The Reality of Press Freedom in Nigeria What Are Journalists Saying?

The distinction in press freedoms during the military-era versus in our current democratic leadership is hazy—particularly since around the world, the press is facing new challenges such as navigating digital surveillance, hacking, online harassment and internet shutdowns.

‘Press freedom in Nigeria is threatened and constantly under attack.’

— Osai Ojigho, director, Amnesty International Nigeria

On 20 October 2021, several Nigerians held a procession at the Lekki tollgate in Victoria Island, Lagos, to memorialize the one-year anniversary of the Lekki toll shooting. For many both in Nigeria and abroad, it was a day of remembrance and sober reflection, and an opportunity to demand justice over the events of the previous year. In October 2020, what began with nationwide protests against police brutality culminated in Nigerian soldiers shooting unarmed protesters.

Along with several other journalists, Arise TV correspondent, Adefemi Akinsanya, was at the memorial covering the story. Now, she remembers the memorial as a day that stands out in her eight-year experience of working as a journalist.

WHEN FEAR KNOCKS ON DOORS

On the morning of 20 October 2021, Akinsanya and other members of the Arise TV crew were setting up their equipment to cover the memorial. The sparsity of people around made the crew doubt whether protesters would actually convene at the location. The Arise TV journalists had one goal for that day: to report live on television from the tollgate, showing viewers exactly what was happening at the location. But shortly after they started reporting, police officers told the crew to bring down their drone. They had planned to use the drone to provide aerial footage of the event, the team tried to explain. Explaining, however, led to an altercation with the police in which Akinsanya was manhandled, just as cars began to drive through the tollgate with protesters in the cars chanting and blasting their horns.

‘The truth itself is uncomfortable for many people, and there’s pressure on journalists not to cover it or focus on it the way they should,’ Akinsanya told The Republic, adding that despite the praise she got for her ‘thick skin, bravery and confidence,’ (clips from the altercation went viral on social media), she felt ‘so unsafe’ as a journalist, even days after the incident. For many journalists, covering the #EndSARS memorial meant taking on considerable personal risks. As some of the protesters were arrested during the procession, there were reports of ­­journalists being harassed and arrested by security operatives. Journalists like Ope Adetayo, who covered the memorial for Al Jazeera, continued to face threats even days after the event. Adetayo’s report claimed that many young Nigerians were still subjected to police brutality despite the 2020 #EndSARS protests, and that the protesters’ demands for reforms had not been met.

After publishing the story, Adetayo received his first ‘hate mail’, from an unknown sender, who copied several editors of Al Jazeera and warned him against painting his country (Nigeria) in a bad light. The email told Adetayo to ‘stop exposing, exploiting, and stigmatising’ his fellow Nigerians. Adetayo told us that although he ignored the email, he was scared and spent time after, ‘constantly looking over his shoulders.’

Adefemi Akinsanya in a white shirt standing alongside members of the Arise TV during the altercation at #EndSARS Memorial. 20 October 2021. © TODAH OPEYEMI.

THE PRICE OF REPORTING

Adetayo’s fears reflect the broader culture of bullying, harassment and fatal threats that journalists in Nigeria have to navigate. A culture that has driven journalists such as Jaafar Jaafar and Ohimai Amaize into hiding or out of the country. The #EndSARS protests and the tollgate shootings (or ‘Lekki massacre’ as many refer to it) are now etched in Nigerian history. #EndSARS received wide coverage from international news organizations such as CNN, the BBC, Al Jazeera, and Reuters, which many believe helped to amplify the message to ‘stop police brutality.’ According to Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria, when foreign media focuses on critical local issues such as #EndSARS, the stories receive global attention and prompt governmental response. ‘Increasing the visibility and acceptance of media practitioners’ work in Nigeria is also critical for stories to be heard not only locally, but globally,’ she told me. However, local news organizations particularly struggled to cover the #EndSARS protests. Many newsrooms keen to report the protests were slammed with sanctions and a slew of governmental regulations, which stopped many of them from providing what Akinsanya referred to as ‘unadulterated coverage’ of the protests.

