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ECOWAS Court: NBC Code Violates Freedom of Expression in Landmark Ruling

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court, based in Abuja, has declared that the Nigerian Broadcasting Code used by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to enforce sanctions and fines on broadcast stations infringes upon freedom of expression.

The ECOWAS court made this ruling on October 23 in response to a lawsuit filed by the non-governmental organization Expression Now Human Rights Initiative against the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The court stated that the Nigerian government has failed in its duty to align its domestic legislation with its international obligations.

The plaintiff challenged the use of the NBC Code by the Nigerian government to impose arbitrary sanctions, including fines, on broadcast stations.

Presided over by Justice Dupe Atoki, the court observed that when enacting laws, “member states must consider its alignment with international guarantees and obligations, such as those under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.”

The plaintiff, represented by Solomon Okedara & Co, specifically challenged Articles 3 (1) (1), 3(1) (2), 15(2) (1) of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code (6th Edition), and Article 15 (5) (1) of the Amendments to the Nigeria Broadcasting Code (6th Edition), arguing that they violate the principle of freedom of expression.

In its ruling, the court noted that Article 3(1) (1) of the Code is overly broad and, therefore, contravenes Article 9(1) and (2) of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. The court also found that the provisions of Article 3(1) (2) of the Code are too ambiguous and vague, potentially leading to restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.

Furthermore, the court ordered the Nigerian government to align Articles 3 (1) (1), 3(1) (2), 15(2) (1) of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code (6th Edition), and Article 15 (5) (1) of the Amendments to the Nigeria Broadcasting Code (6th Edition) with its obligations under Article 1 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. It also instructed the government to cease enforcing these provisions until they are properly aligned as ordered.

In May 2023, the Nigerian Guild of Editors praised the Federal High Court in Abuja for issuing a permanent injunction preventing the National Broadcasting Commission from imposing fines on broadcast stations in the country.

The court, in a ruling by Justice James Omotosho, stated that the NBC, not being a court of law, does not have the authority to impose sanctions as punishment on broadcast stations.

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