ABUJA, NIGERIA - Nigerian free press advocates are accusing the government of blacklisting a leading national newspaper for criticizing President Muhammadu Buhari.
In a blistering editorial published early last month, the Lagos-headquartered Punch newspaper said it would refuse to ignore what it called illegal detentions and attacks on civil society groups and journalists by Nigeria State Security Services (SSS).
"Until [Buhari] and his oppressive regime purge themselves of their martial tendency," said the editorial, "Punch will not be a party to falsely adorning it with a democratic robe ... [but] label it for what it is — an autocratic military-style regime run by Major General Muhammadu Buhari (ret’d)."
Buhari, who first assumed power in Nigeria in military coup in the 1980's, was democratically elected president in 2015.
Costly decision for Punch
Punch's vow to address Buhari by his military title has cost the paper valuable revenue.
For the first time ever, say press freedom advocates, the administration ran its annual New Year goodwill advertorial for citizens in every national paper except for The Punch.
"Until The Punch newspaper came out to flay General Buhari's government, they never a [single] time omitted them from their advertorials," said Raphael Adebayo, a Nigerian rights activist who accuses Buhari of "standing against the Nigerian people."
It's "because The Punch newspaper is sticking to its stance to stand with the Nigerian people, to speak the truth to power and to flay misgovernance and bad governance," he told VOA.
Buahri's supporters, however, aren't so sure. They say Punch's allegations of rights abuses lack proof, and that the administration won't support Punch because its journalism is biased.
"The reason is that so many of these media houses, like I have said before, don't balance information," said Abuja resident Yusuf Alibaba.
"They'll go ahead and feature people who don't have idea about what's going on but for the fact that they have hatred in their hearts against the government," he said. "They'll say all manner of things just to make sure that their voice is heard."
Commitment to free speech
Presidential spokesman Femi Adesina, who called the editorial a testament to Buhari's commitment to free speech and press freedom, said Buhari isn't offended by the Punch's decision to use only his military title.
"Nothing untoward in it," Adesina said a prepared statement. "It is a rank the president attained by dint of hard work before he retired from the Nigerian Army. And today, constitutionally, he is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces."
Ahaziah Abubakar, news director for the state-run Voice of Nigeria, thinks threats to press freedom in Nigeria are overblown.
"Press freedom in Nigeria, as far as I am concerned, is a relative term in general," Abubakar told VOA. "We pride ourselves in Nigeria as the freest in terms of press freedom in Africa.
"By the grace of God," he added, "I have been to main economies of Africa — South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Ghana — and I know the level of freedom these countries have, and I will rate Nigeria higher than them, particularly during this democratic era."
Punch's early-December editorial, however, which cited the 2019 arrest and prolonged detention of Nigerian reporter Omoyele Sowore and Muslim cleric Ibrahim el-Zakzakky — and the SSS decision to ignore two court orders to free the men on bail — was praised by citizens as a long-overdue rebuke to a Buhari-led crackdown on domestic dissent.
The editorial also accused Nigerian governors aligned with Buhari's ruling All Progressives Congress party of "deploying security agents and perverting the law to punish critics and journalists," citing the May 2019 arrests of Kaduna journalist Stephen Kefas and Bayelsa State publisher Jones Abiri; the August 2019 disappearance of activist and social media influencer Abubakar "Dadiyata" Idris; the August 2019 detention of publisher Agba Jalingo; and the October 2019 cases of Delta State journalists Joe Ogbodu and Prince Amour Udemud, who've been held on criminal defamation charges.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Nigeria 120 out of 180 countries in its 2019 annual World Press Freedom Index, which says Buhari's administration marks "an unprecedented level of disinformation – especially on social networks – which was spread by officials within the two main parties."
"Journalists are often threatened, subjected to physical violence or denied access to information by government officials, police and sometimes the public itself," said the report, which called on Buhari to make defense of journalism a priority for his second presidential term, which started last year.
Representatives of the The Punch declined to comment.