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Nigerian Press Advocates Hail ECOWAS Court Ruling on Media Laws


Nigerian press freedom advocates are praising a recent ruling from the court of West African bloc ECOWAS that ordered Nigerian authorities to review sections of the country's Press Act.

The court said portions of the law discriminate against online and nonprofessional journalists. The ruling followed a lawsuit filed by two Nigerian journalists against authorities in 2021.

Nigerian journalists Isaac Olamikan and Edoghogho Ugberease approached the ECOWAS regional court two years ago after security operatives arrested the duo in separate incidents while they were gathering the news.

Olamikan was accused of practicing with an expired media license. Ugberease — a citizen journalist who often covers happenings in her local community in southern Nigeria's Edo state — was told by authorities that she was not qualified to tell stories or carry out investigations.

But the three-member panel of the ECOWAS court ruled that three sections of the Nigerian Press Council Act imposed age restrictions and educational qualifications for journalists and therefore discriminated against online and citizen journalists.

The court said that technological advancements meant media space is evolving, but that Nigerian law failed to accommodate such changes.

Ahaziah Abubakar, a former director of news at Voice of Nigeria, said the ECOWAS ruling couldn't come at a better time.

"I'm excited that ... a court of competent jurisdiction has ruled on a thing like that,” he said. “Journalists have become [an] endangered species."

Journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders says Nigeria is one of West Africa's most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are often monitored, attacked and arbitrarily arrested.

The group says that the Nigerian constitution protects freedom of expression, but that there are many laws with provisions that make it possible to obstruct journalism.

In its defense at the ECOWAS court, the Nigerian government said that the rights to information and freedom of expression are not absolute, and that the arrest of the journalists was in the interest of national security.

Abubakar said he's worried about the implementation of the ECOWAS verdict.

"So many court pronouncements in Nigeria, the powers that be do not obey court orders,” he said. “Implementation is selective, as it suits the powers that be."

President Aigbokhan, the legal counsel to the Nigerian journalists, said, "Ordinarily, the government will be recalcitrant, so I think civil society groups should take it from there. There should be more public engagement on how that law cannot stand, because as it is now, the sections of those laws have already been struck down, whether or not it is amended nationally."

It's not clear when, or if, Nigerian authorities will amend the law.