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Advocates Say Press Freedom Still Imperiled in Nigeria Despite Better RSF Ranking

FILE - People gather to browse through newspapers at a newsstand in Abuja, Nigeria, Jan. 26, 2015.
FILE - People gather to browse through newspapers at a newsstand in Abuja, Nigeria, Jan. 26, 2015.

Press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says African nations recorded some of the biggest drops in their press freedom rankings over the past year.

According to the RSF 2023 World Press Freedom Index released Wednesday, it was difficult for journalists to operate in nearly 40% of the nations in Africa, compared with 33% last year.

The report also ranked 46% of the countries as problematic for journalists. Only 10% of the countries showed a satisfactory press freedom ranking.

Nigeria moved up six places in this year's ranking from 129 last year, but press freedom advocate Oluwatosin Alagbe, a former director at the Center for Journalism Innovation and Development, or CJID, said there has been no real change.

"According to the CJID press attack tracker, since January we've recorded about 45 attacks in Nigeria and elections were an obvious spectacle of the government disregard for the state of the press in Nigeria," Alagbe said. "The body language of the government doesn't speak to wanting to improve; it's definitely not an improvement "

The RSF report said credible journalism is being threatened by a rise in the dissemination of fake content.

Last year, Reporters Without Borders said most of Africa’s violent attacks upon and cases of arrests and detention of journalists were in Nigeria.

And Nigerian authorities often cite the spread of misinformation and disinformation as the reason for media crackdowns, saying it could undermine peace in the country.

Kemi Busari, an editor with Dubawa, a West African independent verification and fact-checking project, agrees the trend has been growing lately.

Purveyors of misinformation "are leveraging on people's sentiments and biases to put out false information. We get a lot more these days," Busari said. "Some people have found a market in it just for economic reasons.”

Last year, Nigerian authorities drew broad criticism for trying to revoke the licenses of 52 broadcast stations, allegedly over renewal fee problems.

The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) later suspended the move.

In late March, the commission fined Lagos-based Channels Television about $11,000 for airing an interview with an opposition party's vice presidential candidate, Yusuf Datti-Ahmed.

The NBC said Datti-Ahmed's commentary on the February presidential election, in which the ruling party's Bola Tinubu emerged as the winner, violated the broadcasting code and could threaten national security.

Channels TV authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The rights group Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) sued the NBC, urging it to withdraw the sanctions.

Kolawole Oluwadare, a deputy director at SERAP, said, "We see the fine itself as an act to stifle freedom of expression. The facts leading up to the sanctions do not justify the sanction itself; these actions are unwarranted and an abuse of powers of the NBC."

In 2021, Nigerian authorities rejected the RSF's ranking, saying the country was among the freest in the world for journalists.

On Wednesday, President Muhammadu Buhari said journalists had "unfettered freedom" during his administration.