Though the history of the Nigerian press dates back to 1859 with the appearance of Iwe Iroyin in the South West, it was the rise of newspapers like the popular West African Pilot that set the goal for Nigeria’s independence.
Newspapers established at the time pioneered general protests against British colonial rule, as the press encouraged a sense of nationalist awareness and agitations that eventually led to Nigeria’s independence in 1960.
After the country became an independent sovereign nation, and authorities adopted a high-handedness, the press went on to criticise them.
It’s why less than three years after independence, the government began to roll out laws that sought to ensure that the press was not free from its shackles of control. In 1962, for example, it introduced the Official Secrets Act of 1962, and two years later, the Newspaper Act of 1964 was enacted to shield government activities from the media and punish journalists and newspapers who exposed the irregularities of government officials.
The military era, unsurprisingly, came with more serious attempts to stifle the press.
The introduction of the Emergency Decree of 1966 which empowered the Inspector General of Police and other officers of the same rank to search any newspaper office without warrant or notice led to the illegal raid of the Daily Times office (Weekend Times) in 1968.
Before the attack on Daily Times, another Decree titled the Newspaper Prohibition of Circulation Decree of 1967 had empowered the Head of the Federal Military Government to restrict the circulation of any newspaper in Nigeria where he was satisfied that it was detrimental to the interest of the federation or any state. The law also said the refusal of journalists to comply attracted six months imprisonment.
In 1984, the military government relied on Decree 4 to shut down media houses it deemed antagonistic. It also frowned at the circulation of any newspaper that may be detrimental to the interest of the federation and empowered the Federal Military Government to revoke the license of media houses found guilty.
The Guardian Newspaper was caught in the trap and two of its journalists at the time, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson were jailed.
The military government would later establish Nigeria’s State Security Service (SSS), which ruthlessly dealt with the press. Aside from the proscription of Newswatch magazine, one of the country’s hard news magazines opposing military leaders, journalists working with the newspaper faced repeated harassment by state security agents.
Some media practitioners arrested by the SSS before the country’s return to democratic rule include Adetokunbo Fakeye, Jenkins Alumona, Onome Osifo-Whiskey, Babafemi Ojudu, Rafiu Salau, Olatunji Dare, and Moshood Fayemiwo.
Also, Dele Giwa, one of Nigeria’s foremost investigative journalists was assassinated through a parcel bomb way back on Oct. 19, 1986. While the military government was accused of having knowledge of his death, no one has been arrested or prosecuted in connection with the killing. In fact, there has been a long history of unresolved killings of journalists in Nigeria since then.
Upon the return of democracy in 1999, online journalism became popular, with the Constitution reaffirming that the press shall hold authorities accountable at all times.
However, as online media outlets grow, attacks on the press continue to increase day by day, making Nigeria one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists. In fact, the government has in the last few years tried to acquire surveillance gadgets for security personnel to spy on journalists.
In 2015, the Federal Government also introduced a controversial Cybercrime Act which has many provisions that violate the constitutional provision of the right to freedom of expression. Popular journalists who have been illegally detained by the law include Luka Binniyat, Jones Abiri, and Agba Jalingo.
Aside from controversial laws and security agents gagging the press, accountability journalism also suffers from cyber-attacks.
For example, HumAngle suffered a massive attack hours after it published a report that showed that forensic analysis of videos showing the killing of protesters at the Lekki toll-gate area by soldiers on Oct. 20, 2020, were authentic.
Before our report, the Nigerian Army and Defence Headquarters had said reports and videos from the scene of the incident were ‘doctored’. HumAngle’s IT lead, Muhammad Jibrin said the website encountered unexpected traffic jams clogging up the highway, and preventing regular traffic from arriving at its destination.
In Jan. 2021, Peoples Gazette also raised an alarm that the majority of its web readers were denied access to its content as a result of a disruption influenced by the government.
Despite all of these, many newsrooms have continued to hold authorities accountable without losing their grounds as vanguards of independent Nigeria.
Media expert, activist express concern
Speaking with HumAngle, Busola Ajibola, Deputy Director of Journalism Programme at the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID), said the role of the media in a democracy, and even in non-democratic settings is crucial.
“Journalists do not only serve as watchdogs for accountability but also gather and disseminate news and information, enabling citizens to make well-informed decisions across social, economic, and political domains. However, the accountability function that journalists perform exposes them to targeted violence.
“This situation is exacerbated in countries like Nigeria, where other accountability institutions, such as anti-corruption agencies and the police force, are weakened. In these cases, officials within these institutions may prioritise the interests of powerful individuals and government officials above the interests of the people. It is such a distressing irony, as these institutions collaborate with individuals or governments who have been implicated in investigative reports in harassing and intimidating journalists and newsrooms.”
Ajibola argued that the troubling trend underscores the challenges journalists face when carrying out their essential role in maintaining transparency and accountability within a democracy.
Asked how journalists and newsrooms can achieve their independence in a country with controversial laws like Nigeria, the media expert noted that media practitioners must be ready to collaborate and syndicate compelling investigations in a bid to reduce the likelihood of individual attacks even as they continue to abide by the principle of truthfulness and verification.
“We must also familiarise ourselves with laws that can be used as traps to harass journalists and equip ourselves with knowledge of how best to navigate such laws.”
Corroborating this, Ayo Ademiluyi, a lawyer and human rights activist, said journalists must be properly trained on professionalism so that they won’t be accused of being unethical by those they try to hold accountable.
“It took a lot of struggle and effort by the press to get independence, hence, the government must create an enabling environment for a free and independent press. The press has the social responsibility to unearth the illegalities of those in power.”
Role of media owners
Ajibola further explained that media owners have a significant role to play in achieving free and independent press.
“Firstly, they should establish a robust gatekeeping process that prioritises fact verification for all reported information. Secondly, media owners can collaborate with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to advocate for the enactment of laws that specifically address journalists’ safety and security, particularly in cases where their rights are violated.
“Presently, the constitution, in Section 22, places an accountability obligation on journalists. Introducing a corresponding law that outlines mechanisms for their safety and protection would be a valuable addition,” she explained.
Evelyn Okakwu, a Nigerian Journalist with considerable knowledge of the media and press freedom also told HumAngle that media owners must ensure that local and international laws that enable press freedom are well implemented.
“A lot of laws criminalise the press in Nigeria so there’s an obvious inclination that the environment is hostile to press freedom. Newsrooms must understand all sections of the laws that may be used to gag their journalists, hence, information must be verified so that reporters do not fall prey because their newsrooms publish unverified information.
“I have seen media organisations where publishers take it upon themselves to get lawyers and make needed awareness. However, I have also seen cases where newsrooms disown journalists when they are facing challenges. This should not be the case.”
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