Nigeria recorded a dismal performance in its media freedom and safety of journalists’ practices, according to a new report documenting the state of media freedom and safety of journalists in Africa to support the implementation of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.
Titled “The State of Media Freedom and Safety of Journalists in Africa”, the report was released in November 2022 as part of activities on the continent to commemorate this year’s International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists and the 10 year anniversary of the UN Plan of Action. It was produced by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) with support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
According to CIPESA, the report has two objectives, namely to research and document the state of media freedom and safety of journalists in Africa and to provide specific and evidence-based recommendations to guide policy makers, media development organisations and other media freedom and human rights actors to address identified gaps that undermine the safety of journalists and media freedom in Africa as well as to reinforce the safety of journalists and enhance legal and institutional frameworks by providing recommendations to support the implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists.
The report noted that in Africa, many areas of journalistic practice have been criminalised, with the adoption of cybercrime laws that prohibit the publication of false news or news deemed to threaten national security or public health, in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania.
It states that “In Nigeria, authorities have used contentious sections of the country’s Cyber Crimes Act to arrest, detain and prosecute bloggers, journalists, and content producers as well as citizen journalists, such as Jones Abiri,Ime Sunday Silas,Fejiro Oliver,and Rotimi Jolayemi”. It cites other instances of media professionals, bloggers and citizen journalists being arrested, detained and charged under the Cybercrime Act 2015; the Terrorism Act 2011; section 418 of the Penal Code;and section 59 of the Criminal Code for offences such as cyberstalking, and publishing false information over their activities on social media.
According to the report, the worst jailers of journalists in 2021 were Eritrea, which jailed 16 journalists; Ethiopia, which jailed nine; Rwanda, which jailed seven; Cameroon, which jailed six; Benin, which jailed two; Somalia, which also jailed two; as well as Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic, all of which jailed one journalist each.
It noted that the countries that featured on the 2020 list included South Sudan, Mali, Burundi, and Uganda while Nigeria, the Central Africa Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were the new entrants to the 2021 list.
The report observed that while attacks on journalists are growing in several countries, the perpetrators, who often include security agents and other state officials, are rarely held to account for their actions.
It stated that “Impunity for crimes against journalists persists as the courts and judicial systems rarely punish these attacks and threats. In many instances where investigations are launched, they are not successful. For example, the killers of journalists in countries such as Somalia, DR Congo and Nigeria are rarely brought to book, while in countries such as Tanzania, the disappearance of investigative journalist Azory Gwanda in 2017, which some have linked to state agencies, has not been sufficiently investigated by government authorities. Similarly, the 2019 murder of Ghanaian investigative journalist Ahmed Hussein Suale remains unresolved.”
The report also noted that ongoing surveillance in African countries is bolstered by various laws, policies and practices which have become ubiquitous across various countries and that such laws tend to be wide in the scope of their application.
It said: “They are also partially implemented, and are often abused by state security agencies in the conduct of state surveillance. Indeed, laws in most countries do not incorporate adequate checks and balances such as independent judicial oversight over lawful communication interception. Consequently, they give state security agencies the leeway to conduct surveillance unsupervised and in an opaque and unaccountable manner.”
The report stressed that such concerns are exacerbated in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, “where surveillance can be conducted without obtaining court orders or based on oral applications for authorisation.”
It cited the deteriorating security situation around the Sahel region as presenting “stark safety challenges to journalists in such countries as Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Nigeria, where military authorities deter journalists from travelling to certain areas”, adding that some countries’ laws prohibit the dissemination of information on military operations or terrorism, and that armed non-state groups occasionally threaten journalists.
According to the report, in spite of global and continental condemnations, internet shutdowns continue unabated around Africa, with records showing that in 2021, there were at least 19 recorded internet shutdown incidents in 12 African countries, namely Burkina Faso, Chad, Congo, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gabon, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, and Zambia.
It also noted that in 2020, several African countries, including Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, were reportedto be using the surveillance platform Circles, to exploit flaws in telecommunication systems and to access telephone calls, SMS messages and location services, adding that “Journalists, alongside opposition politicians, were among those whose communications were being spied on.”
The publication reported that over the last few years, some countries have systematically used criminal law to prosecute and punish aspects of journalistic practices, including the introduction of provisions that criminalise the publication of false news and communication considered offensive, as well as the requirement for journalists to reveal sources of information.
It added that other legal provisions introduced purportedly to tackle fake news require persons to only publish “true” and “authenticated” information or be held liable, with such laws often being broadly and vaguely worded and being used in various instances to silence critical journalists.
The report said: “In countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda, such laws have become the leading legislative tool used by state authorities to harass, arrest, and prosecute journalists and independent content producers.”
It cited a 2021 study showing that Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda have nearly doubled their laws and regulations on misinformation since 2016, adding that “one in three of these laws requires no evidence that the “false” information caused or risked harm for it to be penalised and the process for determination of falsity or harm by courts is not specified or well-articulated.”
The report said: “What is more, the laws are framed and applied in ways that target opposition politicians and journalists, not those who create and spread misinformation.”
It recalled that in May 2015, Nigeria introduced the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act to provide a framework for the prohibition, prevention, prosecution, and investigation of cybercrimes, pointing out that “However, Section 24 of this law penalises ‘cyberstalking’ and online publication of messages that one ‘knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another.’”
The reported noted that this provision has been used to arrest several bloggers and online journalists on charges of “cyberstalking” stemming from articles critical of the government while under section 59 of Nigeria’s Criminal Code Act, it is an offence for any person to publish or reproduce any statement, rumour or report that is likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or to disturb the public peace, knowing or having reason to believe that such statement, rumour, or report is false.