Nigeria was one of the focal points for discussion when over 200 journalists across Africa gathered in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, for a conference on free speech and freedom of expression in September.
The reporters met to discuss the renewed onslaught on journalists and activists across the continent. At the end of the conference, the reporters sent a clear message to African governments to end attacks on journalists and free speech in their respective domains.
In a communique signed at the end of the International Festival of Freedom of Expression and Press (FILEP) organised by the Norbert Zongo Press Centre (CNP-NZ), the journalists also urged some governments to release of journalists who have been detained for carrying out their legitimate duties.
They also urged the government to put in place deliberate policies aimed at protecting journalists.
“We condemn the incarceration and killing of journalists in nations like Nigeria, Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Ghana and Sierra Leone, Conakry and other African nations,” part of the communique read.
“We condemn the arrest and murder of several African journalists. Governments should guarantee the safety and welfare of journalists who are the defenders of democracy.”
They equally condemned the “tightening of policies aimed at crippling press freedom and freedom of expression”. It urged the countries to expunge laws that oppose the freedom of expression.
It urged such nations to also “do more to curb terrorism and insecurity” rather than deploy state resources to oppress reporters.
The reporters had gathered in honour of Norbert Zongo, a journalist who was killed while investigating the unresolved death of David Ouédraogo.
Mr Ouédraogo was the driver of François Compaoré, the younger brother of the former leader of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré.
Despite death threats, the Zongo continued his investigation until he was murdered.
In Nigeria, it is perhaps not the best of times to be a journalist or civil rights activist going by the spate of attacks on freedom of the press and speech.
While attacks on Nigerian journalists is no longer a new phenomenon, they appear to have taken a turn for concern in recent months.
An analysis by www.pressattack.ng, published by the Coalition for Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom, shows that 352 total cases of attacks and harassments on journalists have been recorded from 1985 till date.
The year 2018 was initially recorded by the analysis to have witnessed the highest number of attacks (58). But the group’s latest release shows that 2019 has already surpassed that record with the 61 attacks so far, and is still counting.
According to the research, as at May this year, the total number of physical attacks on reporters was 189; equipment searches and seizures, 9; equipment or property damage, 17; arrests, 60; denial of access, 21; threats, 44 and ‘harassments’, 12.
Of these attacks, 322 were on media houses, while the remaining 30 were meted on individuals. Also, 95 per cent of journalists affected were males while the rest were females.
About 114 of such attacks were carried out by uniformed personnel (military, police, SSS, SARS, NSCDC, prison officials, EFCC etc).
Other aggressors were union members (3), criminals, thugs etc (56), private security outfits (18), terrorists (9), unknown (33) and others (68).
The country recently got an inglorious mention when a Nigerian journalist, Agba Jalingo, was listed among 10 “most urgent” cases of threats to press freedom around the world.
The list was released One Free Press Coalition, a coalition of about 34 media organisations “standing up for journalists under attack for pursuing the truth”, globally.
Members of this coalition include Al Jazeera, the Associated Press, The Financial Times, Deutsche Welle, Reuters, The Washington Post, and Voice of America.
Mr Jalingo, whose ordeal in the hand of the authorities has attracted local and foreign condemnation, is ninth on the list.
The publisher of CrossRiverWatch is standing trial for “treason” over a report alleging that the governor of Cross River State, Ben Ayade, diverted N500 million belonging to the state government.
Mr Jalingo was arrested on August 22 and has been remanded in the Calabar prison, after a federal high court judge denied him bail.
Mr Jalingo, whose appearance in cuffs during prosecution, sparked outrage, insists he is being hounded for carrying out his legitimate duties as a journalist.
Other reporters that have faced the rough end of the authorities in recent past include Luka Biniyat, the Vanguard newspaper Kaduna correspondent, who was accused of falsely claiming that five students of the state College of Education were killed by Fulani herdsmen.
There was also Midat Joseph who was reportedly detained over a WhatsApp comment.
Dipo Awojobi of entertainment tabloid First Weekly Magazine was arrested on Friday over an alleged defamatory article about a Nigerian politician.