NIGERIA’S MEDIA CRACKDOWN: A BRIEF HISTORY

While media crackdowns have become more visible in recent years, Nigeria’s history speaks to the issue’s persistence. As early as 1986, Newswatch editor-in-chief and critic of Ibrahim Babangida’s military government, Dele Giwa, was assassinated by a parcel bomb at his home in Lagos. In 1995, journalists Kunle Ajibade, Chris Anyanwu, George Mbah, Ben Charles-Obi, and Shehu Sanni were convicted for reporting on an alleged coup plot.

Over a decade later, on 24 October 2020 (just four days after the Lekki toll shooting), 20-year-old journalist, Pelumi Onifade, was shot and arrested despite wearing a professional jacket (Onifade later died in police custody). Just last year, the Nigerian Union of Journalists reported that at least 120 journalists had been detained in the country and that many others had fled abroad to avoid harassment, threats and death.

However, some in the industry believe the situation has improved over the years. Musikilu Mojeed, editor-in-chief of Premium Times and president of the International Press Institute’s Nigeria Chapter, explained that press freedoms have improved since the military era and that the situation today is ‘mixed’. According to Mojeed, the media can currently report on most issues, but ‘there are repeated attempts by the government to censor the media, hamper the media, and hamper reporting in so many ways.’

‘THE HOPE IS THAT THINGS GET FREER’

If the situation has ‘improved’ what does that really mean? Should journalists be afraid to report on issues that affect the people, especially in a democracy? Is the military era the best comparator with the situation today? According to Yemisi Adegoke, a senior reporter at the BBC, ‘as democracy matures, the hope is that things get freer.’ While many often compare the situation today with the military era, shouldn’t ‘the yardstick’ be different under a democracy?

The distinction in press freedoms during the military-era versus in our current democratic leadership is hazy—particularly since around the world, the press is facing new challenges such as navigating digital surveillance, hacking, online harassment and internet shutdowns. In countries like Sierra Leone, for example, the government is showing commitment to improving press freedom by scrapping laws that criminalized journalists and signing a global pledge on media freedom.

However, in Nigeria, regulations are proving to be a hindrance to overcoming media challenges and improving newsroom operations. And, while it is undeniable that the press is critical to safeguarding democracies and holding governments accountable, such a reality is veering towards impossible in Nigeria. Just recently, Nigeria was ranked 129 out of 180 countries in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a decline from 120 and 115 in 2021 and 2020 respectively. RSF also named Nigeria one of ‘West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult’ countries for journalists to work in. The Nigerian government, however, has publicly criticized the listing, claiming that Nigeria’s press is both empowered and free, especially under the Muhammadu Buhari administration. A claim that many journalists in Nigeria have disputed, pointing to several recent examples of the government attempting to clamp down on the media and press.

An example of such attempts was the seven-month Twitter ban which ran from June 2021 to January 2022. During the ban, the National Broadcasting Commission or ‘NBC’ also instructed radio and television news broadcasting organizations to deactivate their Twitter accounts and to refrain from using Twitter to gather or disseminate news. Many broadcasting houses and their journalists had to stop using Twitter to avoid sanctions, even if they had sizeable audiences they engaged through the platform.

Some journalists, however, continued tweeting. Sandra Ezekwesili, a journalist and radio presenter at Nigeria Info FM, was one of these journalists. She told The Republic that the NBC directive was for media organizations to stop using Twitter. As the Nigeria Communications Commission had instructed internet service providers not to grant access to Twitter, Ezekwesili downloaded a VPN (Virtual Private Network) and ‘kept using Twitter as a Nigerian citizen’. Conflicting government responses to the ban led to widespread uncertainty about the ban’s legitimacy and what counted as a violation. Ezekwesili also believed the ban had a dubious legal basis, noting that ‘any agency wanting to stop me would have had to square that with the FG’s insistence that individual usage wasn’t criminalized, and I was ready to take on that fight.’

