Editor’s note: This article is part of the World Politics Reports (WPR) series about press freedom and safety in various countries around the world.
As Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari prepares his re-election bid for February 2019, he is positioning himself as a leader who prizes good governance, accountability and human rights. But watchdogs point out that his record on press freedom tells a different story, as journalists in Nigeria face an uptick in repression under his watch. In an interview with WPR, Angela Quintal, the Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, discusses the threatening environment for reporters in Africa’s most populous nation.
World Politics Review: How have journalists historically been treated in Nigeria, and what measures are in place to protect journalists there?
Angela Quintal: Nigerian journalists are under constant threat of arrest, assault and surveillance. That said, Nigeria’s vibrant media community includes numerous outlets that are generally free to criticize the powerful, and they have used this space to organize, defend themselves and build journalistic tools to promote the value of press freedom. This includes the formation in 2017 of The Coalition for Whistleblower Protection and Press Freedom, or CWPPF, which involves major media outlets and rights groups and functions as a unified voice to speak out against abuses of journalists. In recent months, CWPPF condemned the detention cases of journalist Jones Abiri and Samuel Ogundipe. This solidarity among media workers is significant for an industry that is constantly under attack. Ensuring one journalist’s right to report without fear of reprisal is in the collective interest of all Nigerian reporters.
Beyond CPJ’s careful monitoring of press freedom issues and ongoing advocacy efforts, the Nigerian media community has taken action to document threats against the press and promote accountability. One of these efforts is a Nigerian press attack trackerthat encourages journalists and other members of the public to report attacks against journalists, which are then mapped and added to a public database. In addition, two online platforms have been established to improve public information and protect journalistic sources: a fact-checking platform called Dubawa and leaks.ng, a secure website for whistleblowers to submit information.
WPR: What are the main mechanisms by which Nigerian authorities intimidate or coerce journalists?
Quintal: Journalists in Nigeria have faced various threats over the years, but extralegal detention and prosecution of reporters following the publication of critical articles is of particular concern. For example, Jones Abiri, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Weekly Source newspaper, was arrested in July 2016 and detained for over two years without trial, legal representation or family visitation by Nigeria’s Department of State Security, or DSS. He was only released on bail in August of this year. A court in Abuja, the capital, dismissed his case last month after a sustained advocacy campaign by the Nigerian media community as well as CPJ and other international rights groups. Just days before his arrest, Abiri had published multiple critical investigations in the Weekly Source about economic and security issues.
Journalists protest against brutality in the course of doing their job after photo journalist Benedict Uwalaka was beaten up in Lagos, Nigeria, Aug. 16, 2012 (AP photo by Sunday Alamba).
In another recent case, Samuel Ogundipe, a reporter for the Premium Times newspaper, was arrested on Aug. 14 and charged with trespassing, theft and possession of police documents. Authorities are trying to force him to reveal his source for an article about a confidential report issued to Nigeria’s vice president by the inspector general of police criticizing the former head of the DSS. The day after his arrest, Ogundipe was arraigned without legal representation—which was illegal, according to his lawyer—and then held until being released on bail two days later. His next court date has been set for Nov. 7.
Nigerian authorities have also repeatedly used the 2015 Cybercrime Act to prosecute journalists. One ongoing case is against Timothy and Daniel Elombah of the Elombah News website, who were arrested early this year. They were charged under Sections 24 and 26 of the Cybercrime Act, which criminalizes vaguely defined “offensive” messages and “insults” made using a computer. Timothy was detained for 25 days. This broad language combined with the prevalence of online journalism makes Nigeria’s Cybercrime Act a clear danger to press freedom. Notably, since 2015, at least five other Nigerian bloggers have been charged with cybercrime for criticizing politicians and businessmen. CPJ has raised concerns about these sections of the law in meetings with Nigerian officials. Efforts to reform the law, organized by Nigerian civil society groups and journalists, are ongoing.
These cases are just a sampling of frequent abuses of power by law enforcement and the persistent threat of violence against the press in Nigeria. Since 1992, CPJ has documented the killing of at least 20 journalists and media workers there.
WPR: How has the media landscape evolved in Nigeria under President Muhammadu Buhari? To what extent has he sought to further restrict press freedoms?
Quintal: Journalists in Nigeria have remained under constant threat during Buhari’s presidency. Over the past year, for example, CPJ noted persistent attacks by the DSS and police against reporters. This is not to say that press freedom issues in Nigeria are an exclusive feature of the Buhari administration. The aforementioned Cybercrime Act was signed into law at the end of the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, Buhari’s predecessor. But the frequency with which various tools of repression have been used against the press under Buhari’s watch is striking.
Buhari’s recent efforts to claim that the rule of law is subject to vaguely defined national security issues is another cause for concern. Just days before the prosecutor in Abiri’s trial claimed that his arbitrary, more than two-year detention was justified because he was a threat to national security, Buhari told the Nigerian Bar Association that the “rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest.” The government has separately waged a lengthy propaganda campaign to claim, without proof, that Abiri was a violent militant.
As part of his re-election campaign ahead of February’s presidential election, Buhari has launched an international and domestic charm offensive, positioning himself as a champion of justice and good governance. He has repeatedly touted the importance of accountability for strong democracy, primacy of the rule of law, and human rights. But Buhari’s record on press freedom betrays a disconnect between this rhetoric and the reality facing journalists in Nigeria.
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