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Nigeria’s press is free, except when it isn’t

Nigeria prides itself as having one of the freest press systems in Africa, but one cannot tell from its low rankings in the World Press Freedom Index. In 2002, it was ranked 49 out of 139 countries. The relatively lofty ranking reflected the transition to democracy after about 16 years of military rule.

By 2005, however, Nigeria had tumbled to 123 out of 167, tied with Bahrain. It fell further down by 2010, when it was tied with Columbia at 145 out of 178 countries. By this time, the euphoria of democracy had been supplanted by the reality of turbulent—sometimes violent— politics. The ranking improved notably to 115 out of 179 in 2013 and 111 out of 180 in 2015. This probably reflected the easier-going presidency of a former biology lecturer, Goodluck Jonathan. However, by 2019—about five years into the presidency of former military ruler

Muhammadu Buhari—the ranking had fallen again to 120 out of 180 countries.

The 2019 ranking reflects a number of incidents of harassment of journalists. They range from the roughing up of reporters by security men to expulsion from coverage of the presidency, from detention of journalists to the suspension of privately held broadcast licenses. The harsher measures are typically blamed on media content that is “capable of endangering national securing” or “disturbing the peace.”

That was the case early in December 2019, when agents of the Department of State Services (DSS) swooped into an Abuja courtroom to re-arrest Omoyele Sowore, a political activist and journalist. As the publisher of Sahara Reporters, a U.S.-based online outfit that specializes in investigating malfeasance and corruption in Nigeria, Sowore has been a gadfly to the Nigerian government. But what made him of particular interest to Nigeria’s security apparatus was his attempt to stir popular revolt.

Following a general election in February 2019 that was won by incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, Sowore started a movement hashtagged RevolutionNow. “Simple elections can no longer save Nigeria or improve Nigeria’s democracy,” he said in a TV interview in July. “We deserve or must have a revolution in this country.” The movement attracted enough attention to unsettle the government. Early in August, DSS arrested Sowore and charged him with sedition. Despite two court rulings ordering his release, DSS kept him in jail. The storming of the court in early December followed another decision by a judge to free him on bail.

It was indicative of the government’s confused policy that the DSS first denied, then justified, and finally apologized for invading the court. And then, even after the apology, Sowore was kept in jail for 18 more days. Meanwhile, the president’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, declared that the Nigerian people didn’t care about the breach of a democratic norm. In an interview on a local TV program, Adesina said:

It is a country of 198 million people. When just 100,000 are making (a) noise in the social and traditional media, you would think the whole country is in an uproar. There are millions and millions of people who are not bothered.

The comment provides the context for some absurdities in the rationalization of arrests. In September 2019, for example, Chido Onumah, another political activist and author, was arrested and briefly detained for wearing a t-shirt bearing the inscription “We Are All Biafrans.” That happens to be the title of his widely noted book on Nigerian politics. The content of the book itself was not at issue. After all, the foreword was written by Atiku Abubakar, the two-term vice president and runner-up in the 2019 presidential election.

But ‘Biafra’ happens to be the name adopted by Eastern Nigeria when the region seceded in May 1967. The resulting civil war of unification lasted for about 30 months, ending in January 1970. Yet the name Biafra remains touchy for some officials. Even then, the title of the book didn’t incur the wrath of DSS. It was the same title on a T-shirt that did. “I was arrested for wearing the T-shirt because the SSS said it is capable of causing disaffection in the country,” Onumah told the press.

A similar explanation was given earlier in the year for the shutdown of an independent radio and TV operation. In June 2019, the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) suspended the licenses of Daar Communications, which owns two popular stations: African Independent Television (AIT) and Raypower FM. NBC’s major justifications were that Daar was delinquent in paying license fees and its stations broadcast “inciting content.” Some of such content he cited are statements such as: “Nigeria is cursed,” “We declare independent state of Niger Delta,” “Nigeria irritates me,” “This country is gradually Islamising.”

Kawu conceded, however, that the precipitating “offense” was a documentary on legal challenges to the presidential election of February 2019. The electoral commission had declared incumbent Buhari the winner, but the opposition party’s candidate, Atiku Abubakar, rejected the election figures as rigged. While his petition for review was pending, AIT broadcast a detailed report on the data the petitioners had marshalled as evidence.

This to the commission was partisan, and so it issued a warning to AIT. To alert the public to the regulatory pressures, Daar posted the warning letter on its website. That, Kawu said, was the last straw. So, it was not the “offending” broadcasts that caused the suspension of the licenses, nor was it the non-payment of license fees. It was that the commissioners felt affronted by the public display of its warning letter.

Raymond Dokpesi, the owner of Daar Communications, counterattacked in his own press statement. “The NBC and the government in power are not comfortable with the broadcast industry because of its courageous and dogged stance in informing Nigerians on happenings in the country,” Dokpesi told the press.

We are in a democracy and must all rise to defend Nigeria from anti-democratic forces. We invite all Nigerians and the international community to note this obvious act of brigandage against freedom of speech and association as clearly expressed in our constitution. Together, let’s Rescue Nigeria.

The Nigerian public and civil society agreed with Dokpesi. They greeted the suspension with outrage and demanded that the licenses be restored. Within three weeks, NBC bowed to the pressure and reached a court-approved agreement with Daar to restore the licenses. The quick turnaround would not have happened during Nigeria’s prolonged military dictatorship from 1984 to 1999. The regimes paid little heed to public opinion. In one case of repression, three publishing houses that accounted for up to 50 percent of the country’s newspaper and magazine circulations were simultaneously shut down for six months.

As with most other countries, Nigeria continues to grapple with the problem of mass circulation of hoaxes via social media. Nigeria just happens to be one of the countries where the dangers are tenfold, given its readily inflammable ethnic tensions. Expectedly, the government has been raging against social media hoaxes. In October 2018, the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, launched what he called the “National Campaign Against Fake News” through which he sought to stem the problem through moral suasion. However, as reported by The Punch newspaper, by October 2019, the minister had concluded that that approach had failed.

“While the national campaign has succeeded in putting the issue of fake news and hate speech on the front burner of national discourse, the menace has yet to go away,” Mohammed conceded during a meeting with on-line publishers.

Let me be clear: we didn’t think the issue will suddenly disappear, but we also didn’t think it will get worse, which is what it is now. In fact, it remains a clear and imminent danger to the polity. It is in this light that we are once again asking you to join us in pushing this campaign.

The minister’s next step was to raise the fine for broadcasting hate speech or inciting material from N500,000 (about $1,400 at the time) to N5 million. In a country where independent broadcasters struggle to pay salaries, that is a crippling penalty. Expectedly, the increase met with fierce opposition by politicians, civil society, and the press.

Yet, the minister vowed to stay the course. “[W]e will not rest until our media space has been rid of fake news and hate speech,” he said. That is, of course, a tall order, especially given the failure he admitted to. What it all means is that Nigeria’s press system, like its politics, will continue to be turbulent for quite some time.

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