Freedom of Expression, Theocracy, and a Free Media in West Africa’s Democracy


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June 14, 2022

Freedom of Expression, Theocracy, and a Free Media in West Africa’s Democracy

  • Africa
  • Democracy
  • Free Speech
  • Media
  • media freedom
  • theocracy
  • West Africa

At the time of writing this, Sokoto State in Northern Nigeria is burning following the mob lynching of a 22 year old student, Deborah Yakubu, over a voice note she posted on a WhatsApp group asking her classmates to stop posting religious messages on the group intended for school work, and ostensibly insulting the Prophet in the process. Deborah was dragged out of the protection of the school’s security officials, flogged, stoned and then burnt alive, while her killers cheered and made boastful videos of themselves in the act. This happened in the backdrop of an announcement that Sokoto State would not be presenting any candidate, for the second year in a row, for the West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination (WASSCE). The state opts for a less popular examination conducted by the National Examination Council (NECO), but even so its enrollment and completion r​​ates are low relative to the number of school age children, an educational deficit which further exacerbates the conditions for radicalism and religious extremism in the State. Reactions from Nigeria’s political leaders and would-be leaders to Deborah’s lynching have been at best tepid and at worst disturbingly political

There is a lot to be said about a society in which something you posted on a WhatsApp group can get you killed. John Stuart Mill, in his seminal treatise On Liberty, laid the Western foundation for freedom of expression, arguing that people should be free to say what they want, as long as they do not harm others. This idea of “do no harm” finds reflection in the African humanistic philosophy of Ubuntu, ‘I am because we are’. The arbitrariness, indeed the warrantless basis for this murder, despite certain clerical claims, is deepened by the counterclaim of the Salafist cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, who denounced the killing, dismissing a consensus even in the faith on such matters. It goes without saying that Deborah’s “blasphemy” harmed no one, but the teaching of a Sokoto-based cleric that blasphemers must be killed, regardless of repentance, harmed and killed a young woman. Nigeria must prioritise human rights and resolve its theocratic tendencies by rescinding all blasphemy laws. Political leaders must also throw the full weight of the law at those who would inflict suffering on others in the name of religion. But I digress.

The point worth carefully examining is the intersection of underdevelopment as characterised by poor educational achievement with radical extremism. The kids that Sokoto failed to present for WASSCE this year will inevitably fall behind their peers and over time would become shut out of economic opportunities, making them easy prey for radicalisation.

In a democracy, a free media, guided by the journalistic ethics of truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity and accountability, has a responsibility to set the agenda for the democracy, while acting as gatekeepers of the public sphere and watchdogs for democratic accountability. Democracy is all about good governance, an accountable polity and a transparent process of ensuring an orderly society that delivers on the public good: substantive human advancement and empowerment in the social, cultural, economic, and political lives of citizens. This development vision needs the media to lead the formation of attitudes and values of positive change, through the responsibility for accurate information, and by offering solutions to citizens, as well as serving as a watchdog for elected officials.

Nigeria’s press started around 1859 as a private pre-colonial effort to promote missionary activities and encourage literary consciousness, and these foundations allowed it to acquire a crusading edge that would crystalise in an independence movement in the 1940s-50s, mobilising young Zikist movement leaders such as Saad Zungeru, Kola Bologun, Aminu Kano, Mokwugo Okoye, Nwafor Orizu, Bello Ijumu, and Ozumba Mbadiwe to agitate for independence. But following independence, the fierce contest for supremacy among the emerging political actors led to a media ownership regime which served mainly to play up ethnic and religious divisions in the bid to access and consolidate power. Over the years, however, a few media outlets broke from the norm, to re-enact the traditions of investigative solutions and accountability journalism, most notably in the fight for democracy in the 1990s. 

