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Nigeria: Stop government attacks on free speech

Wednesday 11 August 2021 - 2:51pm


A peaceful protest in Nigeria, 2020. (CC: Oludeleadewalephotography)

PEN International and PEN Nigeria condemn the ongoing systematic attacks on free speech by the Nigerian federal authorities. While lauding the recent suspension of problematic proposed amendments to media laws after sustained pressure by local and international media and freedom of expression organisations, we call on the authorities to immediately and permanently withdraw the proposed legislation and stop any further actions aimed at stifling media freedom. We also call on the Nigerian authorities to lift the suspension of Twitter, now in its second month.

In June, a member of parliament who is also the chairperson of the House Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values, presented two bills in the Nigerian parliament – the Nigeria Press Council (NPC) amendment bill and the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) amendment bill – both proposing several controversial amendments to the NPC and NBC) Acts. The proposed amendments seek to give inordinate powers to the president and the minister of information in the appointment of members of the Nigeria Press Council, who among other roles will be responsible for developing a ‘code of conduct’ for media outlets and journalists. The amendments also introduce punitive measures against media houses and journalists, including hefty fines or imprisonment for up to three years for alleged violations of the proposed code of conduct without judicial arbitration. On their part, amendments to the National Broadcasting Commission Act seek to grant the body sweeping regulatory authority over all online media in the same way as broadcast media. Following sustained public pressure by local and international human rights and media organizations, Nigerian lawmakers suspended the controversial amendments on 13 July, ostensibly to allow for further consultations.

“These proposed amendments are emblematic of the Nigerian government’s unrelenting efforts to further erode already limited media freedoms. The plans to introduce repressive media laws should not have been attempted in the first place. It is not enough for the authorities to merely suspend the draconian legislation. The Nigerian government should urgently and permanently revoke them. Any laws aimed at unjustified control of the press and stifling free speech have no place in a democratic society,” said Romana Cacchioli, Executive Director of PEN International.

Earlier on 4 June, the Nigerian federal authorities announced an indefinite suspension of Twitter and instructed telecommunications networks to block access to the platform. This was after Twitter deleted a post by Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari on 1 June, citing violations of its content policy. Further the Minister for Justice and Attorney General ordered prosecutors to arrest and charge individuals and companies violating the ban. Although the ECOWAS Court of Justice criticized the ban, terming it an interference with the right to freedom of expression and ordered the Nigerian government to refrain from prosecuting Twitter users, neither the suspension of Twitter nor the orders of the Attorney General have been revoked yet.

On July 7 Nigeria’s broadcasting regulator, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) in a worrying case of interference with the independence of the press, wrote a letter to broadcast stations instructing them to limit reporting and commentary on the rising insecurity in the country, including that media houses withhold details of incidents and victims. This action point at a broader media censorship drive aimed at suppressing news coverage and analyses, particularly those critical of the government’s handling of the deteriorating security situation in the country. With the enormous powers already vested in the broadcasting regulator, these instructions to media stations send a chilling effect that may aggravate self-censorship by media outlets for fear of losing government issued licences.

These latest actions by the Nigerian government demonstrate an enduring pattern of intolerance to critical and dissenting voices. Last year, the authorities unsuccessfully tried to introduce an anti-Social Media Bill purportedly to curb fake news at the height of the #EndSARS protests whose massive local and global support was enabled by social media. The bill was withdrawn after widespread public condemnation and opposition from journalists and civil society groups.

Nigerian authorities also arbitrarily blocked websites associated with the #EndSARS protest movement and in October 2020, the central bank suspended bank accounts of individuals and groups singled out as supporters of the protests, ostensibly on suspicion of financing terrorism. Those targeted had been raising funds to help families of those killed during the protests, legal fees for those arrested, medical costs for those injured and grants to journalists to enable them to cover military and police abuses during the protests.

PEN International and PEN Nigeria call on the Nigerian government to immediately stop misuse of administrative authority and legislative processes to curtail free speech. Ongoing threats against media independence and clamping down on digital rights are counter to Nigeria’s constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations, which include the duty to respect, protect and fulfil the right to freedom of expression. We reiterate our call on the authorities to immediately and permanently withdraw the proposed repressive legislation and stop any further actions aimed at stifling media freedom.

PEN International and PEN Nigeria also call on the Nigerian authorities to lift the suspension of Twitter, now in its second month. We urge the Nigerian government to uphold the Windhoek + 30 Declaration which calls on governments to “commit to creating a positive environment for freedom of expression and access to information, online and offline.”

Background

Although the constitution of Nigeria guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, human rights activists, journalists, bloggers, critical media outlets and other dissenting voices continue to be targeted by state authorities for repression. The 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Nigeria at 120 out of 180 countries surveyed worldwide. This is a stark indication that there is minimal press freedom in the country. Journalists and human rights activists are constantly monitored online, attacked in the course of their work, and even killed by the police. The government especially restricts press freedom by enforcing the Cybercrime Act of 2015 and the Terrorism Prevention Act of 2013. These laws give public officials and security agents sweeping powers to target those critical of government policy or the conduct of public official. Radio stations, newspapers and journalists reporting on politically sensitive topics have been targeted using these laws.

Nigeria is a state party to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) and a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which adopted the same charter to govern its Abuja based ECOWAS Court of Justice. Through these memberships, Nigerian authorities have made a global commitment to uphold the state’s human rights obligations, including protection of the right to freedom of expression. However, the Nigerian government has persistently failed to guarantee these rights and instead pursued a trajectory of threatening press freedom and attacking dissenting voices. The persistence of repressive government action towards independent media, journalists that report on government malpractices and other critical voices greatly undermines the state of freedom of expression in Nigeria.

For further information, please contact Nduko o’Matigere, Africa Regional Coordinator at PEN International, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK – e-mail nduko.omatigere@pen-international.org