Recent Cases of Abuse of Press and Speech Freedom
Although the Nigerian Constitution protects the speech and press freedom,the basic question remains: Is the freedom of press and speech being practiced in Nigeria?
From the military era (1966-1979; 1983-1999) to the current democratic setting (1999 till date), Nigerian journalists and media outlets have been under attack; for doing their legitimate jobs of reporting and commenting on the activities of the government.
Agba Jalingo was subject to one of the recent cases ofthe government
s attack. Jalingo is the Nigerian-born online publisherof CrossRiverWatch, from Calabar in Cross River state. Jalingo was arrested on August 22, 2019, by Cross River state government. What was his crime? He was arrested for asking Prof. Ben Ayade, the governor of Cross River state, about the 500 million naira (about $1.3 million U.S. dollars) meant for Cross River Micro Finance bank. According to a copy of his charge, he was accusedof a disturbance of public peace and treason for his writing which was published on July 12 in the CrossRiverWatch; and for social media posts. If found guilty,he may be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Also, he was charged with terrorism, for alleged plans to work with Sowore – an online journalist and convener of #RevolutionNow- and cult members, to unseat the governor. Since, he was arrested, many individuals and organizations have called on both the Cross River state and the Nigerian federal government to release him and discharge the case against him. Isa Sanusi, the Media Manager of Amnesty International Nigeria, called Jalingo’s arrest,“a stain on the image of Nigeria. His case shows just how far authorities can go to silence critics.” Similarly, Angela Quintal, of Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) - a New York based nonprofit organization, that monitors press freedom globally; - said that, “authorities in Nigeria should release CrossRiverWatch publisher Agba Jalingo and drop the charges against him, release from detention, and stop using the countrys state security laws to harass government critics.” Amnesty International said that; “the flawed charges and sham trial of Agba Jalingo have exposed the inadequacies and manipulation of the Nigerian criminal justice system and an unacceptable contempt for human rights and the rule of law.”
Cross River Gov.,Ben Ayade in an interview he granted to news reporters after meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari, on January 27 at Abuja, denied being involved in the arrest and trial of Jalingo. He said on his official Facebook page that, “the case is between Agba Jalingo and the federal government of Nigeria,” because of his involvement with Sowore. Of course, the public took the remarks with a pinch of salt. Whenever journalists ask a democratically elected government questions, what they expect are answers, not incarcerations.
In one of his interviews, Jalingo described some of his experiences while in prison to Arise News TV. He was treated as a terrorist, he said, always hand-cuffed and chained on the leg unless he wanted to use the restroom. Jalingo was asked to sign a document called Terms of Settlement and regained freedom. The settlement was for Jalingo to accept the sum of hundred million naira, if he would stop criticizing the government. He refused to sign it.
He was in detention for five months and was denied bail twice. Finally, Jalingo was granted bail on February 13, 2020, by Justice Sule Shuaibu of the Federal High Court in Calabar.
Omoleye Sowore, with whom Jalingo alleged collaborated, is another example of media attack by Nigerian government. Sowore, a U.S-based Nigerian journalist, was arrested on August 2, 2019, by the Department of State Security Service (DSS), for organizing a nationwide protest against the federal government. “All that is needed for a #Revolution is for the oppressed to choose a date they desire for liberty, not subjected to the approval of the oppressor,” he tweeted.Sowore had founded a political party, the African Action Congress (AAC), was their presidential flagbearer in 2019 general elections.
Sowore, who lived with his family in New Jersey before his arrest, is the owner of Sahara Reporters, an online media platform. He started a movement called #RevolutionNow, which demanded an end to what he called certain evils in the government, like anti-people economic policies;and special privileges for ruling class. Instead, he called for, a return of political power to the public. Sowore was arrested by the DSS on the early hours of August 3, 2019 in Lagos, in his hotel room, ahead of a planned nationwide #RevolutionNow protest on August 5. He was charged with “conspiracy to commit treason and insulting President Muhammadu Buhari.”Twice, he was granted bail by two different courts, but the DSS ignored the court orders. In the first week of December, he was released; but rearrested 24 hours later while he was still inside the court, before a judge.
It took the interventions of some international organizations and persons; for the government to release Sowore on December 24. “Sahara Reporters must be permitted to keep the Nigerian public informed without intimidation,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator.
