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The story of digitization of broadcasting from analogue system of transmission is a sharp reminder that the crop of people who keep gaining access to hold top level government offices have substantially not changed from the mindset of selfishness to that of statesmanship.

The twists and turns that have characterized this seemingly unending process are better imagined than for a researcher to attempt to uncover the interwoven intricacies that have combined with other opaque circumstances to muddy up the entire exercise.

Any genuine attempt at asking probing questions on probity, accountability and transparency is rebuffed by the persons running the information related broadcast regulatory agency. Government officials who should be above board are the same persons treating the Freedom of Information Act with arrogance and disdain. Because they control resources, they are willing to dip their hands into public treasury to hire lawyers to challenge any legal demand for the production of information from their desk especially as it pertains to their expenditures.

As much as they try to shroud the entire exercise with secrecy, the digitization of broadcasting has failed on many occasions to become a reality even as the question of why a lump sum of N2.5 billion of public fund that was paid to a privately licenced signal operator in the Digital signal operation’s sub-sector has yet to be answered with satisfaction.

Put in a lay man’s language, Nigeria started the journey to achieve digital switch over of broadcasting (digital terrestrial television) from analogue in June 17, 2006 after it entered into an international agreements to complete digital migration by June 17, 2012.

But the journey that should have been seamlessly executed was aborted when officials of government due to one level of bureaucratic bottlenecks to another missed out in 2012 in the digital switchover process.

Nigeria then fixed June 2015 as the deadline but missed out too when lots of arguments emanated from centrifugal and centripetal forces bent on either maximizing personal profits or headed for the destabilization of entire exercise.

The second deadline was aborted and another June 17, 2017 deadline was chosen and of course the nation has yet to actually attain seamless digitization of broadcasting.

Typical of Nigerian government officials and their opaque system of running their offices, the agency of government charged with this mandate which is the National Broadcasting Commission has been consistently inconsistent with transparent information on what this process which even Rwanda has since attained cannot be done in Nigeria.

What has however dominated public interfaces by the regulator, who spends more public money in meaningless talkshops and fruitless foreign trips, has always been some kind of tepid explanation of why it is unable to midwife an efficient switchover process.

Is Nigeria so bewitched by corruption that it can’t implement a seamless switchover of digital broadcasting from this primitive analogue system?

In 2015, the broadcast regulator in Nigeria known as National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) apologized to Nigerians for its inability to switchover from analogue to Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) on the June 17, 2015 international deadline.

This tepid apology was contained in a statement signed by Alhaji Awwalu Salihu, commission’s director, Public Affairs, in Abuja. It can still be found in the agency’s website even today.

As captured in that statement, the regulator reminds us that the aborted June 17 2015 deadline was an international deadline set for switching over to digital terrestrial television.

The statement however assured Nigerians that disappointing as it might be, it was not without a fairly good shot at success.

According to the commission, it has been working actively since 2006 to put all the building blocks of the transition in place.

“The journey would have been completed if funding had been available. “It is important however to state that the journey toward Digital Terrestrial Television has already started.

“At the moment, Nigeria has reached about 20 per cent penetration of the 26 million TV Households (TVHH) in the country,” it said.

The statement said that the commission had worked with DigiTeam Nigeria, to harmonize the minimum standards for Set-top-boxes and the transmission standards for all member states of the ECOWAS.

“It is noteworthy that the main penalty that Nigeria will face consequently is that analogue signals will receive no protection in the event of interference from digital signals from our neighbours.

” We have also completed the frequency re-planning, successfully done the coordination with our neighbours and have selected a second signal distributor,” the statement said.

It further said that it had licensed a free view signals aggregator and had also selected 11 successful companies to manufacture set-top boxes in Nigeria. “The commission had also put in place an EPG/STB control system to protect the investment of the local Set-top-box manufacturers.

“Our goal is to enable the evolution of a digital television ecosystem that not only transforms television and broadcasting in general.” But also able to help bridge the digital divide, create jobs and grow our national economy,” it said. The statement further assured Nigerians that it would only switch off analogue signals when majority of Nigerians could receive digital signals.

