Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria states that “the press, radio, television, and other agencies of the mass media shall, at all times, be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
As the fourth estate of the realm, the media has a responsibility to inform and educate the public on the happenings in the society. While various journalists have put their lives on the line to do this, many have suffered repeated assaults and unlawful detention.
Attacks on journalists have also become intense in the past seven years of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure. This, media experts said cannot be disconnected from heavy-handed legislation. Authorities have on different occasions tongue-lashed or ‘gagged’ journalists who attempt to hold them accountable.
In 2021 for instance, Nigeria was ranked 120 of the 180 countries where journalism is difficult to practice in the world by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
As part of efforts to suppress the press, the lawmaker representing Niger east senatorial district, Mohammed Musa, in Nov. 2019, sponsored a social media regulation bill titled ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill’. He argued that the law will protect Nigeria’s “fragile unity.”
The bill proposes a fine of N150,000 or three years’ imprisonment for any offender, and a fine of between N5 million and N10 million on any telecommunication organisation that fails to prevent the spread of ‘false information’.
A week after the social media bill was moved, the Senate introduced another bill sponsored by the deputy Chief Whip, Aliyu Abdullahi. The bill seeks to penalise persons found guilty of hate speech.
Unfortunately, these bills leave many gray areas with Nigerians asking how best to define hate speech in a country battling various forms of insecurity and ethnic crisis.
Taking security as an example, the current government is yet to tackle insurgency. These bills afford it the legitimacy to penalise platforms reporting the loopholes in the system, under the excuse of them spreading fake news.
HumAngle recalls that last year, the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) in a letter dated July 7, 2021, asked broadcasters to stop reporting details of security challenges in the country.
A copy of the letter, partly reads, “Headlines of most newspapers on a daily basis are replete with security topics. While bringing information on security to the doorsteps of Nigerians is a necessity, there is a need for caution as too many details may have an adverse implication on the efforts of our security officials who are duty-bound to deal with the insurgency.”
For platforms like HumAngle which focus on security and humanitarian issues, moves by authorities would lead to erasing the experiences of millions of victims and trivialise their sufferings for the sake of saving the government from embarrassment.
While experts agree that the media has a challenge of fake news and improper reporting, especially when it comes to conflict issues, they argue that rather than introduce new laws that appear to target the press, the already existing laws could be strengthened.
“Authorities can easily hide under these regulations if they succeed and they will define all reports they do not like as fake news. We should not trust them,” a lawyer, Rasaq Alli, told HumAngle. “I feel that rather than introducing new laws, the government should focus on implementing already existing ones and not continue to chip away at freedom of the press.”
Interestingly, media chiefs rejected the position of NBC, and Nigerian newspapers on Monday, July 13, 2021, collectively devoted their front pages to protesting the attack on press freedom and the right of the people to know, under the instructive banner – ‘Information Blackout’.
The house of representatives also moved to amend the laws establishing the Nigeria Press Council (NPC) and NBC. The arrowhead behind the bills, Olusegun Odebunmi, from Oyo State, wants the government to decide what constitutes ‘the truth’ in newspaper publication and punish those who deviate from the norm set by the Act.
He also wants the government to exert stricter control on the broadcast industry by making the President and the Information Minister the determinants of who is appointed into the board of the NBC.
The Nigerian government’s ban on Twitter in June 2021, after the social media company deleted a tweet by President Muhammed Buhari for violating its rules, also added to a worsening repression of fundamental rights in the country.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international Non-governmental Organisation (NGO) that deals with cases of human rights violations across the world, said in its latest report that the order by the NBC, that broadcasting stations in the country should stop using Twitter, was abuse of press freedom and firmed up authority’s grip on the media reportage in 2021.
As all of these irregularities thrive, the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Nigerian Guild of Editors, Radio Television Theatre, Arts Workers Union of Nigeria, Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, and the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria continue to fight press suppression.
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