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As the General’s Mask Slips Off, Nigerian Journalism is Endangered



On May 31, 2017, Lagos radio presenter Nelly Kalu was in the middle of a conversation on Nigeria Info 99.3FM with a geopolitical analyst when a call came to the station’s general manager. He was to shut down the show immediately and kick both people off their air unceremoniously. 

Shortly thereafter, a letter from the Nigerian Broadcast Commission (NBC) arrived with a N5 million fine and a threat to seize the station’s license. Her crime? Her decision to discuss a historical event from the Nigerian civil war – the Asaba Massacre – on the 50th anniversary of said event did not go down well with someone in Abuja. Overnight, from being one of the most beloved voices on radio, Nelly found herself out of a job and out in the cold.

Nobody knew it yet, but this incident was the first shot fired in anger in what would be later unveiled as a full fledged war against the journalism and media space in Nigeria. If this war were compared to the First World War, Nelly Kalu was Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the first domino to fall, triggering a sequence of events with dire implications for media freedom and democracy in Nigeria. Bombardment by the Nigerian government’s Luftwaffe would follow shortly.

Nigerian Journalism in the Crosshairs: A Timeline

A year after the Nigeria Info FM saga, the crackdown on Nigeria’s media began in earnest. Enter Jaafar Jaafar, a print journalist and publisher of Daily Nigerian. In October of that year, Jaafar published a series of secretly-recorded videos showing Kano State governor Abdullahi Ganduje personally receiving USD cash bribes and stuffing the banknotes into his babanriga. 

The response to the videos was swift and unmistakable. Instead of Ganduje, the person repeatedly summoned to report to the police was Jaafar. Ganduje meanwhile won his reelection and thus maintained his legal immunity, while insisting that the videos were fake and threatening to “deal with” Jaafar. In February 2019, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) confirmed that the videos were in fact authentic, but this made no difference. 

Jaafar in the meantime, began receiving threats against his life and his family’s safety. In April 2021, he was again invited for questioning by the Nigeria Police Force, this time accused of “defaming the Inspector-General of Police.” In fact, he had never written anything critical either about the immediate past IGP Mohammed Adamu, or his successor Usman Alkali.

Eventually in May 2021, Jaafar fled to the UK with his wife and children.

While Jaafar was dealing with his situation in Kano, another Nigerian governor was preparing his own assault on the media. Residents in the Challenge area of Ibadan, Oyo State woke up on August 19, 2018 to find bulldozers and payloaders destroying the building housing Fresh FM 105.9. Acting on orders of Oyo State governor Abiola Ajimobi, the bulldozers partially demolished the building, allegedly for a violation of structural standards. In fact just a few weeks before, the Oyo State Government had sent Fresh FM a letter demanding retraction of a story detailing corruption allegations within Ajimobi’s administration.

Interestingly, while the Oyo State Government at a press conference gave its reason for the demolition as a construction code violation, it also claimed in court that it knew nothing about the demolition, when sued by Fresh FM owner Yinka Ayefele.

A few months later in May 2019, a journalist and entrepreneur in Port Harcourt went missing. Steven Kefason, who was known for writing about the violence facing religious and ethnic minority groups in Southern Kaduna was arrested 805KM away from his home in Southern Kaduna by officials from the State Investigation Bureau of the Kaduna State police. Command. He would go on to spend 162 days on remand at Kaduna Prison, charged with insulting persons and institutions, injurious falsehood, inciting disturbance, defamation, and cyberstalking among other charges.

In July 2019, Pelumi Onifade, an NYSC intern with Channels Television was shot dead by police while covering a protest organised by the Islamic movement of Nigeria in Abuja. 6 months later in January 2020, Alex Ogbu, a correspondent for the news magazine RegentAfrica Times was found dead with a bullet hole on the back of his head.

The Nigeria Police Force then claimed that he died after falling and hitting his head on a stone. Astonishingly, Ogbu’s body was then swiftly embalmed without his family’s knowledge or permission before they were even allowed to see it.

Enter Pelumi Onifade, a young journalist working for online television channel Gboah TV on October 24, 2020 in the aftermath of the #EndSARS protests. Onifade was covering an attempted break-in at a COVID-19 palliative warehouse in Agege, Lagos when police officers with the Lagos State Task Force charged the crowd with machetes and live bullet rounds, injuring Onifade in the process. 

As confirmed by his colleague who was present with him, he was wearing his plainly visible press jacket emblazoned with the name and logo of his organisation. Despite this and his obvious state of weakness after sustaining the bullet wound, the police officers forced Onifade into the van under the guise of arresting “hoodlums.” Onifade’s body was discovered on October 30 at a mortuary in Ikorodu, and the Nigeria Police Force continues to evade all attempts to identify the killer and bring them to justice.

Reacting to Onifade’s murder, Nigerian youth activist and human rights advocate Rinu Oduala had this to say:

On January 26, 2021, access to news website People’s Gazette was blocked off by MTN and Glo, Nigeria’s 2 largest mobile networks, reportedly on orders from the Presidency. On April 21, 2021, following a series of stories exposing the background of Nigeria’s terror-linked Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, People’s Gazette was directly cyberattacked.

On January 28, 2021, it was revealed that Abuja-based investigative journalist Isine Ibanga, who was covering the massacres in Southern Kaduna at the time, had gone into hiding. Ibanga revealed that several sources who spoke to him in the course of his investigation had turned up dead, and he suspected that his phones were being used to spy on him.

