Nigeria: Freedom of the media under a watchful eye – Radio Deutsche
Welle, July 7, 2015
Despite strict government censorship, artists and the media in Nigeria are
finding way to enjoy small amounts of freedom.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had focused his election campaign on
“change” – and promised an overhaul. The opposition candidate Buhari
convinced his constituency at the voting polls on March 28.
“Many artists and intellectuals responded with relief,” noted Marc-André
Schmachtel, director of the Goethe-Institut in the country’s economic and
cultural metropolis, Lagos. Lola Shoneyin, one of Nigeria’s most renowned
writers (“The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives”), even went so far as to
campaign openly for Buhari.
That comes as a surprise since, during the 1980s when Muhammadu Buhari ruled
as a military dictator, he had applied a very tough policy against
dissidents. But the fact that Nigerians have, for the first time, voted
against a government perceived as being corrupt and incompetent has been
welcomed by many artists.
Even Shoneyin’s father, Literature Nobel Prize-laureate Wole Soyinka, who
for a long time had strongly criticized Buhari’s presidential ambitions,
accepted him in the end – albeit as the lesser evil. After Buhari’s election
victory, he called on Nigerians to forgive him for his dictatorial past.
A history of censorship
Buhari follows a civilian president, but one who also had a mixed record
when it came to freedom in cultural affairs and the media. In February 2015,
the organization Reporters Without Borders warned that President Goodluck
Jonathan’s evasive manner, when it came to the media and the rights of the
public in general, was deeply worrying. Reports were becoming more frequent
that domestic and foreign media reporting on the struggle against terrorism
in northeastern Nigeria were being hampered in their work.
Author Wole Soyinka. Copyright: imago/Gallo Images
Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinke considers President Buhari the lesser of
Previously, the Nigerian military had made clear that it no longer wished to
be criticized by the media for its unsuccessful strategy against the
terrorist Islamist group, Boko Haram. After it had been reported that
several generals had allegedly been sentenced by martial courts for
presumably collaborating with the terrorists, soldiers impeded the delivery
of a number of major newspapers for several days. They claimed that it
wasn’t legally possible for newspapers to publish such security-sensitive
Biased media control
These examples, among others, demonstrate that, even 16 years after the
current democratic constitution came into force, freedom of expression must
be constantly fought for and defended by Nigerians. Whereas in the past, and
even under military regimes, the printed media of Africa’s most populous
state never shied away from making their points of view heard, the still
relatively young private television and radio stations have come under
particular pressure. They are ultimately overseen by the Nigerian
Broadcasting Commission (NBC).
“The problem is that the chairman is appointed solely by the president,”
criticized Umar Saidu Tudunwada, a manager at the northern Nigerian
commercial broadcaster, Radio Freedom. That’s why the NBC consistently
promotes the position of the ruling party, he added. Since the government
already directly controls the state media, it keeps an especially close eye
on private media organizations, according to Tudunwada.
Tudunwada is demanding that the NBC’s board be appointed by the parliament
in the future, so that the president doesn’t make a single-handed decision.
Caution with sensitive issues
Furthermore, private newspapers and radio stations are often owned by
members of the Nigerian elite, who are closely linked to one or another
political party. Many reports are paid for directly by institutions,
organizations or religious groups, or even produced by such groups
themselves. In Nigeria, a deeply religious country, priests and imams assert
direct pressure on the media.
“If you are not careful, they mobilize the people to stir up trouble,” said
Umar Saidu Tudunwada from Freedom Radio, whose headquarters are located in
the strictly Islamic city of Kano. Particularly sensitive issues in the
conservative provinces of northern Nigeria include religion, women’s rights
and homosexuality, which is forbidden by law.
Radio broadcasting continue to be the main source of information of
Nigerians, and is hence very influential. That’s why Freedom Radio broadcast
spots and discussions promoting peaceful conduct during the elections months
ahead of time. “Together with other broadcasters, we’ve organized seminars
for our journalists to enable them to report more sensitively on conflicts,”
said Tudunwada. “That proved to be very successful, since hate speeches and
provocation did not come up in our coverage.”
Watching over ‘Nollywood’
Films produced in Nigeria enjoy particular popularity. Nigeria’s film
industry, known as “Nollywood,” is now widely regarded as the world’s most
prolific, behind the US and India. This popularity has caught the attention
of the authorities, and the governing body officially refers to itself as a
censorship board – the National Film and Video Censors Board. In general,
the censors do their work unnoticed. But one of the few internationally
acclaimed Nigerian films provoked an outcry in 2014.
The NFVCB had banned the film “Half of a Yellow Sun” from being shown. The
film, based on the novel by Chimamanda Adichie, is set during the Nigerian
civil war and is about the separation the Republic of Biafra in the south
east of the country, which is mainly inhabited by the Ibo people. After
weeks of tug-of-war, intense public debates and agreements to cut a number
of scenes, the censors finally agreed to let the film be screened.
“That has triggered a broad debate on the role of censorship,” said
Marc-André Schmachtel from the Goethe-Institut. “Many artists don’t want to
give up their right to deal with history.”
The influence of Boko Haram
The Goethe-Institut itself has not seen direct restrictions concerning its
work in Lagos. Nevertheless, there are issues that require special
sensitivity, said Schmachtel: “When it comes to homosexuality, for example,
we are very careful.” That’s why he prefers to screen a particular movie
about the coming-out of young Kenyans in the German Consulate rather than in
a public hall. On the other hand, events that are taken for granted in Lagos
would cause a scandal elsewhere, said Schmachtel, like the Lagos Photo
Festival, where violence and nudity were on full display.
“Sometimes, we need to package things a bit differently in order to take
advantage of our leeway,” said Schmachtel, referring to an experience with
the liaison office in the northern Nigerian city of Kano. In 2008 and 2012,
the Goethe-Institut managed to include some senstive issues in music and
video projects, and even a fashion show. With the Boko Haram terror attacks,
the risk of being kidnapped ultimately became too big for the German manager
and the northern Nigerian branch closed after just four years.
The future of northern Nigeria therefore largely depends on whether the new
President will be able to put an end to the terror. Only then can greater
avenues open up there once again for culture and media.
Thomas Mösch is the head of Deutsche Welle’s Hausa program. The language is
spoken mainly in northern Nigeria and Niger. DW Hausa broadcasts on
shortwave and via local FM partner stations to roughly one third of the
Mösch’s article is part of a collaboration with the magazine, “Politik und
Kultur,” and is part of DW’s multimedia series, “Art of Freedom. Freedom of