Nigerian radio station fights suspension of popular show

Abuja, Nigeria – ‘Vision Media Services Limited’ reads the sign on a metal gate leading to a compound on a dusty road in Jabi, a district of the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

A communications mast tapers into the sky next to a golden yellow one-story building that houses a media conglomerate comprising seven radio stations and a television station.

Vision FM is the backbone of the company. Shuaibu Mungadi, its chief operating officer, runs the station along with four other veteran broadcasters who each claim to have at least 30 years of journalism experience.

But the once bustling hallways are quieter than usual. From the reception, the voices of the company’s leaders gathered in a meeting room to discuss the future of the station are heard.

They review unexpected punishments from the station’s popular Idon Mikiya or Truth to Power show.

The hour-long current affairs program airs at 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and is the station’s most popular. At least 30 million listeners tune in every week from across northern Nigeria, according to station officials.

But on January 28, that all changed. Nigeria’s media regulator, the National Broadcasting Commission, ordered Vision FM to suspend the broadcast for six months and fined the station approximately $12,500.

At a recent suspension meeting, Mungadi sat at a table flipping through documents as management discussed the way forward. Weeks of dialogue have yet to bear fruit, he told VOA.

“The constitutional role of the media is being trampled on by the government, that’s the position of things. The government is strident, the government is indifferent,” Mungadi said.

VOA’s requests for comment from the media regulator were denied.

But in its letter to the broadcaster, the regulator cited a Jan. 5 broadcast that discussed controversies over Rufai Abubakar, head of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Nigerian media and critics have questioned Abubakar’s suitability to lead the agency.

The regulator alleged Vision FM was broadcasting trade secrets and other matters regarding the national security agency, and that its comments lacked fairness and balance.

The content, including information on agency appointments, constituted “a violation of the provision of Section 39(3)(b) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which imposes restrictions on matters regarding government security services or agencies established by law,” the letter read.

But Mungadi said authorities were bending the law to stifle opinions and said the show only raised significant issues.

The Nigeria Union of Journalists, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and other rights groups criticized the suspension.

The regulator’s actions come amid an increase in media repression which critics say has worsened under President Muhammadu Buhari.

In January, NIA agents demanded that the People’s Gazette reveal the identity of a source used in the newspaper’s reporting on the agency’s director. In an unrelated incident, unidentified men beat a journalist and damaged equipment at Thunder Blowers, a news site in Zamfara state.

Media rights groups say journalists are at risk of being arbitrarily detained or charged under a 2015 cybercrime law. They note that last year the president suspended Twitter for seven months.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Nigeria is one of the most difficult places in West Africa to report, with journalists spied on, arrested, attacked or even killed. The country recorded a five-point drop on the World Press Freedom Index last year, ranking 120 out of 180 where 1 is the most free.

Authorities deny that they are suppressing freedom of the press. The media regulator previously said it was not restricting the media, but warned media to be aware of their reporting and said defaulters would be reprimanded.

Vision FM feels a loss

Back on the radio, things weren’t the same. Each week, the station loses about $25,000, usually generated from ads and sponsorships, Mungadi said.

The suspension takes its toll.

“We lost our marketing because there are so many sponsorships on this program, those sponsorships were pulled,” Mungadi said.

Without that revenue, Mungadi said, he doesn’t know how long the station will be able to meet salaries.

Listeners are also calling to ask why the show is no longer on the air.

“Once it’s five o’clock, you’ll see a lot of people calling, ‘I’m on your station now but I can’t hear Idon Mikiya, what’s going on?’ Even if the program comes back, we will lose a lot of listeners,” station manager Abdul Alugbere said.

Supporters from Nigeria’s northern states of Kano, Sokoto and Bauchi tried to protest the suspension but, Alugbere said, they were stopped by police.

The suspension shows that the authorities are not open to criticism, said SERAP director Kolawole Oluwadare.

The Nigerian non-profit association focuses on the fight against corruption and economic and social rights. When the regulator suspended Vision FM’s broadcast, SERAP issued a statement urging authorities to lift the ban.

“(The suspension) again shows the government’s intolerance for anything perceived as critical views on government action. We have also approached the station because we are prepared to address this issue in the interest of the public,” Oluwadare said.

For now, Mungadi and his team at Vision Media continue to make efforts to overturn the suspension. But he said they would never deny journalistic standards, whatever the cost.

“We are journalists, we cannot be bullied into dismissing matters of public interest. We will rather remain sanctioned than compromised,” Mungadi said.

Javier E. Swan