Journalism under military governments in African nations such as Mali and Burkina Faso is under threat, but journalists can learn from Nigerian media’s experience of standing up to people in power
In 2020, when the military seized power in Mali, I reported for The Daily Beast how the leaders of the coup had travelled to Russia months before, and then ousted President Boubacar Keita just days after returning home.
I followed up with another story last year that explained how the junta had secretly backed a pro-Russia protest on the streets of the capital, Bamako. Early this year, my report on how Burkina Faso's president was ousted after refusing to pay Wagner mercenaries was published by The Daily Beast and followed up or cited by numerous other publications including The New York Times and VOA.
But I did not travel to Mali or Burkina Faso to cover these stories. I mostly relied on my media colleagues - some of whom I've known for many years - in the two countries for contacts in government and with military officials who I reached out to for information and comment on what was going on behind the scenes.
After the story about the protest in Mali was published, I began to get calls from colleagues in the country saying they could no longer give me updates and information relating to the military junta, because a journalist had been arrested and accused of spying on soldiers.
I also got a call from a couple of colleagues in Burkina Faso, shortly after my story on the coup plotters was published, saying they too could no longer talk “ill” about the new military government because soldiers had warned the media to be careful about what they published and what they said to anyone. No journalist in the two countries has spoken to me about their governments since then.
But what's going on in Mali and Burkina Faso is a reminder of how military regimes in Africa, have long cowed the media. The exception is Nigeria, where the press acted first as opponents of a colonial rule and later of a military dictatorship.
Today, newspapers in Nigera are still the watchdogs of a rather flimsy democracy. If we take a look at the history, it shows that the media in Mali and Burkina Faso could learn from what happened in Nigeria during the military era.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Nigerian press stood up against tyranny and oppression by military regimes that were so bent on stiffening it. Journalists who were critical of those in power were, of course, arrested and imprisoned.
Mali and Burkina Faso's most educated, most enlightened, and most capable must rise to the occasion
Not long after the December 1983 coup which toppled the elected government of President Shehu Shagari, the military junta led by then-Major General Muhammadu Buhari promulgated the infamous Protection Against False Accusations Decree, otherwise known as Decree No 4.
It barred journalists from publishing “false statements likely to bring the government or officials into ridicule or disrepute” and conferred autocratic powers on the junta to ban any newspaper, television or radio station in Nigeria. The order, which many commentators have regarded as the most repressive ever introduced in the country, also prescribed the arraignment of journalists in a military tribunal instead of a conventional law court.
But it didn't stop the newspapers from checking the government. Under Decree 4, journalists Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of The Guardian, one of Nigeria's leading independent newspapers, were sent to prison in 1984 for writing articles about the reorganisation of the country's diplomatic service in which they attributed their information directly to specific sources rather than using vague but “safer” information.
The oppression continued under Buhari's successor, Ibrahim Babangida, under whose military regime, Dele Giwa, the founding editor of Newswatch, was killed in a parcel bomb attack two days after been quizzed by officers of the Military Intelligence over a story the junta thought was “damaging” to it.
The repression was worse under General Sani Abacha, who ruled from 1993 to 1998. The dictator introduced the Offensive Publications Decree No 35 of 1993 that allowed the junta to seize any publication deemed likely to “disturb the peace and public order of Nigeria".
The Treason and Treasonable Offences Decree No 29 of 1993 was used two years later by a military tribunal to imprison four journalists - Chris Anyanwu, Kunle Ajibade,Ben Charles Obi, and George M’bah - all accused of being “accessories after the fact to treason” for reporting on an alleged coup plot.
But the defiant press found a way to keep going, with media owners publishing their newspapers at different printing plants to avoid a government crackdown.
When Abacha failed to completely gag the press, he decided to appoint Alex Ibru, publisher of The Guardian, into his cabinet instead. But even that didn't silence the newspaper, which continued to criticise the military ruler, who then shut it down and only reopened it after an apology was issued.
The steadfastness of the Nigerian media and its criticism of military rule played a crucial role in forcing the Abacha regime to begin a transition to democracy.
One reason why the Nigerian press has been more successful at holding the powerful to account than other African nations is that the elites in the more educated southern region, especially the southwest, decided to invest in the media, so they could have a platform for campaigning for democracy. The southwest has literacy levels of more than 85 percent compared to around 50 percent in the north.
Many pro-democracy groups sprung up in the southwest during the military era, with some of their leaders deciding to come together to invest in the media. When the military eventually relinquished power in 1999, Nigeria had about 15 independent national daily papers, with 14 based in the south and one in the north of the country.
If the voices of journalists are muted, the cries of ordinary citizens may never be heard, and human rights abuses - synonymous with military regimes - will continue
Comparing education and literacy levels between zones, Mali and Burkina Faso are similar to Nigeria. Mali has a 35 percent literacy rate while Burkina Faso has 41 percent, with the vast majority of these literates living in the more educated south. Elites from the southern zone - and even those in the north - in both countries could establish more media outlets in the region to campaign for a return to democracy. With the internet available to so many, news websites can be created with little cost.
In many sub-Saharan African countries, including Mali and Burkina Faso, newspapers survive on subventions from governments, which place the most adverts, and many of its owners are individuals with close ties to people in power. The opposite is mostly the case in Nigeria, where enlightened and established families make up their minds to run media ventures.
From the start, Nigerian publishers have been mostly people who go after making a name, as rather than profit alone. The print media, in particular, appears like a pro-democracy movement.
Mali and Burkina Faso's most educated, most enlightened, and most capable must rise to the occasion. Even those in the diaspora must get involved. Malians and Burkinabes must be reminded that it was while in exile in the United Kingdom during the Abacha regime that Nigerian journalist Dele Momodu started Ovation International, which is today one of Africa's biggest magazines focusing on society. Momodou was a pro-democracy advocate who continued to make his voice heard even while in Europe.
For Mali and Burkina Faso to return quickly to democracy, the media has to play a similar role. It's also important to mention that if the voices of journalists are muted, the cries of ordinary citizens may never be heard, and human rights abuses - synonymous with military regimes - will continue.
Philip Obaji Jr is an investigative journalist based in Nigeria
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance