Nigerian press freedom in grave danger
In recent months, Koo, India’s Twitter rival, has started advertising to Nigerians with the backing of a powerful brand ambassador: President Muhammadu Buhari. The approval comes more than two months after Buhari banned Nigeria’s Twitter, in response to the social media company that deleted a controversial Buhari tweet threatening violence against supporters of a secessionist movement in the Southeast.
The approval of a specific media company is just the latest development in the government’s current attempt to suppress free speech.
Censorship and freedom of expression
Future of democracy
Last month, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the Nigerian media regulator, sent a letter to Nigerian broadcasting stations asking them to downplay the worsening security situation in Nigeria, in particular threats from Boko Haram and banditry. NBC justified its position by saying that reporting these issues tends to trigger more violence. This explanation could have been justified if the government had not gradually curtailed the right to freedom of expression. For example, last October, after the #EndSARS protests against police brutality, NBC fined the media for covering the protests.
Nigeria is ranked 120 on the World Press Freedom Index, a five-spot drop from its 2020 ranking. Reporters Without Borders describes Nigeria as “one of the most West African countries. dangerous and most difficult for journalists ”, and the situation seems to be getting worse. .
Following the Twitter ban, NBC asked all social media platforms and online streaming service providers operating in Nigeria to apply for a streaming license. This was followed by a controversial amendment to the NBC law that sought to stifle media organizations. These actions sparked huge protests from all major news houses in Nigeria, with each outlet running a front page ad campaigning against abusive media regulation in the country.
In a political environment where the government has shown its propensity for dictatorial action, restrictions on freedom of expression pose significant challenges to civil society. Failure to report the news freely could lead to a situation where the government controls what is considered fact or fiction. This portends serious consequences, especially for a country facing its most significant security challenges since the 1967 civil war.
For more than a decade, the northeastern region of Nigeria has been the scene of an insurgency that has claimed the lives of over 40,000 and the displacement of over two million. The region continues to suffer from the devastating effects of this conflict, especially on women, children and other vulnerable groups. The northwest region of the country, meanwhile, faces endemic banditry: more than two thousand people have been kidnapped since January, including hundreds of schoolchildren. Ongoing reports on these conflicts provide citizens with information on their severity and impact on fellow Nigerians. With this information, people can keep the pressure on their government to better tackle insecurity. Measures to minimize reporting of conflict situations in the country silence millions of victims who otherwise have no power to be heard at the national level and trivialize their suffering for the sole purpose of saving the government from l ’embarrassment.
Censorship and freedom of expression
Future of democracy
The inability of the Buhari administration to contain the country’s insecurity is only getting worse. In the Southwest, calls for self-determination are increasing; the South-East is on the verge of an insurrection led by the partisans of a new Biafran separatist movement. The suppression of the Nigerian media appears to be a desperate attempt to keep Nigerians in the dark about how little the government has been able to keep on its promises to reduce insecurity.
If the government is successful in its latest attack on press freedom, there is no reason to believe it will stop anytime soon. Two years away from the general election, laws and regulations restricting the media could hamper coverage of election irregularities, especially if perpetrated by the ruling party. Some people have argued that the increased focus on restricting free speech is part of the ruling party’s plan to consolidate itself in power ahead of the general election.
Many government supporters have argued that inappropriate reporting of information about the conflict, both on social media or mainstream, could exacerbate deep divisions in the country, in turn leading people to enforce the laws. Although this is a potential risk, it should be clarified that the country already has laws in place to deal with this risk and to punish violators. For example, the law on cybercrime (prohibition, prevention, etc.) (2015) [PDF] deals with threats to cyberspace, including the use of the Internet and security in the prevention and fight against cybercrime. The Defamatory and Offensive Publications Act (1966) also exists to criminalize defamation. The government’s goal should be to implement these laws rather than continually undermining press freedom.
In his 2015 inaugural address, President Buhari declared that democracy is the chosen path for national development and pledged to “consciously work the democratic system”. Safeguarding freedom of expression and guaranteeing fundamental freedoms are responsibilities of democratic government. It is important that the government strive to meet these responsibilities.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel project on the future of democracy.