The commission promised to conclude the final stages of the switchover within 18 months as soon as funds were available.

These final stages include: the acquisition and local production of the Set-top-boxes, relocation of MMDS operators, buy-back of obsolete analogue transmitters and massive publicity.

The commission thanked stakeholders for their cooperation in the “arduous” journey, and appealed to Nigerians for their understanding. It also promised to do everything within its power to successfully take Nigerian broadcasting onto the digital ecosystem.

Three years down the line this political statement has remained only within the realm of appearance and is not yet a reality.  Digitization has remained a mirage and is becoming a cesspool of corruption or what Fela the late AfroBeats Musical icon called Government Magic.

What is however a bone of contention is the decision by government to give out N2.5 billion to the private signal operator in their digital switchover and why the National Broadcasting Commission has failed to be accountable to Nigerians to answer the simple question of why public fund was given to a private investor who in the first instance, paid licencing fees.

There are two DSO signal operators licenced by government even as one is a company created by the publicly owned Nigerian television company and the other is a private entrepreneur. The process of licencing a private operator in the DSO sub-sector was also a subject of many debates with multiple claims and counter claims of nepotism. That debate is not our focus but the payment of N2.5 billion to a private firm is the central focus.

The National Broadcasting Commission reportedly made the payment with a payment voucher dated 01/06/2017 but has so far failed to render account to Nigerians.

In our effort to seek for clarity, we sent in an FOI request to the Director General of National Broadcasting Commission but this government agency has failed to come up with a response. Instead the commission circulated a poorly scripted article to abuse this writer and to use unprintable names to describe our activities under our human rights platform which has existed for eleven years.

The freedom of information request was made to the NBC dated October 18th 2017 and we predicated this request on the extant freedom of information Act 2011 with specific reference to  section 2(1) which averred thus: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any Act, Law or Regulation, the right of any person to access or request information, whether or not contained in any written form, which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution howsoever described, is hereby established”.

As concerned civil society leaders, we have followed the trajectories of the digitization of broadcasting in Nigeria and we have meticulously observed the methodical approaches that the Nigerian State has adopted towards the realization of the digital switch over.

We are aware that twice Nigeria missed the deadline due to some teething challenges but we are also in the know that the switchover process has begun with the licencing of a private DSO and the Public owned Integrated Television service-an outfit belonging to the largest television station in Africa- Nigerian Television Authority. We are abreast with the various ramifications of the recommendations embodied in the Federal government’s White Paper on the digitization switchover programme of the Nigerian government.

Our specific area of interest is to request that your good offices furnish us with the official memorandum which okayed the alleged payment of N2.5 billion to the private digital signal operator. This information is already in the public domain but your good offices have yet to provide transparent information to the members of the Nigerian public regarding the rationale behind the payment made from the public treasury to a private firm licenced by government to engage in the commercial enterprise of Digital Signal Distribution.

We have followed the reports of alleged favoritism, nepotism and double standard which have trailed the licensing of the private digital signal operator just as we are completely unable to find any justification for the reported grant of N2.5 Billion by your good offices to a private firm.

We asked the NBC to kindly let us know under which arrangement this payment was made and when and how the recipient intends to refund this humongous amounts which by right is a property of the people of Nigeria.

We told the NBC that we have taken the pains to meticulously go through the extant government’s white paper and we have yet to locate any specific recommendation asking Nigerian government to give out public fund to a private firm for the purposes engaging in the business of digital signal operations under the digitization of broadcasting.

We know that this private firm was tasked to show evidence of her capacity to mobilize requisite logistics to commence the use of the licencing mechanism.