TwoNew Jersey Senators condemned the government
s act. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey said that, for Nigerian government to ignore two courts orders, led him to conclude that; “either Nigeria no longer respects the rule of law or President Buhari is woefully out of touch with what his agents are doing in his name.” Sen. Cory Bookersaid that the re-arrest of Sowore is a “shocking affront” on Nigerias rule of law. “Nigeria must cease its dangerous attacks on freedom of expression,” he said. Here is the link to Booker
s press briefing:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TXfgIYKtcM. Seun Bakare, Programmes Manager of Amnesty International Nigeria, issued a statement, saying, “We consider Sowore and Jalingo to be prisoners of conscience detained solely for exercising their human rights. The Nigerian authorities must drop all charges against them and release them immediately and unconditionally.” Nigerian Constitution and Other Documents Interestingly, two sections in Nigerian Constitution protect the freedom of speech and press. Chapter Four, section 39 (1) of the Nigerian Constitution states, “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”Its subsection two states that; “Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions: Provided that no person, other than the Government of the Federation or of a State or any person or body authorized by the President on the fulfillment of conditions laid down by an Act of the National Assembly, shall own, establish or operate a television or wireless broadcasting station for, any purpose whatsoever.”The implication of the subsection (1) is that individuals reserve the right to their opinions, and; they are entitled to express these views to the public. And subsection (2) complements this by adding that individuals can express their thoughts to the public through any medium authorized by the President or any person or body designated. Similarly, Chapter two, section 22 of Nigerian Constitution, states that, “the press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.” The import of this section is that the press has a major role to play both in the government and to the public. The press should be able to uphold the objectives of the Constitution; by doing so they (the press) uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people. Simply put, the press should be a watchdog to the government. When public servants are reckless with the powers given to them, the public expects the press to step in, and put them back on the right track. Another major support to speech and press freedom is the Bill on the Freedom of Information Act (FIA), which was assented to by President Goodluck Jonathan, on May 28, 2011. The no 1, section (1) of the bill, states that, “ Notwithstanding anything contained in any other Act, law or regulation, the right of any person to access or request information, whether or not contained in any written form, which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution howsoever, is established.” This is an Act that grants permission to information held by public authorities. In a country where this Act is functional, the citizens can request for information. Age, sex and size is not an obstacle. With this, the press or any person has right to demand for information from any government agency. For instance, individuals can demand for the proceedings of the National Assembly. Clearly, the above quotes support the speech and press freedom. They encouraged individuals to demand for their rights to express their thoughts, likewise, express them through any means. But the basic questions are: Are these quotes truly applied? Are sections 22 and 39 of the Nigerian Constitution, enough to guarantee press freedom? The answer is no; something should be added to it. The First Amendment of United States Constitution states that; “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” which the courts have interpreted to mean that almost all government intervention into free expression is prohibited.Similar wording should be adapted to the Nigerian Constitution. In principle, the Nigerian Constitution encourages speech and press freedom, but in praxis, we see the opposite. The question of press freedom is respected; only when it overlooks the governments abuse of power. But, when the press attempts to swim against the current, it is tagged as an enemy of the government; hence, the reporting is illegal. The Committee to Project Journalists, once observed that, “although a new (Nigerian) Constitution was promulgated on May 5 1999, it was modeled largely after 1979 Constitution (Military Regime) and offered the media no specific protection.” CPJ noted that 20 anti-media decrees have been identified since the amended Nigeria Constitution of 1999. A serious review of this section of the Constitution is needed; to guarantee the safety of the press, which struggles to help the public to participate in policy decisions.
Furthermore, the Law of Defamation as seen in the Nigerian Criminal Code defines libel as, “a matter that is likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or likely to damage any person in his profession or trade by an injury to his reputation.” Thus, the main task of Law of Defamation is to protect individual
s reputation. The government has twisted its meaning to their favor. Defamation is interpreted by government as treason, disrespect, non-patriotic, causing confusion in the land etc. This means that, any journalist who criticizes the government or exposes malpractices in government, can be labelled with one or more charges named above – as is seen in the cases of Jalingo and Sowore. The Nigerian government has used defamation law; to arrest and abuse journalists; who are doing their legitimate jobs, helping the public to make better decisions about public policies. Defamation law should guide journalists, to stay in line. But the Nigerian government have turned it to their own advantage and twisted its meaning to suit and protect them against exposure by journalists. Hate Speech and Social Media Bills Unfortunately, two bills are currently in the process of being passed into law. And if that happens, will shrink the little press and speech freedom space left. They are: National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech, and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and other Related Offences. The Hate Speech bill was sponsored by Sen. Sabi Abdullahi. This bill states that anyone found guilty of hate speech is liable to life imprisonment and if it leads to the death of another, the guilty party should be sentenced to death by hanging. On the other hand, the Social Media bill was sponsored by Sen. Sani Musa. This bill is meant to curb the spread of fake news on social media. Interestingly, Cybercrime Act 2015, has already covered these matters. So, why introducing these bills? Why the multiplication of bills? Apparently, these bills were not widely accepted by the House, as they met some opposition from senators like Chimaroke Nnamani of Enugu East Senatorial District and even members of the House of Representatives, like Dachung Bagos of Plateau State, condemned their effects on our democracy. These bills are meant to criminalizejournalists who criticize and expose government malpractices, with punitive measures like fines and imprisonment up to three years for Social Media bill, and life sentencing or death penalty for hate speech.Seun Bakare, Programmes Manager, Amnesty International Nigeria, said on December 4, 2019, that, “social media is one of the last remaining places where Nigerians can express their opinions freely.” These bills supported by Nigerian government, is just an attempt to punish social media users, for expressing their right to free speech. Conclusion Time has come for sections 22 and 39 of Nigerian Constitution to be reviewed. The review should be done in such a way that lawmakers will not tamper with the speech and press freedom, by introducing any bill that will hinder press freedom. The governments attitude towards the press and speech freedom is reflected in the position of Nigeria in the yearly index ranking of Reporters without Borders – an organization that presents data on press freedom in 180 countries. Nigeria`s position for 2020 index ranking is 115 out of 180 countries. Government should rectify this situation now.
Pius Nwankwo is a Nigerian. Currently, pursuing his M.F.A in Digital Media in Media Department, (with special focus on Television) at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, United States of America.