BY ABAYOMI ALE
The duck test, a fairly popular abductive reasoning form, is what I have elected to start this piece with. In case, just in case, you have no familiarity with the duck test, this is what it says in its most elementary form: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”
The test implies that one can identify a subject by observing its/his or her habitual characteristics and actions. With the duck test, I am scrutinizing the role of the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed who, in February, announced himself the chairman of the Ministerial Task Force on the Federal Government’s Digital Switchover (DSO) programme. Since then, and, of course, before, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which should drive the DSO programme, has become an extra in its own movie.
Prior to the re-start of the DSO, industry observers had considered the commission as one with its head in the armpit of the Minister, who also sidetracked its Board. A major voice against the grip on what should be an autonomous agency was that of Tonnie Iredia, a former Director-General of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), currently a professor of broadcast management and media law. Last year, while reacting to the controversial 6th edition of the National Broadcasting Code, Iredia accused the Minister of robbing the NBC of autonomy and deploying it for a political end.
“Everybody expects a broadcasting commission to be an autonomous body that has no place in politics. If you listen to the news, who has been speaking? The minister of Information! Is he the Director-General of NBC? When the minister is speaking, there is no way broadcasters can see that the regulator is speaking. He is not a regulator. He should leave the broadcasters in NBC to do their professional duty. The law gives him the right to supervise, but not to take over the job. The moment the minister is speaking, no matter how well-intentioned he may be, the people become suspicious because he belongs to a political divide,” the media reported Iredia as saying.
The grip on the NBC has not loosened, with the Minister looking every inch an alpha dog and the NBC supine and acquiescent. Mohammed was recently in Lagos for the DSO rollout in the state, which he had earlier announced as the start of the second phase of the DSO programme, one that has floundered badly, taking in two missed deadlines and a shuddering halt in 2018.
A bold hint of the tightening grip could be gleaned from the recent directive by the NBC to DTT operators to migrate to the Free TV platform, the commission’s adopted DSO vehicle. To me, the directive carries the whiff of a wider plan to use the DSO programme as a tool to appropriate the Nigerian broadcasting space for political purposes ahead of the next general elections.
The media reported that the directive to the DTT operators was contained in a letter signed by Armstrong Idachaba, acting Director-General of NBC. The NBC, in the letter, said Section 10 of 2014 Federal Government DSO Whitepaper stipulates the division of broadcasting activities into content distribution and signal distribution, thereby abolishing self-carriage.
The directive, as I see it, is the voice of Jacob and the hand of Esau, especially given the indecent rush to amend the National Broadcasting Code Amendment without industry-wide consultation. That rush, all through last year, drew criticisms from the industry and even the NBC Board, which was sufficiently irked to disown the document. Another major voice of disagreement was that of Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, who described the code as “strangulatory” rather than regulatory.
The recent directive to StarTimes and GOtv to hand over their digital infrastructure to the fledgeling Free TV platform which, as I write, has limited coverage in only six states, indicates an intent to place the regulator in a chokehold for the Minister’s personal and political objectives.
How else can one see it, given that a failed pay television entrepreneur, who has emerged as the Minister’s unofficial adviser and a close ally of a notable Southwest chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), has been handed an octopoidal role in the DSO programme.
The unofficial adviser is the CEO of Free TV, NBC’s vehicle for delivering DSO; the firm providing conditional access and TV systems as well as one providing the video-on-demand service on the DSO platform.
What these roles guarantee is a near-total hold on the DSO programme which, with conditional access, is a pay television service in disguise. It spits at the primary objective of the DSO, which is simply a conversion of analogue Free-to-Air (FTA) TV signal to digital. Two huge benefits to be reaped from emasculating the regulator are (a) establishment of pay television service with government funding and (b) massive media muscle to shape conversations when the jostling begins.
The regulator has been reduced to a spectator.