Home Page > Nigerian writers face climate of intimidation, censorship and repression

nigeria uprNigerian writers and journalists faced relentless attempts by state and non-state actors to suppress political criticism and to censor film and music productions, as Nigeria’s human rights record comes under scrutiny at the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, said PEN International.

In May 2011 Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan signed the Freedom of Information Act, which at the time was hailed as a significant move towards a climate of openness in the country. The law, which allows citizens access to public records and information held by a public official or institution, came after a decade-long struggle by civil society groups and human rights organizations calling for transparency and accountability.

‘The hope for a sea of change in the Nigerian authorities’ attitude to freedom of expression after May 2011 has sadly not been borne out,’ said Ann Harrison, Programme Director of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

‘Instead, colonial era legislation and Shar’ia law are used to censor and persecute writers, who also face an increasing threat from armed groups.’

More than two years later, writers across Nigeria faced growing challenges to their right to free expression. The burgeoning media and entertainment industries—its film industry, Nollywood, is the third largest in the world—continued to face regular censorship.

‘As publishers, we respect the right of individuals in Nigeria to choose what they wish to read and we believe that no government should interfere in the publisher-reader relationship,’ explained José Borghino, Policy Director at the International Publishers Association.

‘However, censorship by states in Nigeria conflicts with the federal Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression.’

Journalists also faced intimidation, harassment, and received death threats from local, state, and federal actors who resorted to arbitrary arrest and detention before prosecuting them under repressive laws. Some were even been killed.

‘As long as impunity reigns for the killing of journalists for their work, talk of freedom of expression for media workers in Nigeria will be nothing but a fig leaf to hide these ongoing violations,’ said Ropo Ewenla, Secretary of PEN Nigeria.

‘We call on the Nigerian authorities to urgently investigate these deaths and to bring anyone responsible to justice.’

In December 2012 government security forces arrested journalists Musa Muhammad Awwal and Aliyu Saleh of the weekly newspaper Al Mizan in the northern city of Kaduna in response to a front page story alleging the disappearance of 84 civilians while in the custody of the Joint Task Force (JTF), a special military unit tasked with combating the armed Islamist group Boko Haram. The JTF suspected the 84 of being Boko Haram members. Both journalists were detained for more than a week without charge.

Other journalists were attacked by Boko Haram, which accused the media of bias in its reporting of the group’s conflict with the Nigerian government.

The digital media landscape significantly differed from that of print journalism in Nigeria, since it was subject to fewer restrictions at the time.

‘Freedom of expression online has mostly remained free and uncensored, but this may change with coming cyber security legislation which could increase the surveillance of private citizens,‘ said Deji Olukotun, Freedom to Write Fellow at PEN American Center.

‘Internet access is still inadequate, and not everyone in Nigeria benefits from the promise of digital technologies.’

Nigeria came under scrutiny as part of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, which examines the human rights record of each UN member country every four years. PEN International, together with PEN Nigeria, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International Publishers Association, made a formal submission with the following recommendations to the Nigerian authorities:

• Refrain from arresting and imprisoning writers and journalists who are exercising their right to freedom of expression;
• Take concrete steps to address impunity in the killings of journalists, and end threats against writers and journalists to prevent them from exercising their right to freedom of expression;
• Hold to account federal and state security forces and officials involved in infringing fundamental rights of writers and journalists guaranteed by the Constitution;
• Actively protect journalists who are threatened by Boko Haram, and allow journalists to investigate state action and human rights issues related to Boko Haram without suffering threats, intimidation, or arrest;
• End the use of Sharia law in state courts to censor film, music, and literature;
• Continue to allow the free and unfettered transmission of information online and through digital media;
• Repeal the colonial-era sedition law in accordance with the 1983 ruling by a court of appeals, specifically articles 50, 51, and 52 of the Criminal Code, and articles 416-422 of the Penal Code.

To see the full UPR submission click here.

PEN International celebrates literature and promotes freedom of expression. Founded in 1921, our global community of writers now comprises 146 Centres spanning more than 100 countries. Our programmes, campaigns, events and publications connect writers and readers for global solidarity and cooperation. PEN International is a non-political organization and holds consultative status at the United Nations and UNESCO. http://www.pen-international.org

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