Press freedom within the purview of the encumbrances posed by the three laws outlined..remain problematic. The return to democracy in 1999 had promised and indeed initally changed the narrative of the press positively. However, the repression of journalists gradually spiked between 2015 and 2019, and… laws…were deployed towards the seige on the media….
For some decades before the 1914 amalgamation that led to the creation of Nigeria, the watchdog role of journalists had faced severe legal limitations. A loud voice in the then Lagos colony was John Jackson, publisher of the Lagos Weekly Record, who, some years before the merger of the Southern and Northern Protectorates, wrote articles vehemently opposing the introduction of the British land tenure system in Nigeria by the colonial government.
Working for the same newspaper, his son, Horatio, was sentenced to prison in 1925 for writing an even less provocative article. What made the difference? As at the time John wrote his critical editorials, there was no law prohibiting such in the colony, but the introduction of the Seditious Offences Ordinance of 1909, which criminalised the ‘publication of false reports or statements that exposed a government official’, changed the journalism scape in Nigeria.
That law represented the first attempt to suppress the Nigerian press formally. It laid a precedence for other colonial ordinances, decrees by military regimes and some instances of the legally-orchestrated subduement of the press. Possibly owing to certain provisions in the 1999 Constitution and activities of the civil society, attacks on the media were relatively low at the return of Nigeria to democracy in 1999, however this appears to have taken a negative turn in the past few years as an incresing number of journalists have been hounded through instruments of the law, for doing their jobs.
With this development, a research to determine the nature of the legally-orchestrated suppression of the Nigerian press became necessary. This research, using a methodology that combined qualitative content and document analysis, probed the nature and efficacy of three laws – the Cybercrimes Act, Criminal Code and Penal Code – in muzzling the Nigerian press between 2015 and 2019, representing the first tenure of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Research Data and Findings
At the initial stage, data on press attacks for the period June 2015 to May 2019, totalling 148 assaults, was collated through the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) Press Attack Tracker. Then a purposive sampling method was used to sieve out cases involving the arrest of journalists. A total of 28 arrests was tallied, out of which 13 were connected to either of the three laws. These 13 cases formed original data for the research. Having determined the cases and journalists involved, news articles were then sourced on each to further trail the sequence of events. The research threw up some interesting findings which include:
The Cybercrimes Act and the Crime of ‘Cyberstalking’
Between 2015 and 2019, nine journalists and bloggers were either arrested or arraigned under the provisions of the Cybercrimes Act. They were all charged with one ‘crime’ – ‘cyberstalking.’ Section 24 of the Act states that ‘any person who, by means of a public electronic communications network persistently sends a message or other matter that – (a) is grossly offensive… commits an offence under this Act.’
Although the Act was enacted to tackle the menace of internet crime, mostly rampant among the youth in Nigeria in 2015, it afforded the authorities and some private citizens the means to harass journalists (mostly bloggers) who use the social media as means of transmission of their messages. In a few of the cases, such as those involving Chris Nwandu and Musa Azare, both journalists were arrested for merely sharing posts deemed offensive by their accusers. See Table 2.
Criminal Code, Penal Code Reserved For ‘Bigger Crimes’
Before the enactment of the Cybercrimes Act, most journalism-related offences were tried under the Penal Code and Criminal Code in the northern and southern parts of Nigeria respectively. These laws were however later considered impotent as they have no provisions for the trial of digital and related offences. Ironically, though, the introduction of the Cybercrimes Act didn’t obviate these earlier laws, despite the huge growth of digital journalism. Both laws have become reserves for journalists who commit ‘bigger crimes’ i.e. the laws have been deployed by the authorities when journalists are considered too confrontational, critical of and threatening to the status quo. Five journalists were arraigned with charges under these laws within the focal period of 2015 to 2019.
As depicted in figures 1 and 2, one peculiarity runs through all the cases tried under both laws; the journalists involved had either directly attacked a public office holder, the government they served or their family members.
Aggressors’ Profile and Abuse of Journalists’ Rights
At the onset of this research, it was hypothesised that attacks on journalists, aided by these laws, were entirely orchestrated by government, however a review of the data involved proved this wrong. In some cases, the aggressors were private individuals or even government officials using means available to them to settle personal scores.
The research also found that in all of the cases, at least one form of the human or civil rights of the journalists was usually violated. Typical of most of these cases is the tendency of the aggrieved parties to first trample on the right to the freedom of expression of journalists. This is then followed by arrests, mostly without warrants, which go contrary to the stipulation of Nigeria’s Criminal Justice Act. Illegal detention and torture are other violations observed in these cases. Table 4 shows how these play out in each of the cases.
Docile Umpires and the Rising Fifth Estate of the Realm
Although the Nigeria Press Council is empowered by an Act as “the buffer between the media and the public”, there was no trace of its supposed role as an arbiter in all of the cases. Statutorily, the Council primarily operates on the basis of complaints received from the public. It has the responsibility to “ensure the protection of the rights and privileges of journalists in the lawful performance of their duties.” These responsibilities, backed by law, had accorded the Council with the powers to mediate in any of the 13 cases, as there were clear violations of the rights of journalists. It is yet not clear whether any of the aggressors or the concerned journalists tendered a complaint with the Council, as there is no public data to verify this.
This docile posture was also the lot of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ). While the NUJ was actively engaged in national discourse all through the period researched, it only intervened in one of the 13 cases, and when it did, it was only through a press statement. In August 2018, the Union petitioned Nigeria’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, over incessant attacks on Journalists. It demanded that the then detained Premium Times journalist, Samuel Ogundipe, be released from police custody.
While the NUJ and NPC slumbered, an association that identifies with bloggers rose to the occasion in one of the cases. In 2015, Desmond Chima spent six months in prison due to his inability to meet a bail of N3 million and providing two sureties. He wasn’t released until the intervention of the Bloggers’ Guild of Nigeria, which made sure that the charges against him were dropped. Although the association is yet to gain anything near the access and legitimacy of the NUJ, such acts as this could mean much for press freedom and the future of Nigerian journalism, especially considering the increasing number of journalists who now operate only online.
Press freedom within the purview of the encumbrances posed by the three laws outlined above remain problematic. The return to democracy in 1999 had promised and indeed initally changed the narrative of the press positively. However, the repression of journalists gradually spiked between 2015 and 2019, and the three mentioned laws – the Cybercrimes Act, Criminal Code and Penal Code – were deployed towards the seige on the media. From the initial data of 13 cases, this research explored and observed the patterns of press violations enabled by these pieces of legislation. In enforcing some of the dictates of the laws, the rights of journalists were trampled upon. Yet, the two major institutions tasked with mediating and intervening in issues pertaining to the protection of journalists and press freedom, made next to no attempt at coming to the aid of harassed journalists.
Kemi Busari is currently the editor of the sub-regional verification and fact checking platform, Dubawa.org