By Donu Kogbara
SOMETIMES, other writers highlight situations so succinctly or eloquently that I don’t feel that it is necessary to add many extra words of my own.
Regarding the erosion of free speech in today’s Nigeria, I’m reproducing an article by Eromo Egbejule, a young Nigerian journalist I know who is currently based abroad. It first appeared in the British Guardian newspaper.
‘Climate of fear’: Nigeria intensifies crackdown on journalists.
Fisayo Soyombo was eating an evening snack in Lagos in late October when a colleague called to warn him about a plan hatched by Nigerian government officials at a clandestine meeting to arrest him.
Hours earlier, the second in a three-part undercover series by the Abuja-based investigative journalist on corruption in Nigeria’s criminal justice system had been published.
“I made two more calls that night [to government sources] and it was clear I was in trouble,” Soyombo said. According to all three contacts, the government wanted to prosecute him under a law criminalising certain types of communication with inmates.
Soyombo pulled out of a public event he had travelled to Lagos for, and went into hiding.
Had he been detained, Soyombo would have been the latest victim of a crackdown on the media and freedom of speech this year in Nigeria, which is 12th out of 13 on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index, a ranking of countries with the worst records of unsolved murders of journalists.
Soyombo said he received a lot of support on social media in the days after he went into hiding, and that the plan to arrest him has seemingly been dropped. The Nigerian correctional service eventually released a statement saying work could be done to clean up the system, and that it had “no intention of arresting or harassing” Soyombo.
At least three journalists are currently detained in Nigeria.
Omoyele Sowore, an activist and founder of the New York-based online news agency Sahara Reporters, was taken by secret police from a hotel room in Lagos in August. Sowore, who stood as a candidate in February’s presidential elections and usually lives in the US, has been charged with treason, cyberstalking and money laundering for allegedly sharing false and insulting information about the president, Muhammadu Buhari.
Despite being granted bail earlier this month his lawyers said they were denied access to him, and he remains in detention and is currently on hunger strike.
Jones Abiri, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Weekly Source newspaper, was arrested in May and charged with cybercrime, sabotage and terrorism. The case related to 2016 allegations of links to rebels in the Niger Delta, after which he was detained by Nigeria’s intelligence agency for two years without trial.
In the southern state of Cross River, Agba Jalingo, who publishes the Cross River Watch paper, was arrested in August, days after the publication of an article about alleged corruption. Jalingo has been charged with treason and a bail request has been declined.
Return to the dark days
Human rights activists and civil society groups say that the muzzling of the press under Buhari has raised the spectre of a return to the dark days of military rule in Nigeria.
Buhari, a former army general who has been president since 2015, was also Nigeria’s head of state in the mid-1980s, when he took power in a military coup. At the time he introduced the draconian Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) law, better known as Decree 4. The law targeted the press, criminalising the publication of information deemed injurious to the junta.
“These (recent) incidents suggest a disturbing trend towards repression of freedom of expression and create a climate of fear which may stifle the media,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Throwing reporters in jail for doing their job of informing the public sends a chilling message to journalists, activists and citizens.”
Soyombo said gagging the press was a misuse of power. “It is an irony that a president and state governors who ascended to power via the polls can suddenly not tolerate dissent,” he said.
Meanwhile, in an article titled “Short walk to totalitarianism?”, Matthew Hassan Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, criticises the controversial Social Media and Hate Speech Bills. Excerpts:
Democracy thrives on debate, consensus building, negotiation, persuasion, argumentation, rule of law, process, and inclusion. The military thrives in a coup culture, secrecy, betrayal, violence, command structure, exclusion and lack of transparency. That explains why I have always warned against describing the current charade of violent elections as democracy…
…The recent outrage by the Minister of Information, Mr. Lai Mohammed, over public reaction to the Social Media Bill, is illustrative of the point I am making, namely, that not all who call themselves democrats appreciate the enormous burden that goes with the claim today…The Minister says that no amount of threat, blackmail, etc., will dissuade the government from going ahead with the social media because it is borne out of patriotism. Really?..
…Is this the language of people who understand or have really imbibed and internalized the spirit and fine principles of democracy? If we must do your will or face the wrath of government, then, this suggests two things: First, we must obey you and government because we are subservient to you and government. We must be answerable to you not the other way round. We must, because if we don’t, we can be penalized by imprisonment for daring to question its wisdom or seek to have an input in a law that concerns us…
…To be sure, there is no one, including myself, who is not aware of the dangers posed by the social media. We have all been victims. However, should the government wish to address this matter legally and openly, why should they be afraid of a public debate?
…Technology is here to stay. All we can do is to try to make it work for us…the future of employment lies there and we need to extend the frontiers of the imagination of our [brilliant and energetic] youths to enable them explore a future that can make us safer and prosperous…
…It is a measure of who we are and the premium we place on life that anyone would dream of suggesting a death sentence for the propagation of Hate speech. Surely, unscrupulous and immoral theft of humungous resources belonging to all of us by our politicians is more damaging to our society than any Hate speech. It is like comparing saliva and a dam….
The ultimate goal of this Bill is not to punish those who offend, but those who offend government or those in government…
The Government [already] has all the laws it needs to fight any form of crime…This Bill is a redundant, stale, superfluous…totalitarian attempt to circumscribe our hard earned freedom.