Nigeria’s State Strategy for Strangling Journalism

The strategy for throttling the media in Nigeria and compromising the integrity of journalism uses 4 key pillars to achieve this goal. The first pillar is physical interception and supply chain disruption for physical newspapers and publications. According to a study carried out by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in 2019, Nigeria has the dubious honour of being one of a small number of territories where authorities physically obstruct newspaper delivery so as to stop people from accessing critical information. 

This list of countries includes the likes of Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nicaragua and Sudan. Specifically, newspaper distribution vehicles delivering editions to vendors and depots are targeted. From a government point of view, such disruption is critical because for many Nigerians, particularly in the older demographic and the “free reader” subculture, physical newspapers and broadcast media still remain their primary news sources ahead of internet platforms.

The second pillar the Nigerian state now uses to disrupt journalism is infrastructure disruption or demolition, specifically calculated to make journalism as difficult as possible. The aforementioned examples of People’s Gazette and Fresh FM fall under this category. NewswireNGR has also fallen victim to this on multiple occasions, notably in March 2020 when a cyberattack briefly took the website offline following a critical story about the Nigerian government’s faulty response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Most notably this strategy extends beyond formal news media and intersects with social media now, which was exemplified by the events of October 20, 2020 when the Nigerian government carried out a premeditated massacre of unarmed protesters at the Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos after removing CCTV cameras and turning off the lights. Just prior to the shooting, fibre optic cable infrastructure providing high speed internet access to the area was specifically dug up and sabotaged, resulting in severe internet outages and slow connections which impeded livestreams and slowed evidence collection. Mobile network providers under the aegis of ALTON later released a statement distancing themselves from the “fibre cuts,” effectively implicating the state and federal government.

The third pillar of the Nigerian state strategy to muzzle the media is to abduct journalists or force them into hiding or exile, which creates a chilling effect around weighty stories. The aforementioned examples of Steven Kefason and Jaafar Jaafar, as well as that of Agba Jalingo illustrate this point. Jailed for over 5 months from August 2019 to January 2020, Jalingo was charged with Cybercrime and Terrorism following his investigative work focusing on Cross River State governor Ben Ayade.

The NBC’s hounding of Nelly Kalu also fits into this picture, as it created a self-censorship effect around the Asaba Massacre – a historical event that is not actually illegal in any way to discuss in the public domain. In November 2019, the writer of this article was also forced into exile outside the country, and continues to receive overt and subtle threats regularly.

The last and perhaps most important pillar of the Nigerian government’s push toward a thoroughly controlled press is use of legislation and regulatory codes as blunt force instruments. Where the now-iced Social Media Bill was not able to force through certain changes such as reduced accountability from the Executive to the Judiciary and process-free control over internet access and usage permissions, these elements were once again present in the proposed Infectious Diseases Act 2020.

A NewswireNGR deep dive into the proposed bill led to a public outcry, which led to a public hearing. This eventually led to the bill being shelved, but not before House Spokesperson Benjamin Kalu furiously attacked the analysis on national television while admitting that he had not read it.

The clauses eventually found their way into the NBC 6th Code amendment of 2020, which has been repeatedly deployed to fine and censor television and radio stations for putting on critical content since then. In so doing, the Nigerian government has shrunk press freedoms to a historic low not seen at any other time since the return of democracy in 1999.

CPA and RSF Sums Up The State of Nigerian Media Freedom

Africa Research Associate at the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) Jonathan Rozen

“From repeated arrests and physical attacks by security forces, to surveillance and efforts to censor reporting published online, the free press in Nigeria remains under attack. Unfortunately, there seems to be a dearth of political will to stop this trend. Holding accountable those responsible for abuses is one way for authorities to signal seriousness about improving conditions; another is to reform the country’s laws to ensure journalism is not criminalized. As has been demonstrated in the past, solidarity among journalists can be a powerful tool to push for these and other changes.”

Nigeria is down 5 places from 115 in 2020 to 120 in 2021 on World Press Freedom Index. Contextualising this ranking and delivering a stinging verdict about press freedom in Nigeria, a statement from Reporters Without Borders reads as follows:

“Nigeria is now one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are often spied on, attacked, arbitrarily arrested or even killed. The campaign for the elections in which President Muhammadu Buhari obtained another term in February 2019 was marked by an unprecedented level of disinformation, especially on social media. 

The all-powerful regional governors are often the media’s most determined persecutors and act with complete impunity. In 2018, one governor had part of the premises of a radio station razed after a series of reports criticising his handling of local affairs. Online freedom is restricted by a 2015 cyber-crime law that is widely used to arrest and prosecute journalists and bloggers in an arbitrary manner. 

Three journalists have been shot dead while covering Islamic Movement in Nigeria protests since July 2019 without any proper investigation to identify those responsible. The police are often the direct beneficiaries of impunity and were blamed for the death of a young trainee journalist after arresting him in October 2020. The major street protests in 2020 were accompanied by violence against the media. 

Several news organisations were torched and many reporters were attacked. With more than 100 independent newspapers, Africa’s most populous nation enjoys real media pluralism but covering stories involving politics, terrorism, financial embezzlement by the powerful or conflicts between communities is very problematic. This was seen yet again in 2020, when an investigative reporter was threatened and several of his sources died or were killed after he investigated massacres in the northern state of Kaduna.”

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