Also, a photojournalist with the Vanguard Newspapers, attached to the Aso Rock Villa, Abayomi Adeshida, was on Thursday morning reportedly manhandled by security details of Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo.
The Coalition for Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom in November condemned “the growing attacks on Nigerian journalists and the alarming trend of media censorship by state authorities’’.
Members of the coalition include African Centre for Media & Information Literacy, Civic Media Lab, Civil, Society Network Against Corruption (CSNAC), Daily Trust Newspaper, International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), International Press Centre (IPC), HEDA Resource Centre and Media Rights Agenda (MRA).
Others are Nigeria Union of Journalist (NUJ), OrderPaper, Paradigm Initiative (P.I), Premium Times (PT), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), Sahara Reporters (SR), Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), The Cable and Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ).
The coalition observed that ‘’public officers and influential individuals are increasingly becoming intolerant of critical reporting and fair comments by journalists.’’
It said such officers now resort to the use of instruments of state criminal justice system to suppress freedom of expression and free press.
“From January 2019 till date, we have recorded 61 attacks on the media, including arrests, intimidation, detention and killings. We, as a coalition, totally condemn this abuse of power by state actors and security agencies,” the coalition noted.
It also flayed the judiciary for standing idle while the executive trampled on free speech and the media.
“Some sections of the Judiciary, as a consequence of its lack of independence, have become willing tools in the hands of state and federal governments by granting judicial approvals that stifle free speech,” the coalition added.
It listed some journalists, who are presently being prosecuted by the state as Jones Abiri, Mr Jalingo and Nasir Ahmad.
Efforts to get presidential spokespersons, Garba Shehu and Femi Adesina, to comment on the report were unsuccessful. The two officials did not respond to text messages requesting comments.
Also, Mr Shehu did not pick his call on Friday, 4 p.m., while Mr Adesina’s line did not connect after numerous attempts.
A senator, Mohammed Sani Musa, on Tuesday, introduced a bill he said ‘’will help regulate posts on social media as well as curb fake news on the internet’’.
Some analysts already see the move as a further attempt to curb free speech.
The bill, ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019’ comes years after a similar social media bill introduced in the eighth Senate, sparked outrage across the country.
The former bill titled “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith”, sponsored by Bala Ibn Na’Allah sought to compel critics to accompany their petitions with sworn court affidavit, or face six months imprisonment upon conviction.
The bill had scaled through second reading when President Buhari distanced himself from the bill.
The president had said then he will not assent to any anti-social media bill as he “is committed to free speech”.
If the bill had passed into law, people found guilty of making false remarks on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other similar media, would have faced a two-year jail term or N2 million fine.
The parliament was forced to withdraw the bill.
It is not yet certain the fate of the current bill, although it has started generating opposition.
For human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, there is cause for concern as the media is under threat.
Mr Falana said the attack on free press in the country ‘’is over a third term agenda being nursed by the FederalGovernment’’.
Mr Falana spoke in Lagos on Thursday at the public presentation of a book, Testimony to Courage, essays in honour of Premium Times publisher, Dapo Olorunyomi.
“The media must not be silenced. You may have a third term campaign soon. Very soon, they will destroy all possible opponents. And by the time they bring in the third term agenda, the media would have been gone. But we are not going to allow it. No dictatorship can defeat the Nigerian people,” he said.
Ruth Tene Natsa, Editorial Director, Leadership Newspaper, (MDAs Monthly) said the press has not fared well under the current administration.
‘’Unfortunately, the press cannot be said to have fared well, considering recent attacks by various authorities on the media both locally and internationally,’’ she said. ‘’In recent times we have recorded the killing of Washington Post, Jamal Kashioggie which remains unsolved. In Nigeria, here we have witnessed journalists harassed for daring to speak the truth such as was the case of Fisayo Soyombo who exposed the rot in the nation’s criminal systems.’’
She said even ‘’Jalingo Agba who dared to speak against the corruption in Cross River was led in chains like a criminal to court’’.