But new challenges bedevil what is left of Nigeria and West Africa’s accountability newsrooms. Some are endogenous, such as ethical and professional lapses; others involve underdeveloped investigative and digital reporting capabilities; and weakening editorial independence, pluralism, and safety regimes. Yet, three exogenous challenges are worth highlighting in depth. First is the reality of the new digital media space and the resultant information disorder challenges; second is a relentless suppression of the free press by increasingly authoritarian regimes; and third is the ineffectual, received business models that lead to a sustainability challenge. 

First, on the reality of the new digital public sphere, almost 150 million Nigerians now use the internet; WhatsApp has over 90 million Nigerian users, and 32 million Nigerians use other social media platforms: Facebook, 26.1 million; YouTube, 32.9 million; Instagram, 9.05 million; LinkedIn, 6.3 million; Snapchat, 9.5 million; and Twitter, 325,000. Compared with the rest of the world, the average Nigerian social media user spends the most time on these platforms, devoting an average of four hours a day to them. This state of affairs effectively situates social media as the public sphere for about 15 percent of Nigerians, making those with the most influence and followership on these platforms the de facto gatekeepers of the public sphere. This reality, as well as the algorithms of these platforms, which privilege personalisation and engagement over truth, relevance and balance in determining what gets wide distribution, make the platforms fertile grounds for information disorder. This is a composite of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. The journalistic press therefore need to engage these technology companies, as well as the influencers on these platforms to recarve their constitutionally appointed role in the fight to preserve truth and correctly educate the people.

Second, on press freedom, there is a subtle but ballooning climate of legal restraint and a judicial environment unwilling to give a bold push to media freedom. For example in Nigeria, there are legislative bills, many motivated by theocratic and authoritarian predilections, being debated to expand the powers of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation to censor free speech and infringe on digital rights, especially of online newspapers. There is also a Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2013 that is ambiguous in its definition of terrorism, leaving wide discretionary powers to the state. These powers have been used to harass and intimidate the press. For example, the Department of State Services (DSS), empowered by this law, illegally jailed Jones Abiri, a journalist and publisher of The Weekly Source, for two years, for republishing a story alleging that the military was planning a coup against President Buhari. Abiri was accused of involvement in the coup plot. To address these authoritarian and theocratic laws, the media and civil society must work with the judiciary and legislature to revise such laws and at least 15 others that stifle press freedom and human rights.

Finally, on the sustainability challenge, rapid changes in how people consume information, mostly digitally, and how the market rewards attention has led to a decimation of publication sales and the advert revenues of traditional news outlets, thereby forcing three existential questions: How do we produce, distribute, and sustainably fund our journalism? Philanthropic funding has kept the media ecosystem on life support for a few years now, but that source is as unsustainable as its predecessors. Media companies need to develop services and products out of the vast amounts of data they collect, and digital skills have to be developed in producing and disseminating journalism in a manner that solves their revenue problems.  

The media may yet secure justice for Deborah Yakubu, but the more important question we have to ask is: How do we practice journalism in a way that ensures there are no future Deborah Yakubus or Jones Abiris in need of justice from authoritarian, theocratic states or radicalised mobs? The answers begin with solving our sustainability challenge, reclaiming the public sphere from information disorder and pushing back on laws that restrict press freedom and other human rights.

Dr Tobi A. Oluwatola is the Acting Executive Director at the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development. In this capacity he leads a team of researchers, development experts, journalists and technology experts to develop knowledge products, build civic technology tools and train journalists to promote democratic accountability in West Africa. He recently led the publication of a Press Freedom Manual to educate journalists as well as other actors on the primacy of press freedom in democracy and provide tools for improving press freedom in the region. He previously worked at the RAND Corporation where he provided policy advice to governments in the US, South East Asia, Middle East and Africa. He also previously worked as a management consultant for KPMG, the World Bank and FCDO.

This contribution was part of the online panel, Resetting the Media Freedom Imperative in Africa’s Democratic Agenda, held on May 23, 2022. The full video of the event is available here.


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