Media control, a threat to Nigeria's democracy

Nigerian journalists at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Abuja, Nigeria, 2014. Image by Jakob Polacsek on Flickr,  Copyright World Economic Forum (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

By Yinka Olaito

The media plays a pivotal role in upholding democracy by serving as a check on state power and amplifying the voices of marginalized communities. However, in Nigeria, the government, along with numerous politicians, consistently harasses and obstructs the media's ability to fulfil its essential function. 

According to an X (formerly Twitter) post by The Cable, a Nigerian online news site, several Nigerian journalists and three media houses have faced attacks recently:

The BBC has described Nigeria's media space as the liveliest in Africa. However, this does not mean that the media is free from censorship or harassment. Journalists are often threatened, arrested, or even killed for their reporting, and media outlets are sometimes shut down. This is not surprising, given that Nigeria's ranking in the World Press Freedom Index declined from 120th out of 180 countries in 2021 to 123rd in 2023. The Nigerian government contested this ranking, but the facts remain. Nigeria's press freedom ranking has declined in recent years, and there are serious concerns about the harassment and intimidation of journalists.

For instance, in February last year, Lanre Arogundadeon, a frontline journalist was arrested by the state secret service, the Department of State Services  (DSS) while on his way back to Lagos from Banjul in The Gambia. After his release, the DSS claimed it was a case of mistaken identity but a report by Sahara Reporters suggested he had been named as one of the journalists who were antagonistic to President Muhammadu Bihari’s administration. 

Another instance of tyranny against the press was demonstrated by the former governor of Zamfara state, now the minister of defense, Bello Matawalle. He ordered the shutdown of six media outlets for their coverage of an opposition party rally which violated the government's ban on political activities, a decision apparently construed as an attempt to stifle the opposition.

In addition, approximately five media houses, including DSTV, were NGN 5 million (approx. USD 6.4 million) each by the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) for airing stories that it said “glorified the activities of bandits,” a move criticized by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). A similar fine was imposed on Channels Television for broadcasting the opinions of Yusuf Datti, the Labor Party's vice presidential candidate, regarding the 2023 Nigerian general election outcome, claiming his comments could disrupt public order. While discouraging hate speech and inflammatory remarks is essential, NBC's letter did not specifically address these concerns. Furthermore, the principle of fair hearing, which requires due process to be followed before imposing fines, was not observed.

Recently, the Nigerian Federal government dissolved the Advertising Standard Panel (APL) of Nigeria over “All Eyes on the Judiciary” advertisements shown on some billboards across the country. This incident underscores the need for vigilance on the part of the judiciary. The dissolution by the Advertising Regulatory Council of Nigeria (ARCON) board is a worrying development. It shows that the government is willing to use its power to silence those who criticize it. It also undermines the independence of the advertising industry.

The call for stricter social media regulations by Dele Alake, the current minister of solid minerals,  is also concerning. Social media is a powerful tool for communication and expression. It allows people to share their views and opinions freely. Stricter regulations could be used to silence dissent and limit free speech. The 2021 ban on Twitter by President Buhari's administration is another example of how the government can use its power to silence the media. The ban was in place for nearly seven months, and it had a chilling effect on free speech in Nigeria.

Nigerian leaders, politicians, and agency heads should heed Section 39 (1) (2) of the Nigerian constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and the establishment of media as instruments of democracy. Nigerian leaders must ensure the effective functioning of the media industry, in accordance with the principles outlined in Articles 16 and 17 of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR). These principles emphasize the need for the government and its agencies to allow media independence, maintain the integrity of media regulatory boards, and prevent political interference.

The media plays a vital role in a democracy, and it is important that it is free to do its job without fear of reprisal. The government, judicial, and regulatory agencies must all support the media and ensure that it has the freedom to report the news and hold the government accountable. The government must also refrain from harassing the media, including arresting journalists, shutting down media outlets, or threatening journalists with violence. When the government harasses the media, it is a direct threat to democracy.

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