NIGERIA’S ANTI-FREE SPEECH LEGACY

The Twitter ban also affected non-broadcast media houses but many of them are not regulated by the NBC, giving them an opportunity to use the platform through VPNs. Members of the press also reacted last year by jointly publishing front pages, with the headline, ‘Information Blackout’, protesting controversial media bills including the NBC and the Nigerian Press Council Act amendment bills. A social media bill proposed in 2019 has also received widespread criticism as providing a basis for heightened government control over social media usage. The existing cybercrime law, which states, for instance, that ‘insulting or stalking public officials online’ is a criminal offence, continues to place journalists who disseminate information on the internet on edge about what stories to tell—considering the law has been used in the past to intimidate, arrest and detain journalists of their use of social media.

During #EndSARS, NBC also issued a warning to broadcasting stations not to report cases of violence, banditry, and insurgency to their audience. According to Amnesty International Nigeria director, Ojigho, following this warning, ‘many media houses appeared to be quite cautious about what they broadcasted’.  (NBC has reportedly denied issuing this warning.)

The government has also expressed concern about ‘fake news’, the term that has come to represent disinformation, misinformation, and mal-information. While misinformation is a global issue, Adegoke explained that social media and the internet have ‘democratized information and levelled the barrier of entry’ for anyone attempting to do journalism. ‘It’s very important to have diverse voices and diverse storytellers in the industry,’ she said, acknowledging that some usage of social media has ‘led to issues regarding accuracy, truth, and ethics.’

The very real problem of fake news has been used by several governments including Nigeria’s to justify harsh media interventions. But crackdowns are nowhere near the appropriate solution to fake news. Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at SBM Intelligence, noted that the government’s drive to minimize fake news is not a reliable basis to discredit critical or ‘legitimate journalism’. ‘On multiple levels, you can see these concerted efforts by government either through regulation, political action, economic action and legislation, to constrain the ability of Nigerian journalists to do their work,’ Effiong said. ‘And primarily because of that, despite the robustness of the critical reporting that continues to be produced that Nigeria continues to do poorly in international press ranking.’

According to Effiong, the Nigerian government ‘should engage with the media to the extent where it sets really clear and sensible rules; in a sense where it can deal with and can stomach critical reporting; and the government should be able to answer legitimate questions by journalists that are made in the public interest about the issues that matter [to citizens]’.

To that last point, a persistent challenge, according to Ezekwesili, remains that ‘government officials know they can get away with avoiding the press. Refusing to answer hard questions in a press conference won’t cause a public backlash. Avoiding press conferences and media chats entirely won’t cause an uproar. Blacklisting a media outlet (or even shutting them down) for demanding answers won’t spark a protest.’

‘NIGERIA DESERVES A FREE PRESS’

The journalists I spoke to felt that openness from the government towards the media was one way the government could empower journalists to achieve a freer press. Another way, some argued, was through improved, media-friendly regulation. Effiong suggested that the government has overly focused on introducing regulatory orders without providing the press the necessary support. ‘Government can do more to enhance the work of media practitioners,’ he said, ‘and they should be in the actual business of governance.’

More specifically, Adetayo explained, the government ‘should provide security for journalists, provide security for me and my colleagues to do our jobs and ensure we are safe in the line of our work. And when we are attacked, they should ensure we get justice, and that I’m able to do my job without any fear.’

It had been 189 days since the #EndSARS memorial when Akinsanya recounted the day’s events to me. Akinsanya, who since then has been promoted to international correspondent at Arise TV and reported live from Ukrainian borders after Russia’s invasion earlier this year, said covering the #EndSARS memorial ‘put a battery’ in her back. She explained that even after clashing with the police, the incident fuelled her desire to continue working as a journalist, telling important stories. ‘Nigeria deserves a free press,’ she said, ‘it is a fundamental human right. And because journalists can cause change and hold authorities accountable, some people will be threatened. As journalists, we have to do right by the power that we have’

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