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Nollywood in Nigeria. Copyright: dpa/Bildfunk
'Nollywood' films are all-too wary of taboo issues in NigeriaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Media freedom in Nigeria

Thomas Mösch, Gwendolin Hilse / ad / ss
January 2, 2016

Nigeria is supposed to have a free cultural landscape and freedom of expression for the media. But with strict government censorship, artists and the media are having to find ways to enjoy whatever freedom they can have.


From the start of his election campaign, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, an opposition candidate, focused on a theme of "change," promising a far-reaching transformation. After winning at the polls on March 28, 2015, Buhari announced a crackdown on both the country's rampant corruption and the deadly insugency in the country's northeast led by Boko Haram. He also claimed he would strengthen the media and work towards greater freedom of expression.

Marc-André Schmachtel, director of the Goethe Institute in Lagos, Nigeria's economic and cultural powerhouse, observed that many artists and intellectuals responded with relief.

Lola Shoneyin, author of "The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives" and one of Nigeria's most renowned writers, even campaigned openly for Buhari.

Schmachtel says that since the change in leadership, he has not witnessed any major government interference in media freedom. There have been no retractions of unwelcome reports, nor has he heared of any attempts to intimidate people working in the media.

"As far as I can tell, we have managed to maintain a relatively safe level of freedom of expression, and I think that this government wants to keep it that way," he told DW.

A history of censorship

That may come as a surprise, as in the 1980s, when he ruled as military dictator, Muhammadu Buhari had a tough policy against dissidents.

Lola Shoneyin (Copyright: Jan-Philipp Scholz und Adrian Kriesch)
Author Lola Shoneyin hopes that Nigerians will enjoy greater freedomImage: DW/J.-P. Scholz/A. Kriesch

In cultural and media freedom, Buhari's predecessor had a mixed record as well. In February 2015, "Reporters Without Borders" warned that then-President Goodluck Jonathan's evasiveness with regard to the rights of the media and the public in general was deeply worrying.

Reports grew more frequent that domestic and foreign media reporting on the struggle against insurgents in northeastern Nigeria were being hampered in their work.

But that is supposedly in the past. After being appointed Minister of Information in November 2015, Lai Mohammed made it very clear that he would not tolerate any attempts to intimidate the media. Announcing enhanced cooperation between the government, the military and media, he said that by granting access to reliable information, he intended journalists to benefit most from the new arrangement .

Mohammed also encouraged state-run media to report in a fair and balanced manner, inviting them to take more criitical stances to government issues and saying they need fear no consequences.

The announcement was followed by a collective sigh of relief across the Nigerian media landscape. Ifeyinwa Omowole, editor at the Nigerian news agency NAN, said that this was exactly what the country had been waiting for.

"Gone are the days of speculative journalism," she explained.

Biased media control

But things are not as straightforward as they may appear. Even under military regimes, Nigeria's print media never shied away from making their views heard. Private television and radio stations, however, overseen by the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC), have come under particular pressure in the past.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Copyright: dpa/Bildfunk
President Muhammadu Buhari has promised changeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Umar Saidu Tudunwada, a manager at Radio Freedom, a commercial broadcaster in northern Nigeria, says an inherent problem lies in the fact that the NBC chairman is appointed solely by the president.

"That's why the NBC consistently promotes the position of the ruling party," he adds. With the government already in control of all state media, private media organizations have come under increased government scrutiny, says Tudunwada, who demands that the NBC's board be appointed by the parliament in the future.

"That way, the president will no longer be able to make a single-handed decision based on a whim."

Using caution with sensitive issues

Making matters more complicated, private newspapers and radio stations are often owned and run by members of the Nigerian elite, who are closely linked to one political party or another. Many of their reports are paid for directly by certain organizations or religious groups or even produced by those groups themselves. Even priests and imams assert direct pressure on the media in Nigeria. In the country's deeply religious north, issues such as women's right or homosexuality are taboo.

"If you're not careful, they will mobilize the people to stir up trouble," says Umar Saidu Tudunwada of Freedom Radio, headquartered in the strictly Islamic city of Kano.

Logo of Freedom Radio Nigeria. Copyright: Freedom Radio.
The company logo of Freedom Radio Nigeria, based in Kano

Unlike Tudunwada, Nigerian authors, many recently witnessing a revival on the international stage, can work more freely and address taboo subjects. Many write in English, Nigeria's official language, and find their audience in the country's educated elite.

Literature Nobel Prize-laureate Whole Soyinka says that he keeps an optimistic outlook on the future.

"There's so much talent in this country's literary scene, especially among young writers," says Soyinka, adding that he is certain that literature provides an important contribution to the country's evolution.

"Literature can be a tool to create awareness. You can use literature even to educate a government that it is accountable to its people, and that it's the government's job to eradicate the differences between the rich and the poor."

Keeping an eye on "Nollywood"

Much more influential than books are films produced in Nigeria, which have become wildly popular among the masses.

Author Wole Soyinka. Copyright: imago/Gallo Images
Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinke considers President Buhari the lesser of two evilsImage: imago/Gallo Images

Nigeria's film industry, known as "Nollywood," is now widely regarded as the world's most prolific, behind the US and India. As a result of that popularity, an official governing body was created which openly referrs to itself as the censorship board, or - to be precise - the "National Film and Video Censors Board" (NFVCB).

In general, the censors' work goes largely unnoticed. But one of the few internationally acclaimed films to come out of Nigeria provoked a major outcry in 2014. The NFVCB had banned the film "Half of a Yellow Sun" from being shown publicly.

Based on the novel by Chimamanda Adichie, the film is set during the Nigerian civil war and deals with the separation the Republic of Biafra in the southeast of the country, mainly inhabited by the Ibo people. After weeks of intense public debate and agreements to cut a number of scenes, the censors finally agreed to allow the film to be screened after all.

Boko Haram's growing influence

Despite the many challenges and inconsistencies in Nigeria's attitude towards media freedom, the Goethe Institute says it has not witnessed a direct restriction of its work in Lagos. Nevertheless, says Schmachtel, sensitive issues remain: "When it comes to homosexuality, for example, we are very careful."

He adds that events that can be taken for granted in Lagos, the country's most liberal city, would cause a scandal elsewhere.

Marc-André Schmachtel. Copyright: GI Lagos.
The Goethe Institute's Marc-André Schmachtel tries to work around censorship issuesImage: GI Lagos

"Sometimes we need to package things a bit differently in order to take advantage of whatever leeway we can have," says Schmachtel, referring to the experiences he has had with the institute's liaison office in the northern Nigerian city of Kano. From 2008 until 2012, the Goethe Institute managed to highlight some sensitive issues there through music and video projects. They even held a fashion show in the Muslim city.

But with the growing number of Boko Haram terror attacks in the city, the risk of being kidnapped ultimately became too threatening for Schmachtel, resulting in the northern Nigerian branch being closed after only four years.

The radical group continues to wreak havos in northeastern Nigeria, burning books and destroying cultural goods deemed to be blasphemic in their world view. Journalists and musicians are also among those targeted by Boko Haram.

It would appear that the future of northern Nigeria therefore largely depends on whether the new President will be able to put an end to terror, allowing culture and media to flourish in the war-torn region once again.

Thomas Mösch is head of Deutsche Welle's Hausa language program, which is spoken mainly in northern Nigeria and Niger. Gwendolin Hilse is a contributor at the Hausa language department. The interview with Wole Soyinka was conducted by Sabine Peschel. This article is part of a collaboration with the magazine "Politik & Kultur" and DW's multimedia series "Art of Freedom. Freedom of Art."

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