Journalists feel betrayed by president who promised reform
By Chris Stein
Blogger Musa Azare supported Muhammadu Buhari during his successful run for president of Nigeria last year, which made it all the more surprising when police turned up at Mr Azare’s house in August in Abuja and arrested him for cyber crimes and defamation.
He was soon released and does not blame Mr Buhari personally, attributing the arrest instead to agents of the governor of his home state in north-east Nigeria, of whom Mr Azare is a frequent critic. Still, the incident was the kind of official behaviour Mr Azare thought would be a thing of the past under Mr Buhari’s administration.
The former military dictator campaigned last year as a reformed democrat committed to fighting corruption and changing the way Nigeria’s government does business. “I did not expect something like this would happen when he was elected, especially when he mentioned clearly that his government would [allow] everyone to express themselves freely, as the constitution upholds,” Mr Azare says.
Mr Buhari’s deputies have publicly declared their commitment to press for more freedom of speech, with Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture, saying in June that “media practitioners have nothing to fear from us”.
Despite the government’s pronouncements, there are more restrictions on freedom of speech in Nigeria than regional neighbours such as Senegal, Benin and Ghana. The country ranked 116th out of 180 countries in this year’s Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, with the rights group saying Nigerian journalists face “a climate of permanent violence”.
Press freedom advocates and journalists say freedom of expression in the country has deteriorated since Mr Buhari took office. Bloggers have been locked up on murky grounds, and authorities have called for the detention of journalists while turning a blind eye to assaults on reporters.
“This government has continually been on the vanguard of ensuring that it stifles criticism,” says Peter Nkanga, west Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “These acts of impunity that include attacks on the press cannot continue.”
In August, the army called for the arrest journalist Ahmad Salkida, who they said had close links to the Boko Haram insurgent group. Mr Salkida was freed after talking to authorities, but Amnesty International claimed his treatment was a sign of growing violations of human rights in the country.
Another journalist, Yomi Olomofe, was beaten by suspected smugglers at a crossing on the Benin border while customs officials looked on in June last year. Mr Nkanga says he believes Mr Olomofe was targeted because he was investigating arms trafficking.
Outspoken users of social media are the latest targets of the country’s political elites. Blogger Jamil Mabai was arrested in September and spent more than three weeks in jail after writing Twitter posts questioning the purchase of metal coffins by the government of the northern Katsina state.
Agents of Nigeria’s corruption watchdog, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, arrested Abubakar Sidiq Usman in August after he authored blog posts critical of the commission’s chairman.
Both Mr Usman and Mr Azare were told they faced charges of cyberstalking, a crime created under an internet law reform bill passed by the national assembly in the final days of former president Goodluck Jonathan’s term last year. Cyberstalking, as defined by the law, criminalises making online postings that are intended to defame.
Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, a governance think-tank, says the arrests show the extent to which politicians are struggling to deal with the popularity of Facebook and Twitter among Nigerians looking to vent their discontent with government.
He says the detentions do not appear to be part of a wider government plan, but rather the consequence of isolated disputes between individual bloggers and the institutions or state governments they criticise.
“They are concerned about these bloggers, most of whom are described as influencers in social media,” Mr Nwankwo adds. “They are concerned that these influencers will be able to reach more people than they are.”
The crackdown has had a chilling effect on the journalists caught up in it. Mr Olomofe has gone into hiding, while Mr Salkida says he cannot return to his home in the United Arab Emirates because of the allegations levelled against him in Nigeria.
Some bloggers say the arrests feel like a betrayal after Mr Buhari mobilised online commentators to support his election campaign.