Press Freedoms in Tinubu's Nigeria

A quick reading of page 65 of his Renewed Hope Manifesto would reveal the solemn pledge President Bola Ahmed Tinubu made to uphold and respect the rule of law. In the buildup to the 2023 presidential election, which he later won based on results declared and later in court; the then candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) was unequivocal in declaring that a “Tinubu government will operate on the premise that the rule of law is paramount.” The President similarly stated his conviction that all citizens are equal before the law and “our administration will ensure that all Nigerians are afforded equal treatment under the law.” As it applies to journalists, the President has also been quick to advertise his readiness to protect press freedoms as guaranteed by the constitution and other extant international human rights instruments. In a December 2023 interaction with the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Tinubu was clear that his administration would always respect media freedoms and divergent views, in line with its commitment to the rule of law.

Notwithstanding these lofty declarations during his campaign for the Presidency, and after mounting the saddle of governance, the evidence would suggest that the President has failed to match action with words. The plight of journalists who have been harassed, detained or abducted for days without trial has prompted unflattering comparisons to the dark and despotic days of the Sani Abacha dictatorship when journalists had to either escape out of the country or go underground in order to discharge their duties of informing the public.

In the last one year of the Tinubu administration, media freedom advocates have found themselves protesting and calling for the release of arbitrarily detained journalists, whose only offence is the fact that they dared to investigate and report on core issues of accountability, corruption and human rights abuses taking place within government. While allegations of defamation and libelous publications have been the frequent refrain from government officials, who are the subject of critical media reportage, in several of the cases, the rule of law is put in abeyance in favour of arbitrary detention of journalists without trial. These developments have prompted deep concerns among media freedom and civil society watchdogs as the Tinubu government begins its second year in office.

Data collected by Media Rights Agenda (MRA), a frontline press and freedom of expression advocacy organization indicates that 45 attacks on journalists have occurred in Nigeria since 2023. The MRA data spotlighted security agencies, which were responsible for 62 percent of the 45 cases of attacks documented, while hoodlums were identified as being responsible for 16 percent. Unidentified actor such as kidnappers, armed individuals, and others were reportedly responsible for 15 per cent. Further breakdown of the data by gender showed that 37 of the incidents were targeted at male journalists, representing 82 per cent while four of those targeted were female, representing nine percent of the total attacks.

In one of the disturbing cases in which freedom of the press, and the rights of a journalist were undermined under the current administration, Editor of First News online newspaper, Segun Olatunji was picked up by soldiers from his home on March 15, 2024. According to the New York-based Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) around 15 armed men in two unmarked vans arrived at Olatunji’s home in Alagbado, a suburban community in Lagos state. The men, two of whom wore military-style uniforms, introduced themselves as officers of the Nigerian army and forced Olatunji to come with them without explanation, according to media reports. The arbitrary use of the military for the purpose of effecting the arrest of journalist in a democratic setting was widely condemned by press freedom watchdogs. Olatunji was held incommunicado for fourteen days until he was released following widespread calls by scores of press freedom advocates.

The story was similar for Daniel Ojukwu, a reporter for the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), who spent 10 days in arbitrary detention after he was abducted in Lagos and flown to Abuja. It again took the intervention of civil society and press freedom organizations who organized a protest at the Police Headquarters before he was released. Ojukwu’s ordeal in the hands of the Nigeria police followed an investigative report published by his platform, which exposed corruption in the office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President on the sustainable Development Goals. While the cases of Olatunji and Ojukwu received a lot of prominence due to pressure mounted by advocacy organizations, the same level of national spotlight was not the case for journalists of other less prominent media platforms who were arrested while doing their professional duties. While online journalists working for digital platforms with broader national audience have seen their cases get a good deal of attention upon arrest, same cannot be said of journalists working with platforms, which do not command the same level of prominence.    

Even more challenging for journalists, is the emerging trend of law enforcement officers using the Cyber Crime Act to hound reporters blowing the whistle or putting the spotlight on issues of accountability in governance. Specifically, the Cybercrime Act, 2015, now the Cybercrime Act of 2024, after it was amended by the National Assembly and signed into law by President Tinubu, has become the law of choice for the arbitrary detention, persecution and harassment of journalists. Government officials and politically exposed persons who are averse to critical media reporting on issues of corruption and lack of accountability in the use of public resources, have found a potent weapon of persecution using the law. It is pertinent to observe that the most prominent cases of arbitrary arrest of journalists since the onboarding of the Tinubu Presidency have affected reporters who put the spotlight on issues of use of public resources. Section 24, which dwells on “cyber stalking” and the punishment of three years imprisonment or a fine of N7,000,000 has made the work of journalists across the one of high risk.

Significantly, the apprehension within media and press freedom circles, is the notion that journalists can no longer merely rely on regular proclamations about the government’s readiness to protect press freedoms. There have therefore been mounting concerns that contrary to the assurances the reverse is emerging to be the case given the repeated instances of attacks of press freedoms. Several journalists have had torrid stories to tell in the first year of the Tinubu administration, which all point to what many in the media space are convinced is the lack of respect for their fundamental rights and the freedoms enshrined in the Nigerian constitution, which guarantees journalists the right to hold government accountable, especially in a democracy.

It is pertinent to add that Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution as amended has an omnibus section, which guarantees freedoms of the press. Specifically, the often-referenced Section 22 of the constitution makes it apparent that the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people. This constitutional imperative has appeared not be of much significance in the first year of the Tinubu administration given the frequency with which journalists have either been abducted in the line of duty or illegally detained without trial. President Tinubu in his days as a pro-democracy activist was an ally of the free press. It is quite an irony of history that on his watch, the press is having a raw deal. For such unflattering perspectives to go away, the President must rein in the law enforcement agencies and security forces, which are going far and beyond their lines of duty to trample on the rule of law and press freedoms. The critical role the free press plays in the evolution of democracy, cannot be discountenanced.  

Armsfree Ajanaku is Fact Checking Lead and Countering Disinformation Expert at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD).  

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