LAGOS (AFP) – From nationwide seizures of newspapers to tough new regulations on live political programming, rights groups and journalists say Nigeria’s media freedom record is falling worryingly short of international standards.
The criticism comes after Nigeria’s broadcasting regulator announced this week that stations would now be required to provide written warning 48 hours in advance of changes to the schedules to fit in “impromptu” live politics shows.
The edict, which follows a controversial army crackdown on newspapers, was designed to “check increasing cases of unprofessional handing” of live politics discussions featuring “provocative and highly divisive comments”, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) said in a statement.
But it has prompted outrage among journalists and academics. They say it amounts to an authoritarian muzzling of dissent by President Goodluck Jonathan’s government, which is on the back foot over its handling of the mass kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants.
“Requesting broadcast houses to give NBC 48-hour notice before airing any live political programmes would amount to unbridled censorship and gagging of the media and it is against the spirit and letters of all electoral laws in Nigeria,” the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) said.
The NPO said the move was designed to silence opposition political parties and urged the government to rethink what it called “this anti-democracy and obnoxious decision”.
– Newspaper crackdown –
Five newspapers said earlier this month that soldiers had held up print runs and seized copies of their editions over security concerns.
The government and military have denied they were looking to silence critics, even though at least two of the newspapers had published damning articles about the army.
The Punch daily described the crackdown in a scathing editorial as “a rapid descent of a discredited government and its security agencies into undisguised tyranny”.
The operation was “reminiscent of military dictatorship in the country”, it added.
Nigeria’s media came under heavy censorship during the military rule of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha in the 1980s and 1990s.
A number of publications were either shut down or forced underground and editors fled abroad after printing articles critical of the government.
Nigeria’s military has been under sustained pressure in the media over its response to the Boko Haram insurgency, which has claimed thousands of lives in the last five years.
Attacks by the Islamist militant group have increased, with the military apparently powerless to prevent the bloodshed, exacerbated by the schoolgirls’ kidnapping in April.
Nigeria’s response to the mass abduction of the teenage girls has been criticised as slow and lacklustre, while a social media campaign has prompted greater international media scrutiny of the counter-insurgency.
– ‘Gestapo-style censorship’ –
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said 10 newspapers across Nigeria have seen their operations disrupted, leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of sales.
Peter Nkanga, the CPJ’s west Africa correspondent, described the crackdown as “Gestapo-style government censorship”, adding that “millions across Nigeria were effectively denied their right to information”.
“Nigerians should not be denied access to news and information through media blackouts or persecution of journalists as this only sows seeds of rumours and distrust,” he said on the CPJ web site.
The NPO said the new broadcasting regulation and the military clampdown violated freedom of expression.
Nigeria was entering “a new chapter in the potential dangers being posed to the citizenry and the media: a clear violation of the right of free expression and press freedom and the right of the public to know”, it added.
Nigeria is ranked 112th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 Press Freedom Index.
Ralph Akinfeleye, the head of the mass communications department at the University of Lagos, warned that eroding press freedom was a major threat to the successful organisation of next year’s presidential elections.
“It’s clear that the media are the engine oil that lubricates the engine of democracy. Any attempt to silence the media will be counter-productive,” he told AFP.
If the traditional media was unduly restricted in reporting politics, far less reliable reporting on social media could fill the vacuum, he argued.
“It’s very sad and worrisome. The military needs to stop these kinds of exercise and work on securing the release of the girls instead of messing with the press,” he said.
“Or else the focus is going to shift in the future from ‘bring back our girls’ to ‘bring back our press’.”