A series of arrests of bloggers, newspaper reporters and even a dog owner has advocates worried about a chill on freedom of expression in Nigeria.
While the constitution of Africa’s most-populous country guarantees freedom of speech and the press, Peter Nkanga, West Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said those rights are under attack.
“More and more, that freedom is being eroded,” Nkanga said. “How is it being eroded? By the actions of government institutions and government authorities, who are ensuring that that freedom of expression, that freedom of the press that freedom to hold opinion, gradually, steadily, is being eroded.”
Nkanga pointed to a number of episodes in recent months as instances where Nigerian security forces went after people simply because of something they said or wrote.
This month, the army said it wanted to question a journalist who had posted a link to a video released by the Boko Haram extremist group.
A journalist investigating arms smuggling was assaulted in June 2015 after a meeting at a Nigerian border post. Nkanga said customs officers looked on as the journalist was attacked without intervening.
Musa Azare, a blogger known for being critical about the government of Bauchi state in the country’s northeast, also found himself under arrest this month.
"“They were dispatched from Bauchi to come and arrest me,” Azare said of the police officers who traveled 450 kilometers to his house in the capital, Abuja."
He was driven to Bauchi and told that he was being taken in on suspicion of cyber stalking and criminal defamation, before being released. A Bauchi state official denied the government had anything to do with Azare’s detention.
It’s not just journalists that are facing threats. Police took a man in the southwestern Ogun state this month into custody for naming his dog “Buhari,” after the president.
Nigeria’s leaders have pledged to respect the freedom of the press, with Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed saying in June that the government of President Muhammadu Buhari does “not intend to do anything to stifle press freedom.”
Mohammed was not available for comment.
Laws on the books have allowed local politicians to go after journalists and bloggers for their statements, says Mai Truong, manager of advocacy group Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net program.
She said a law passed last year criminalizing “cyber crimes” such as hacking and cyber stalking has become a tool for politicians seeking revenge against online commentators.
“We’ve seen [kind of] an uptick of bloggers, particularly, being targeted for arrest and charged under the cyber crime law for various types of writing related to posts about local governors or officials,” Truong said.
Buhari came into office last year pledging to tackle corruption in Nigeria. The country is Africa’s largest economy but little of the wealth trickles down to its poor due in part to graft in the federal and state governments.
Shuaib Leman, national secretary of the Nigerian Union of Journalists, says much of the ire directed at journalists come from politicians who don’t appreciate seeing allegations of corruption against them printed or broadcast.
“I am not surprised that daily you find one instance or the other where a journalist is either picked up at the insistence of the state governor or a powerful politician for writing against corruption or for bringing up issues that need public attention and adequate scrutiny,” Leman said.
When a journalist is attacked, Nkanga said the perpetrators of the assault rarely face charges.
“Until you start to ensure that those who perpetrate attacks on journalists are brought to justice, there will hardly ever be a time when there will be [no] chill on them,” Nkanga said. “It has become a norm.”