Nigeria: New administration must prioritise journalists’ safety

Nigeria: New administration must prioritise journalists’ safety - Protection

Press covering voting during the elections, Abuja,Nigeria, February 2023. Photo: Abidemi Ajibodu /Shutterstock

As Nigeria moves forward under a new president and administration, ARTICLE 19 urges the Nigerian government to take urgent action to protect journalists and ensure they are able to work safely and without fear of reprisal. This includes investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of violence against journalists, and implementing measures to prevent future attacks.

At the same time, ARTICLE 19 calls on the Nigerian government to review and amend existing laws and policies that restrict freedom of expression, including the Cybercrime Act and the Terrorism (Prevention and Prohibition) Act (2013), to bring them in line with international human rights standards. ARTICLE 19 remains committed to working with civil society organisations and the government to promote and defend the right to freedom of expression and information, and to ensure the safety and protection of journalists in the country.

The recent presidential and senatorial elections were marred by violence and attacks on the general public as well as journalists. Attacks on journalists during the elections took various forms, including physical assaults, detentions, and harassment. These attacks were carried out by different actors, including security forces, supporters of political parties, and members of the public. In some cases, journalists have been targeted for reporting on sensitive issues, such as allegations of electoral fraud or human rights abuses. According to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 14 journalists were attacked, detained, and harassed while covering the elections.

ARTICLE 19 has warned about the risks that journalists face in covering elections and during political events in general.

‘Attacks on journalists during elections are unacceptable and undermine the foundations of democracy. Journalists play a crucial role in informing citizens and monitoring the election process. When they are attacked, it not only violates their fundamental human rights but also threatens press freedom. Such attacks can lead to self-censorship and compromise the quality of election coverage, eroding public trust. The new Nigerian president must act swiftly to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for such attacks. Protecting the rights of journalists and ensuring press freedom is essential for upholding democracy and promoting transparency,’ said Alfred Nkuru Bulakali, Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 Senegal and West Africa. 

Nigeria’s legal framework poses a significant threat to press freedom and freedom of expression.  In 2020, ARTICLE 19 reported that several journalists were handed down charges, mostly under the Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act 2013 or the Terrorism (Prevention and Prohibition) Act (2013), which still represent a sword of damocles hanging over the head of journalists. The use of ambiguous and misleading language in counter-terrorism laws, coupled with the extensive powers granted to security forces, create a situation where individuals can be easily labelled as terrorists by the authorities, not least because of the broad and misleading terminology used in these laws and the wide powers they grant the security forces, making it very easy for the authorities to declare someone a terrorist.

Cybercrime and terrorism legislation used against journalists

As ARTICLE 19 West Africa set out in a report published in 2020, the Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act 2013 act violates the right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by Nigeria’s Constitution. The act makes sending a message that is ‘grossly offensive’, ‘indecent’ or ‘menacing’ a crime. If a person knows a message is false, and it is sent to cause ‘inconvenience’, they can also be charged with ‘cyberstalking’. Anyone who transmits a ‘communication’ that contains a threat to harm the reputation of another person is essentially committing a crime. If convicted, a journalist could face three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 7 million Naira, or both, according to the cybercrime law.

The Terrorism Act 16 covers terrorism and related crimes, and authorities have charged several journalists under the following two provisions: 

  • Section 1(2): anyone who ‘does, attempts or threatens any act of terrorism,’ ‘omits to do anything that is reasonably necessary to prevent an act of terrorism,’ ‘assists, facilitates, organises or directs the acts of persons or organisations engaged in an act of terrorism,’ or ‘incites, promises or induces any other person by any means whatsoever to commit any act of terrorism’ is guilty of a terrorist offence. If found guilty, the punishment can be the death penalty.
  • Section 27 Subsection (1) allows a court to ‘grant an order for the detention of a suspect’ for 90 days, which the court can renew for another 90 days, until ‘the conclusion of investigation and prosecution’. This would allow for indefinite detention. The broad definitions and wide powers provided for the security forces make it very easy for the authorities to declare someone a terrorist.

In this context, Alfred Nkuru Bulakali added: ‘We urge the new Nigerian president to prioritise the reform of repressive provisions affecting media freedom within his first 100 days in office. This includes amending the cybercrime and terrorism acts to sustain democracy and freedom of expression. Additionally, steps must be taken to protect journalists and media professionals from attacks and intimidation by security forces and policy makers. Law enforcement should refrain from using anti-free-speech laws to silence journalists and civic activists.’

International standards to protect journalists 

International standards recognise the importance of protecting journalists and ensuring their safety while covering elections and political events.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) recognises the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media. It emphasises the importance of protecting journalists and other media workers from violence, threats, or intimidation and sets out clearly that restrictions on freedom of expression are permissible only if they comply strictly with the three-part test. This means that any restrictions must be prescribed by law, pursue legitimate aims and must meet the requirement of necessity, which implies an assessment of the proportionality of restrictions.

The United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity recognises the importance of protecting journalists, media workers, and associated personnel, and calls for measures to prevent violence against them. The Plan of Action calls on governments to ensure that perpetrators of attacks against journalists are held accountable and that appropriate measures are taken to prevent further attacks.

Nigeria is ranked 79 out of 161 countries in the 2022 Global Expression Report – ARTICLE 19’s annual review of the state of freedom of expression and the right to information around the world.

For more information, please contact:

Maateuw Mbaye, Program Assistant, ARTICLE 19 Senegal/West Africa Email: [email protected]  T: +221785958337

Aissata Diallo Dieng, Office Manager, ARTICLE 19 Senegal/West Africa Email: [email protected]  T:+221338690322