Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Nigerian media outside
BAMAKO, MALI - Mali's President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, speaks to journalists at the Radisson hotel on November 21, 2015 following an attack by Islamist militants. Could media in Mali and other African nations under military rule learn from the Nigerian model? [Joe Penney, Reuters]

Nigeria - a model for a free African media?

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

 

 

 

 

More Articles

When leaders can't take a joke, we must make fun of them all the more

The BBC’s decision to censor satire in future political panel shows at the behest of the UK’s new prime minister shows it is hardly different to any state-controlled media organisation operating under authoritarian regimes

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 7 Sep, 2022
A masterclass in propaganda - political vloggers in the Philippines

‘Independent’ political vloggers and influencers are being expertly harnessed by the new Marcos Jr administration for its own ends

Ana
Ana P Santos Published on: 22 Aug, 2022
When covering Afghanistan, what matters is the people

One year after the Taliban seized control of the country, the media must focus its attentions on the mounting humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan; the people are the broken heart of this story

Soraya Salam
Soraya Salam Published on: 16 Aug, 2022
Journalism needs clear standards when it comes to ‘deplatforming’ 

Currently, 'deplatforming' of people with views considered hateful is applied in a haphazard way. This just adds to the problem of hate speech

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 6 Jul, 2022
‘Fake news’ laws are killing journalists

Countries which have introduced ‘digital security’ laws in the name of combating fake news are also seeing a rise in harassment and even murders of journalists

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 27 Jun, 2022
Journalists are murdered when governments fail to ensure a free press

Over the past four years, everyone I've known who has tried to investigate the operations of mercenaries in Africa has either been killed or injured in attacks

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 12 Jun, 2022
On the ‘treachery’ of translators

The nature of a journalist-translator’s job forces one to become a messenger mediating between nations and cultures. Our writer reflects on the responsibilities this brings

headshot
Bahauddeen Alsyouf Published on: 5 Jun, 2022
If it’s clear who is funding them, community radio stations can transform lives 

Community radio has begun to flourish in Zimbabwe in recent years. But for stations to truly support the communities they serve, it is imperative that they are transparent about who owns them

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 29 May, 2022
International media has abandoned Afghanistan

The international community will be vital in helping Afghanistan to survive Taliban rule - but it has to start with a change of approach by Western media

Sayed Jalal
Sayed Jalal Shajjan Published on: 22 May, 2022
Let’s help refugees escape from the media’s ‘Ghetto of Compassion’

We must not lump all migrants and asylum seekers together when we report about refugees - ignoring nuance doesn’t solve problems

Alejandro
Alejandro Luque Published on: 15 May, 2022
The occupation of Palestine is not a conflict of equal sides - media needs to start telling the truth

Western media's response to the killing of veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces in Palestine is shameful. Until the media starts reporting the truth about Israeli brutality in Palestine, the killing of journalists doing their jobs will continue

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 11 May, 2022
The US is on its way to criminalising journalism

Billed as a ‘super fact checker’, Joe Biden’s new ‘Disinformation Governance Board’ is the first step on this path

Martin Jay
Martin Jay Published on: 9 May, 2022
Beware of activist journalists - they won’t always tell the ugly truth

It is the job of journalists to report the full truth - even when that might cast the ‘good’ guys in a ‘bad’ light

Ilya
Ilya U Topper Published on: 25 Apr, 2022
Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act is criminalising journalism

Bangladesh has been quietly strengthening its laws curtailing freedom of expression - with dangerous results

Rokeya
Rokeya Lita Published on: 18 Apr, 2022
Moscow’s journalistic lights are dimmed, but their story needs to be told

Russia is waging a war on independent journalists who dare to question or contradict the official government line - we must do more to support them

Aidan
Aidan White Published on: 7 Apr, 2022
Why healthy democracies need news junkies

Studies show that news junkies are more likely to register to vote and be politically engaged, but they are not better at predicting future events

Justin
Justin D Martin, Krishna Sharma Published on: 3 Apr, 2022
We need more raw coverage of conflict zones to make people care about all refugees

Coverage of Ukrainian refugees has been more sympathetic because it is usually accompanied by images of the crisis they are fleeing

Tomasz
Tomasz Lesniara Published on: 27 Mar, 2022
Facebook is showing its double standards over freedom of speech

Hate speech is a bad idea. A good idea would be for platforms to show consistency in their content moderation, particularly when it comes to Palestine

A picture of the author, Abeer alNajjar
Abeer Al-Najjar Published on: 17 Mar, 2022
When women are being smeared - listen to what they are saying

Cassandra was cursed to always see the future, but to never be believed. For female journalists like Carole Cadwalladr, long dismissed as a 'mad cat lady', it’s a familiar tale

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 16 Mar, 2022
Zimbabwe’s Fourth Estate is under siege

With few job opportunities, harassment by the authorities and a global pandemic, the picture for balanced and truthful journalism is not a pretty one

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 13 Mar, 2022
The irony of fake news - sometimes it serves to highlight injustice

Last week, the image of a blonde-haired Palestinian girl standing up to an Israeli soldier was wrongly credited as an image of a Ukrainian girl confronting a Russian soldier. The intention was to garner sympathy for Ukraine - instead, it had a rather different outcome

Muhammad Khamaiseh Published on: 6 Mar, 2022
‘You must know how to haggle!’ - racism in journalism starts in the classroom 

Even though I didn’t choose to, I quickly became that one ‘annoying’ journalist of colour who had to keep mentioning racism in my journalism school. It was humiliating and exhausting, to the point of nearly quitting

Azraa
Azraa Muthy Published on: 24 Feb, 2022
Human rights lessons from a ‘terrorist’ journalist

It has ever been the case that when a journalist reports crimes by a despot, militant group or even, these days, a so-called democratic state, he is liable to be labelled a criminal.

Clive Stafford Smith
Clive Stafford Smith Published on: 30 Jan, 2022
How should we talk about Pakistan?

How do journalists report accurately about a country which suffers sectarian violence without reinforcing Islamophobic tropes?

Haroon Khalid
Haroon Khalid Published on: 24 Jan, 2022