The information glued from the Government’s Whitepaper stated that the transition from Analogue to Digital Broadcasting in Nigeria is a part of a global initiative driven by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The Geneva 2006 Agreement had set 17th June, 2015 for UHF and 17th June, 2020 for VHF as the dates after which countries may use those frequencies currently assigned for analogue television transmission for digital services, without being required to protect the analogue services of neighboring countries against interference. These dates are generally viewed as an internationally mandated analogue switch-off dates, at least along national borders.

Consequently, in 2007, late President, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua approved the transition from Analogue to Digital Terrestrial Broadcasting in Nigeria, effective from 17th June, 2012, in line with the ITU resolution.

Also, on 13th October, 2008 the then President inaugurated the Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) on Transition from Analogue to Digital Terrestrial Broadcasting in Nigeria.

The committee had  the following Terms of Reference: Recommend a policy on digital terrestrial broadcast transition using global best practices; Recommend appropriate regulatory framework; Recommend a National Broadcasting Mode; Assess the impact of the digitization on the consumers and recommend possible government intervention; Determine the quantum of expected digital dividend; Assess environmental impact of digitization, if any, and recommend steps to be taken; Advise government on any action relevant to smooth transition in Nigeria.

The following are some of the recommendations as can be seen from the documentary evidence before the public. From RECOMMENDATION 9.0 the   Adoption of a New Policy arid Regulatory Framework in the Broadcasting Sector (2.1, p 5) was made. 9.1 Consequent upon the establishment of the PAC, the Committee elaborated a new policy and regulatory framework with far reaching consequences for the positive development of the broadcast sector in Nigeria, taking into account international best practices in general, and local conditions in particular.

In order to establish a solid foundation for the implementation of the transition programme, the Committee recommends that the Federal Government adopts the proposed framework as well as the strategy for the successful implementation of the transition, the main components of which are described below; Comment

Government accepted the recommendation for the formulation of a new policy and regulatory framework in the Broadcasting Sector.

RECOMMENDATION number 10.0. Splitting of Broadcasting Services into Broadcast Content Provision and Broadcasting Signal Distribution (2.2, pp 5-6); 10.1.

This was agreed upon so as to maximize the utilization of the broadcast infrastructure and improve on the quality of content creation, the Committee recommends that a new broadcast model, which separates the functions of the Broadcast Content Provider, and the Broadcasting Signal Distributor, be adopted.

Critically, under RECOMMENDATION number 11.2. and  for economic, commercial and security reasons, the Committee recommended that the Government should approve the establishment of a single Broadcasting Signal Distributor which will serve the function of a multiplex operator, with the proviso that the regulator at the appropriate time will evaluate the market and take a decision as to when and how other Broadcasting Signal Distributors may be licensed.

Consequently, government notes the three (3) options, accepts the recommendation to establish a single Broadcasting Signal Distributor for a transitional period of three (3) years, and: approved that more than one signal distributor be licensed in addition to the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), the public licenced signal distributor; another signal distributor should be licensed immediately while others could come on stream as market exigencies dictates.

RECOMMENDATION number 11.3. The Committee recommends that the operations of the Broadcast Signal Distributor should not have political, religious or ethnic bias and should be strictly monitored by the regulator, and that other existing technical regulations applicable to the present broadcasters as appropriate should be binding on the Broadcasting Signal Distributor.

The import of the above recommendations is that Nigerian government ought not to play the role of Father Christmas by dishing out public fund to a private entity.

As committed civil society practitioners, we are worried about the opaque nature of information dissemination from relevant government agency with specific reference to the National Broadcasting Commission which has yet to inform Nigerians on the whole truth regarding the N2.5 billion it gave to one of the signal distributors which is a private-sector owned establishment.

As a body made up of credible Nigerians who resolutely backs law based approach to anti-corruption crusade, we have chosen to approach your good offices in order to get the correct information on the logic of dishing out public fund to a private firm.

The NBC failed to respond. We however managed to verify that indeed government gave out this lump sum. The government should not brand persons demanding accountability and transparency as devil’s advocate but should tell Nigerians the truth about this public fund that was handed to a private firm.

Written by Emmanuel Onwubiko heads the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA).