Press Freedom in Nigeria: One step forward, two steps back

Weekly Source editor-in-chief has just spent nine months as a free man after two years of

detention without trial. Pic: @AmnestyNigeria (Twitter)

The suspension of the controversial media accreditation guidelines for Nigeria's National Assembly could be a hollow victory for the country's media. Weekly Source editor-in-chief Jones Abiri was re-arrested on on May 22 2019 and charged under the country's Cybercrimes Act, Anti-sabotage Act, and Terrorism Prevention Act.

The arrest came barely a day after Senate President Bukola Saraki reassured Nigerians that the National Assembly supports the media and stands behind the principles of press freedom. This in response to public and industry outcry after a directive on new media accreditation guidelines to cover the country's National Assembly were released. Media rights and civil society organisations deem the accreditation criteria too stringent, stating that they were a hindrance to free and fair reporting.

Among the requirements, news teams were restricted to a maximum of two staff members – one reporter for all their media platforms, and a cameraman for television and independent producers, with online media allowed a photographer. All online media also had to prove evidence of being operational for five years, showing evidence of this with news clippings, “especially parliamentary news”.

There is still uncertainty about the official position on the now-suspended guidelines. The Nigeria-based International Centre for Investigative Reporting reported that the Chairman of the Senate Press Corps, Ezrel Tabiowo, announced the suspension of the newly-implemented guidelines during a live television interview.

Meanwhile, the editor-in-chief of the Weekly Source, Jones Abiri, has enjoyed just nine month of relative freedom since his last imprisonment. In August 2018 he was released after being detained for two years without trial. One month after his release in 2018 the Abuja Federal High Court declared his detention illegal. The presiding judge, Nnamdi Dimga, found the detention was also an abuse of his fundamental human rights and the court awarded Abiri about $27 000 in damages.

Maximum penalties carried by the charges

According to Nigeria's Premium Times, the court filing for Abiri's re-arrest claims he sent text messages to officials of oil companies, Shell and Agip, threatening to blow up their infrastructure. He is also accused of leading activists planning to detonate explosives along the pipelines in Nigeria’s southern state of Bayelsa.

The country's Cybercrimes Act of 2015 carries a maximum sentence of 10 years without the option of a fine. In cases where the communication transmitted contains a threat to harm another's property, firm or corporation, the law prescribes five years imprisonment or a minimum fine of around $69 400.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari has faced continued pressure from civil society to sign the country’s Digital Rights and Freedom Bill into law. The bill was passed by the National Assembly at the end of 2018 and transmitted to the country’s president for assent on February 4.

According to social enterprise, Paradigm Initiative, this bill provides a comprehensive legal framework that would offer media increased protection, and could help decriminalise the work of journalists online. In addition to this protection, Paradigm Initiative believes it would also help gain recognition for journalists and bloggers and cement their role as important agents for democracy.

The Prevention of Terrorism act also carries a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment. Offences under this act include knowingly agreeing to provide training or giving instructions for the execution of a terrorist act. The Anti-Sabotage Act carries a maximum sentence of 21 years in prison or the death sentence - a penalty for any actions relating to interruption of the production or distribution of Nigeria vast petroleum resources.

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