‘’The case of Stephen Kefas who was in prison for 139 days and Luka Biniyat who were locked up by Kaduna State Governor are not issues we can easily forget. These are among a few of the harassments journalists face,’’ she adds.
However, Sumner Sambo, political editor, News Central Television, said ‘’press freedom in Nigeria is relatively guaranteed though some journalists have got into trouble with some public office holders and politicians of recent’’.
‘’The contentious issue for me, however, is whether journalists are also obeying their professional ethics by not demeaning themselves into allowing social media gossips or news enthusiasts known as bloggers to provide direction for their daily reportage and duties,’’ he adds.
He said while the cases of Agba Jalingo and Jones Abiri “are a clear betrayal of trust by the political leaders that kept them in detention using legal tactics to prevent their obtaining bail, nonetheless, journalists must also work within the confines of the laws of Nigeria as they are no special citizens.’’
He said reporters should not give the authorities leeway to attack them.
“The easiest way to be locked up now by those in government or powerful people in society is through the publication of unverified information or fake news, but any Nigerian journalist who balances his or her story with facts and sources has nothing to fear, even if detained or their stories are declared as “fake news” as part of a witch hunt,’’ Mr Sambo said.
‘’Although there is a temptation to think that the press is worse off now than it has ever been since the restoration of civilian rule in Nigeria, the facts show that it isn’t that simple,’’ Farooq Kperogi, Associate Professor of Journalism and Emerging Media at Kennesaw State University tells PREMIUM TIMES.
He says the news media is muzzled and freedom of speech is under sustained assault in the current Buhari regime, ‘’but civilian administrations that preceded his aren’t qualitatively better, either.’’
‘’Human beings have a predilection to live in the moment, to be chrono-centric, and to wipe out unpleasant memories that recede further into the past, but those of us who chronicle fleeting moments for a living can’t afford the luxury of historical amnesia,’’ Mr Kperogi said.
‘’As I look over my past articles, I realise that I railed against the strangulation of the media and of free speech in Obasanjo, Yar’adua, and Jonathan’s administrations with the same vigour and disgust as I do now. Just like during Buhari’s current fascistic regime, Jonathan’s administration sent soldiers to invade a newspaper house. It also once instructed soldiers to seize vans distributing newspapers.
‘’In fact, the so-called cybercrime law being used now to clamp down on social media activists was enacted during Jonathan’s administration. The truth is that when it comes to free speech and toleration of dissent, no past or present civilian regime in Nigeria is better or worse than the other,’’ the professor added.
A security analyst, Demola Bakare weighs in.
He said ‘’the practice of journalism in this dispensation seems to be expanding on the surface but not in rigour and depth.’’
He alluded to the need for responsible journalism.
‘’Most journalists nowadays just want press freedom without press responsibility,’’ he said. Of a truth, we have quite a lot of the moments of (press) vigilance and progressive (action).
‘’The press should objectively facilitate the work of government, setting agenda and contributing positively to good governance. Development minded press is needed,’’ he added.
He also warned against fake news, hate speech and flagrant partisan disposition of some journalists/segment of the press.
‘’Press should be for engagement not antagonism or impulsive “naysaying” opposition. The moment some senior journalists are not in government or have access, they wear the robe of opposition,’’ he adds.
Also, Haruna Abdullahi, the publisher, World Entourage Magazine said press freedom has been given the desired room of liberty, ‘’especially in recent times’’.
‘’We may have had pockets of authority-media ‘squabbles’ here and there but it can’t be concluded that journalists in Nigeria face a hostile environment,’’ he said. ‘’Class of occupation may have been witnessed when security forces frown at territorial incursion by media people, and this cannot be tagged as press hostility.’’
He also said society grows when the press and associate stakeholders follow the rules of engagement ‘’by sticking to ethical provisions and the authority on its part respect the creed of governance’’.
‘’The press of recent has enjoyed significant freedom in practice and existence and this cordiality should be maintained and sustained as we all move to make Nigeria great.’’