999 Constitution: “…to be entitled to freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
Unfortunately, the press and the citizens do not enjoy this freedom because the law criminalises sedition — inciting the citizens against the authority — which happens to be NBC’s basis for penalising the media firms.
However, while acknowledging the contribution of citizen sources to contemporary journalism and the importance of user-generated content (UGC) in its statement, the NBC failed to touch on the process of UGC verification.
The impact of UGC in the past
UGC is closely associated with the concept of citizen journalism. Since mainstream newsrooms are increasingly constrained by time and resources, citizens can report the news as it happens in their communities.
Following increased Internet penetration in Nigeria, people have embraced citizen journalism. And primarily, citizen reporting comes to play during a crisis. And over time, these reports have bridged the gap between mainstream media and their audience.
Four months ago, a citizen’s footage of an incident of police brutality in the US sparked the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement on a global scale. At the same time, there was nationwide agitation in Nigeria against rape, and domestic violence as many victims came forward. Meanwhile, mainstream media houses also reported these events without any backlash.
In the past year, citizen journalism has promoted transparency and accountability in the nation’s political scene. During the 2019 general elections in Nigeria, for instance, citizen-observer reportage was considered vital to provide accurate and real-time information in the election process, including exposing malpractices.
So far, there hasn’t been any reason for the regulator to question the credibility of their sources, invariably reflecting a trust in editorial discretion.
Admittedly, citizen journalism is still in its infancy in Africa, but it has achieved noticeable results notwithstanding. However, the biggest criticism against UGC is that they do not usually undergo enough editorial scrutiny.
But a number of international agencies have analysed and authenticated the footages from October 20. Thus calling into question the NBC’s misinformation claim.
Perhaps, if the NBC provided a framework that could deal with an issue like UGC sources, the recent move would not seem like an infringement on citizens’ fundamental right to information.
Asides the effect on the affected companies, sanctioning media houses for using multiple eyewitness reports could end up hurting the press freedom a democratic leadership is meant to provide.