NFVCB’S Assault On Freedom Of Expression

Recent media reports indicate that the Nigerian government through the National Film and Video Censors Board, a national agency which vets, classifies, and approves films and videos meant for distribution and exhibition in the country, has banned the airing and distribution of the documentary, Fueling Poverty, a 30-minute film which documents the massive poverty in Nigeria and advocates against corruption and greed in the country. According to the report, NFVCB prohibited the distribution and exhibition of the documentary, saying that its contents “are highly provocative and likely to incite or encourage public disorder and undermine national security.” The prohibition letter warned the filmmaker against violating the order, saying “all relevant national security agencies are on the alert. A copy of this letter has been sent to the Director-General, Department of State Services and the Inspector-General of Police for their information”.

I have personally watched the film and it says nothing beyond the usual complaints that corruption had undermined development and held back the promises of democracy to deliver on sustained improvements to the livelihoods of Nigerians. Also, it demanded that those who have contributed to the economic adversity of Nigeria by stealing her resources be made to face the due process of law. It further requested that the recommendations of the various probe panels should not be swept under the carpet and encouraged Nigerians to stand firm in the demand for their rights. Using themes around the fuel subsidy scam and the response of Nigerians, it recorded recent history with a call for action.

This prohibition order raises a lot of issues of public interest and indeed national security. First, one would have expected to hear from the NFVCB that the filmmakers misrepresented facts or lied on any score in the presentations. Such a power to prohibit the public exposure of films, documentaries and cinema productions must be based on empirical considerations and not on the whims and caprices of a few individuals who claim or want to arrogate the powers of the God head to themselves. Come to think of it, Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution entitles every person to the freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. The first claw back clause guiding this provision is that nothing shall invalidate a law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society for the purpose of preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and independence of the courts or regulating telephony, wireless broadcasting, television or the exhibition of cinematographic films. The second claw back recognises restrictions upon persons holding office under the Government of the Federation or of a State, members of the armed forces, police and other security agencies established by law. It is my submission that none of these foregoing provisions justifies this embarrassing encroachment on the right to freedom of expression.

The only thing that comes close to a justification is the sub-part that deals with regulating telephony, wireless broadcasting, television or the exhibition of cinematographic films. However, the exercise of the powers to restrain the right to freedom of expression is not at large. It is regulated by the omnibus provision in Section 45 of the Constitution to the effect that nothing shall invalidate any law (and extended in this case to include an executive order) that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons.

The mere assertion by the NFVCB that the documentary is highly provocative and likely to incite or encourage public disorder and undermines national security is not enough to ban a film. Such a reason reminds one of the decrees and orders of discredited military juntas who held Nigeria by the jugular. That assertion needs to be proved and must not run contrary to reason. Nigerians did not resist military dictatorship only to be en-shackled by bodies like the NFVCB. The poser is; What exactly encourages public disorder or undermines national security? Is it the stealing of trillions of naira with impunity, the refusal to prosecute thieves or the reportage and comments of the stealing? By this action, the NFVCB is not only encouraging stealing of public resources but venerating impunity. The documentary, on the other hand, seeks to undermine impunity and fight corruption by educating Nigerians of the harmful effects of mind-boggling rape of the public trust. My position is based on the following premises. The first is that it is in the public interest to fight corruption and this will lead to a restoration of the public order which includes the enforcement of the laws against corruption. The second is that it is in the interest of overall national security that criminals are sent to jail and punishment follows a crime to serve as deterrence to others who intend to follow in the footsteps of the perpetrators. The third is that banning discussions around corruption by the NFVCB is like playing the role of an accessory after the fact of crime because it intends to provide criminals with a soft landing.

It is only when there is a critical mass of Nigerians sensitised to resist tyranny and oppression that the organised crime of looting the treasury will stop. And documentaries like this will go a long way in this task of sensitisation. So, those at the helm of affairs in the NFVCB misinterpret their role and duty as that of preserving the decadent status quo so that Nigerians will continue to suffer in the midst of plenty. Since they misinterpret their role as that of stopping the march of civilisation, a loud and clear message should be sent to them that they cannot be maintained and paid at the public expense while their actions seek to protect the illegality of the oppressive minority.

It is therefore my considered view that the ban on the documentary is an invidious attack of incalculable proportions on the freedom of expression guaranteed to all Nigerians by the constitution. Every Nigerian has a constitutional duty to make positive and useful contributions to the advancement and well-being of the society and there is no greater call to duty than a commitment to change the system that frees and eulogises persons who have stolen in the trillions. The producer of the film instead of being demonised by the regulator needs a national award and recognition for his patriotism and honesty of purpose. Why are all national security agencies not on the alert to prevent corruption rather than being placed on alert to stop the public display of a documentary that questions impunity? Such a decision like the one made by the NFVCB ridicules the idea of governance and opens it to contempt and odium by all right thinking persons.

This rash decision of the NFVCB needs to be contested in the courts and in the streets because power ultimately belongs to the people (men, women, young and old) in the streets. We need to affirm and assert our resistance to tyranny under any guise. The ball is back in our court to organise against bare-faced desecration of our right to freely express ourselves.

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