Media Rights Agenda Executive Director Speaks on Freedom of Expression Online

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A new age of communication is dawning. Voices demanding to be heard are fading from town squares and entering a new digital arena. Voices that, in this new age of smartphones and social media, are harder than ever to silence, even as advancing technology puts new tools of censorship into the hands of government officials. However, efforts to oppose the influence of internet censorship are rapidly gaining momentum worldwide.

Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director Media Rights Agenda

The Internet Freedom Fellows is a program consisting of six young human rights activists located from all parts of the globe. The Internet Freedom Fellows (IFF) program is funded by the State Department’s Innovation Fund and the U.S. Mission in Geneva, and was designed to follow up on Secretary Clinton’s pledge to find innovative ways to promote the use of the Internet in support of human rights.

The Diplomatic Courier had a chance to catch up with one of the 2013 Fellows, Edetaen Ojo. Mr. Ojo is the Director of Media Rights Agenda, an organization that promotes excellence and professionalism in journalism. He orchestrated the movement that led the Nigerian legislature to pass the Freedom of Information Act, which empowers journalists to seek and access information from government establishments. In addition to that, Mr. Ojo holds positions on the advisory group for the BBC World Service Trust-led Africa Media Development Initiative (AMDI) and the Task Force of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

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[Diplomatic Courier:] How long have you been Executive Director of The Media Rights Agenda?

[Edetaen Ojo:] Very long, about fifteen years.

[DC:] What is the specific mandate of Media Rights Agenda?

[EO:] Well, generally to promote the right of freedom of expression and, within ensuring that right, including policy advocacy but also moderating instances of cases where the right is being threatened in Nigeria.

[DC:] How did you become involved with this organization?

[EO:] Well I used to be a newspaper journalist in Nigeria at the time of military rule, and I found myself repeatedly being constrained from being able to practice feely. I was very much involved with human rights organizations that were challenging human rights abuses at that time. But there was really a specific focus on freedom of expression and media freedom, and I grafted it towards that area of human rights during that period. When I left the newspapers, I joined the media rights agenda.

[DC:] I understand that you were heavily involved with the passing of Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act, which increases transparency of the Nigerian government along with promoting freedom of press. What is necessary for implementing and sustaining this new law? Is it being properly implemented at this time?

[EO:] The level of illiteracy in Nigeria is quite high, so a lot of public enlightenment is required to familiarize the people with the law and how to use it to request information. That is one of the most critical areas we are engaged with right now. But also there is been a long tradition of poor record keeping, which is affecting the implementation because sometimes some records are simply difficult to find. So that is a challenge. There is also a long history of secrecy in public institutions, but, as a result of long period of military rule where there was no accountability, no openness with the public, we need to address [this challenge] to get public institutions to be more open and more responsive to request of information from the public.

[DC:] Would you say progress is being made towards properly implementing this law?

[EO:] I wouldn’t say at this point in time that it has been properly implemented, but a lot of progress has been made, yes. A few cases have been brought to court in which a request for information was denied or simply ignored, and we have had a very positive response from the judiciary. In almost all the cases brought to court the ruling has been positive, so that is also helping to clarify obligations and duties of public institutions and also providing more openness.

[DC:] Has the he Nigerian government been reported to engage in any form of internet filtering?

[EO:] None that we are aware of, but our technical abilities to detect such filtering is not very high. We have a very poor connectivity quality. So if there is ever trouble accessing a site I wonder if it is poor connectivity or filtering. So at this point in time we don’t really have examples of internet filtering.

[DC:] As far as your involvement with the Internet Freedom Fellows, what changes do you hope to inspire not only in Nigeria, but globally?

[EO:] Well in Nigeria, the government is now beginning to regulate the internet and social media. It’s developed a lot of draft bills with this objective. Of course some of them are aimed at responding to cybercrimes, cyber security privacy issues, and so forth. But there are provisions that are worrisome. My involvement with that is to try and be a factor in bringing international standards to this draft process and to ensure that these provisions do not constrain freedom of expression online. But like I said, we do not have a lot of capacity in this area because it really quite new to us regardless of the fact that we have worked on freedom of expression issues online for a long time. So my engagements internationally have been to have a better understanding of international human rights law in this area; to get comparative experience from other countries; to gain a considerably better understanding of this issue and then work in partnership with NGOs in other countries that are doing similar work. This way we can see how we can really make the legislative and policy process in Nigeria work to ensure that human rights are protected.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s July/August 2013 print edition. To view this story, click here.