Last week Thursday, members of Association of Cable Operators of Nigeria (ACON) visited the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) Network Centre in Port Harcourt to, according to them, show appreciation to Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed.
ACON members, bearing placards with messages of appreciation to Mohammed, also delivered a letter they requested to be forwarded to the minister. An NTA news report on their visit quoted them as saying they were there to thank the Information Minister for his role in the controversial amendment of the National Broadcasting Code, which proposes the prohibition of content exclusivity and mandates rights owners, especially of live foreign sport content, to sub-license broadcasters on other platforms.
ACON members broadcast on the Multipoint Multimedia Distribution System (MMDS), a mode of broadcasting using microwave frequencies. MMDS licences were granted to various operators to offer wireless cable services in various cities in Nigeria.
Their delight with Mohammed and the controversial broadcasting code, said analysts, is based on their belief that ban on exclusivity and mandatory sub-licensing of content by rights owners will give them legal cover to continue their practice of transmitting other broadcasters’ signals to their subscribers.
Since being licensed by the NBC, ACON members have studiously refused to produce or acquire their own broadcast content for transmission to their subscribers. Instead, they have been engaging in piracy of other operators’ signals.
Back in 2007, the MMDS operators supported the defunct HiTV to successfully secure the broadcast rights to the English Premier League matches in Nigeria. The support was based on a belief that they had an agreement with HiTV to allow them rebroadcast Premier League games for a fee.
HiTV did not understand it that way. Disappointed, the MMDS operators headed to court, asking that HiTV and other satellite television operators be compelled to sub-license programmes, especially PL games to other broadcasters if they are ready to pay the fees.
In between, the MMDS operators started pirating the signals of HiTV and other operators and transmitting to their subscribers. A frustrated HiTV reported to the Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC), which raided the offices of the pirates in the South-South geo-political zone where they are most active. Early in 2009, the NCC sealed the office of the Godfrey Ohabunwa-owned CANtv. The NCC also filed criminal charges against CANtv and its staff for piracy of broadcast signals.
ACON remained undeterred, forcing Hitv to take the matter to NBC, which revoked the broadcast licence of CTL, the premier MMDS operator, in 2010. The same year, ACON dragged MultiChoice before a Federal High Court, asking it to determine the price and terms for sub-licencing certain sport rights to their members. ACON sources disclosed that the group filed the suit to prevent MultiChoice from taking any action its members for piracy of broadcast signals. The court would eventually throw out the suit for lack of diligent prosecution.
The revocation of CTL’s license, however, did not discourage the ACON members, who continued the piracy of broadcast signals. Last October, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) raided the offices of CANTV, Metro Digital TV and Communication Trends Limited (CTL), which were found to have been redistributing content exclusive to MultiChoice, StarTimes and Bein Media, the Qatar-based broadcast giants, among others, without authorisation.
According to the EFCC, they were charging subscribers between N3, 000 and N5,000 monthly for content exclusively owned by others.
In a full-page advertorial published in newspapers, ACON members claimed they had been paying licence fees as well two percent turnover to the NBC, adding that the national broadcasting code bars a single operator from having exclusive rights to major sports content.
In a letter to the EFCC by ACON’s lawyers, the group claimed the anti-graft commission had no business in the matter, as the crime alleged is not financial in nature. Abdulrasheed Bawa, the then head of EFCC’s Port Harcourt Zonal Office, said the EFCC is empowered to deal with crimes that are financial and economic in nature.
According to him, Section 40 of the EFCC Act defines “economic crime” as “non-violent criminal and illicit activity committed with the objectives of earning wealth illegally” and includes any form of fraud, narcotic drug trafficking, money laundering, embezzlement, bribery, looting and theft of intellectual property and piracy among others.
Industry sources disclosed that ACON members, beside piracy, are operating illegally because they have no subsisting licences to operate. According to an NBC source, the Federal Government repossessed the frequencies on which they legitimately transmitted at the commencement of the Digital Switchover (DSO) and as such no longer have subsisting licences.
“They have not paid licence fees or NBC’s annual operating levies for years now,” said the source.
A few weeks after the EFCC raid last year, NCC Director-General, Mr. John Asein, warned cable television operators to respect protected broadcast signals in line with the copyright law, international treaties and global best practices.
Asein issued the warning during an interactive session with ACON members, led by the group’s General-Secretary, Mr. Kalada Wilson.
“We will not tolerate broadcast piracy in whatever form. While the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) is the best interpreter of its own broadcast code, the NCC will continue to monitor the broadcast space and enforce respect for copyright in accordance with the copyright law and international treaties to which Nigeria is signatory,” Asein said.
He also told ACON members that any broadcaster found transmitting signals without rights will be apprehended and prosecuted as a broadcast pirate.
“It does not matter who the broadcaster is. We have received complaints from several right owners, including the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Star Times, MultiChoice and the Commission will henceforth take measures to ensure that broadcast rights are protected,” he warned.
The NCC D-G stated that the commission would work with the NBC to ensure the growth of local pay TV operators, but expressed a very dim view of broadcast piracy, which Section 51(1) of the Copyright Act defines as the rebroadcast commercial scale, without authorisation, of content protected by copyright.
An NBC source told this medium that many directors of the commission were uncomfortable when they got the visual of the ACON members’ visit to the NTA Network office in Port Harcourt and the repeated chanting of the minister’s name.
“It is evident that pirates now see Alhaji Lai Mohammed as their patron saint. They see the new broadcasting code as one that is made to give legality to a plainly illegal activity. Watch the video and see one of them saying the code will make people watch Premier League games for N500. How can that be reasonable? The minister is enjoying tainted applause,” said the source.
In September 2018, the NCC threatened ABG and QTV, both Kaduna-based, with suspension for unlicensed broadcasting. Augustine Amodu, NCC’s Enforcement Director in Kaduna, said the Commission received letters from Aljazeera, Bein and Canal Plus among other international broadcasters that their content was being rebroadcast illegally.
“After doing vigilant surveillance and investigation, we have found out that the original and rightful owner of the content you are transmitting is MultiChoice. But ABG has gone behind without getting due licensing from MultiChoice to continue to operate on the cable of MultiChoice. The only people with the exclusive license to broadcast English Premier League, UEFA Champions League, LaLiga among others is MultiChoice Nigeria. So, we are here to issue a very stern warning to you to desist from this illegal act or run the risk of been shut down,” wrote the NCC in its letter summoning the two operators to its headquarters.
The same year in Warri and Ughelli, Delta State, the NCC seized illegal broadcast equipment worth N36.1million in anti-piracy operations carried out between 13 and 16 March 2018. Similar operations, leading to arrests and prosecution, are routinely carried out by the NCC, using extant legislation.
An NCC source explained that the Information Minister’s support for broadcast signal pirates may undermine the Federal Government’s anti-terrorism efforts. According to him, terrorism and various strains of piracy have been found to be related. He noted that criminal groups, including terrorists, use piracy to fund their activities, as it is often under the radar of law enforcement, making it a high in pay-off and low activity for both groups.