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How free is the media in Nigeria?

Thomas Mösch / ad
July 5, 2015

Culture and media in Nigeria are free - but still under surveillance of the government censorship board. Nevertheless, Nigerians don't give in easily when their right to free speech is restricted.

Poster for a Nollywood film, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

His election campaign was entirely focused on "change": Nigeria's incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari promised fundamental improvements. Former opposition candidate Buhari won the elections on March 28.

"Many artists responded with relief," says Marc-André Schmachtel, the director of the Goethe-Institut in the economic and cultural metropolis Lagos. One of the most renowned writers of Nigeria, Lola Shoneyin had even openly campaigned for Buhari.

That came as a surprise because, as a military dictator, Muhammadu Buhari had taken a very tough stance on dissent during the 1980s. But the fact that Nigerians had for the first time voted out a military government perceived as corrupt and incompetent was welcomed by many artists. Even Shoneyin's father, Literature Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka, who had long criticized Buhari's ambitions for the presidency, finally accepted him as the lesser evil.

Following Buhari's victory, he called on Nigerians to forgive him for his dictatorial past.

Lola Shoneyin, Copyright: DW/J.-P. Scholz/A. Kriesch
Lola Shoneyin hopes for more artistic freedomImage: DW/J.-P. Scholz/A. Kriesch

Censorship with history

Buhari took over the legacy of a civilian president. But also the latter had maintained a very tense relationship towards freedom of culture and the media. In February 2015, the organization "Reporters without Borders" warned that "President Goodluck Jonathan's evasive way when it comes to the media and to the public in general, is very worrying." The concerns stemmed from increasingly frequent reports that domestic and foreign media were prevented from reporting on the anti-terrorist struggle in northeastern Nigeria.

The Nigerian military had previously made clear that it no longer wished to be presented in a questionable way by the media. The media had criticized the government's unsuccessful strategy against the Islamist group Boko Haram. After some newspapers had reported that several generals had allegedly been sentenced by martial courts for having collaborated with the terrorists, soldiers prevented the delivery of several major newspapers for days. As this is not legally possible in Nigeria, the military claimed to have received instructions on "the transport of materials relevant to security matters through the distribution channels of newspapers."

Partisan media control

These examples are just a few out of many cases showing that even 16 years after the current democratic constitution came into force, freedom of expression in Nigeria needs to be fought for and defended again and again. While print media in Africa's most populous country, even under military regimes, always tended to be quite outspoken, the still relatively young private television and radio stations are under particular pressure, namely from the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC).

Wole Soyinka, Copyright: imago/Gallo Images
Literature Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinke supported BuhariImage: imago/Gallo Images

"The problem is that the chairman is appointed solely by the president," criticized Umar Saidu Tudunwada, manager at the northern Nigerian private channel Radio Freedom. In his view, the NBC tends to enforce the position of the ruling party. As the government was already directly controlling the state media, private media in particular were under supervision. That's why Tudunwada demands that the Commission should be appointed by parliament in the future. "Then, at least the president alone cannot simply dismiss the chairman on a whim," he justified his demand.

Careful with sensitive issues

In addition, private newspapers and radio stations are very often owned by members of the Nigerian elite, which are closely linked to one or another political party. Many contributions are paid for directly by organizations or religious groups, or even produced by them. In Nigeria, a deeply religious country, pastors and imams put a lot of pressure on the media. "If you are not careful, they can mobilize the streets and cause real trouble," says Umar Saidu Tudunwada of Freedom Radio, which is headquartered in the strictly Muslim city of Kano.

Apart from religious topics, issues such as rights for women and homosexuals are particularly controversial.

Radio continues to be the main source of information for Nigerians and is very influential. Even months before the presidential elections in late March, Freedom Radio broadcast commercial and talk shows promoting peaceful conduct at the elections. "Together with other broadcasters, we have also jointly organized seminars for our journalists, so that they can report about conflicts in a sensitive way. This has been very successful, there has not been hate speech and provocation in our coverage," sums up Tudunwada.

Censor watching over Nollywood

Films produced in their own country are very popular with Nigerians. Following the US and India, Nigeria's film industry - "Nollywood" - is now regarded as the world's third most productive. And very quickly, the popularity of these films has aroused the need for control felt by the state. The governing body even officially calls itself the National Film and Video Censors Board. In general, the censors tend to work rather silently, but there was a huge outcry over one of the few internationally acclaimed Nigerian films in 2014.

Nigerian Präsident Muhammadu Buhari, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
President Muhammadu Buhari has promised changesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The NFVCB had banned the movie "Half of a Yellow Sun." The film, based on the novel by star author Chimamanda Adichie, is set during the Nigerian civil war. It's about the secession of the Republic of Biafra in the country's Southeast, mainly inhabited by the Ibo people. Only after a long row and intensive public debates, and only after some scenes had been cut out, did the censors finally give their consent to the production.

"This has triggered a broad debate on the role of censors," says Marc-André Schmachtel from the Goethe Institute. "Many artists did not want to give up their right to tackle history."

The influence of Boko Haram

The Goethe-Institut in the megacity of Lagos is exempt from any direct restrictions. Nevertheless, there are issues that require special care, emphasized Schmachtel: "With homosexuality, for example, we are very cautious." That's why Schmachtel preferred showing a film on the coming out of young Kenyans in the German Consulate rather than in a public hall. And quite a few other events that can take place without hindrance in relatively permissive Lagos would probably meet resistance in other parts of the country, says Schmachtel, citing the example of the Lagos Photo Festival, during which also violence and a lot of bare skin can be seen.

"Sometimes we have to present things differently in order to take advantage of the leeway," explains Schmachtel alluding to the experience they had with the liaison office in the northern city of Kano. In music and video projects, the Goethe-Institut was able to tackle some sensitive issues between 2008 and 2012. But then, the threat from Boko Haram became so great that the German director felt it wasn't safe to stay and the office was closed. For northern Nigeria therefore, it remains to be seen whether the president will be able to put an end to terrorist attacks. Only then can more freedom for culture and the media be attained once again.

Marc-André Schmachtel, Copyright: GI Lagos
Marc-André Schmachtel tries to circumvent censorshipImage: GI Lagos

Thomas Mösch is the head of Deutsche Welle's Hausa service. Hausa is spoken mainly in northern Nigeria and Niger where DW Hausa is heard on shortwave and local FM partners by around one third of the population. His text was produced in cooperation with the journal "Politik und Kultur."

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