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Nigeria’s Wavering Commitment to Freedom of Expression

Broad Claims of National Security Threaten Rights

Two men check their phones in Kaduna, Nigeria, Saturday Feb. 23, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Jerome Delay

Nigerian authorities appear to be on a renewed drive to muzzle free speech.

Earlier this month, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) suspended the broadcast licenses of two subsidiaries of Daar Communications, the African Independent Television (AIT) and Raypower Radio station, only giving broad and vague reasons. Barely a week later, the Department of State Security Services (DSS) declared a crackdown on social media users for posting materials described as threatening to the country’s peace and stability.

The NBC, citing its powers under the National Broadcast Commission Act, sanctioned the stations for airing “inflammatory, divisive, inciting broadcasts, and media propaganda against the government.” AIT was cited for broadcasting “uncensored and unedited social media content.” The DSS subsequently arrested an unknown number of unnamed social media users for allegedly threatening peace and security by posting inciting statements. The DSS has been previously implicated in human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, detention without trial, and torture.

Social media has become a very important tool for shaping public discourse in Nigeria. The authorities have struggled to maintain a balance between regulating against extreme views and hate speech and preserving the right to free speech. The 2015 Cybercrimes law, which criminalizes of a broad range of online interaction, has been used to prosecute at least five bloggers.

Although AIT and Ray Power resumed broadcasting after a preliminary order by an Abuja Federal High Court overturning the suspension, the incident is only the latest in a series of efforts by Nigeria authorities against the media. In August 2018, the Nigerian Police arrested and prosecuted Samuel Ogundipe, a journalist with the Premium Times, an online newspaper, for allegedly refusing to reveal sources. Last January, armed soldiers raided offices of Daily Trust newspapers and temporarily detained staff for allegedly publishing classified military information.

Nigeria’s constitution protects the right to freedom of expression and provides that any restriction to this right must be justifiable in a democratic society. The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa also provides that any restriction to freedom of expression must “serve a legitimate purpose, necessary in a democratic society.”

The authorities should not exploit concerns about hate speech or fake news as a pretext for repression of free speech. The government of President Muhammadu Buhari should preserve Nigerians’ free access to the marketplace of ideas, online or offline.

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