The 2023 press freedom rankings by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) saw Nigeria “improve” six places over its previous ranking in 2022; in one of the most curious dynamics of the latest index.
In what highlights the paradox of Nigeria’s positive ranking, the RSF did not spare the selfsame Nigeria a scathing review.
“Nigeria is one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are often monitored, attacked and arbitrarily arrested, as was the case during the 2023 elections,” affirmed the RSF.
The assessment by the RSF goes to the heart of the superficiality of Nigeria’s improved ranking on the 2023 press freedom index – it was more the case of the algorithms aligning in favour of the country than the press freedom situation in Nigeria really improving.
But even with the fortuitous mechanics of algorithms, Nigeria still ranked 123 out of 180 on the 2023 press freedom index of the RSF. What this means is that Africa’s most populous country has so bad a press freedom environment that any journalist with a choice would be wise to consider practising their vocation in that country, only after 122 other countries become unavailable.
In the 2023 rankings by the RSF, nearly 40% of all African countries were categorized as having ‘bad’ press freedom environments. This is so because generally speaking, the press freedom climate on the continent has deteriorated since the last review. The ‘bad boy’ countries included Ghana, which was ranked 62nd in the world. If Ghana, ranked 62nd has a bad press freedom environment, then at a ranking of 123rd, Nigeria is a freak show.
The Programme Manager for Freedom of Expression at the MFWA, Muheeb Saeed, makes the point that “Nigeria’s marginal improvement in the RSF ranking in 2023 as compared to the previous year is flattering. It has been on the back of a steep deterioration of press freedom conditions on the continent and worldwide, and should lead to a sober reflection and concerted effort to bring about real improvement.”
He adds that the country has consistently been found to record the most press freedom violations in the MFWA’s quarterly Freedom of Expression Monitor. “Security agents have been notoriously hostile to journalists, physically attacking media professionals in a wanton manner and routinely arresting them and seizing or destroying their equipment. Nigeria’s serial press freedom violations and attacks on dissent are an abnegation of the State’s responsibility to protect journalists and uphold freedom of opinion. We, therefore, call on the government to assume its responsibilities by holding perpetrators of press freedom violations to account.”
At the ranking of 123, it is noteworthy that Nigeria was beaten by countries including junta-ruled Burkina Faso (58th) and troubled neighbour Niger (61st).
Still, this was an advantage for Nigeria because the lowering of the general press freedom standards in Africa, in which some 40% of all countries are categorised as having bad press freedom environments, meant that even low-performing countries could also shine.
And so, Nigeria’s position improved by six places from its 2022 ranking of 129 out of 180, to 123 out of 180 in 2023 because the general climate for press freedom in Africa worsened.
RSF’s review of Nigeria as one of the most dangerous places to practise journalism is a truism that on the ground is validated by many factors. Nigeria is one of few countries in West Africa which still have archaic criminal libel on their statutes – section 373 of the criminal code.
Added to this, the country’s media regulator, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), continues to be a convenient tool by which media houses are harassed over licence fees by the government. Recently, the NBC was restrained from overreaching by a court ruling that its attempt to impose fines on several broadcast stations was ultra vires.
Then there is the notorious penchant for politicians, especially State Governors, to arrest and assault journalists for whimsical reasons – such as interviewing political opponents or providing coverage for protests against them (Governors).
Where the government and politicians are not hounding journalists in Nigeria, bandit kidnappers are abducting them for ransom money.
Nigeria has traditionally not been a press freedom champion in Africa, however, for the 2023 RSF rankings, the press freedom violations that occurred during the country’s 2023 presidential election had a swaying influence.
As the MFWA’s monitoring has established, journalists found themselves at the receiving end of the brutalities from the election which has added to the garland of disappointment already around the neck of President Muhamadu Buhari.
Performance per indicators
The RSF global press freedom rankings are done on the bases of five main indicators – Political, Economic, Legislative, Social and Security, with the latter concerning the safeness of the environment for journalists.
Out of the five indicators, Nigeria improved marginally in four compared to its 2022 performance. On the Political indicator, Nigeria ranked 107th in 2023 as against 127th in 2022; on the Economic indicator, it ranked 110th in 2023 as compared to 120th in 2022 and for the Legislative indicator, it ranked 126th in 2023 as against 129th in 2022.
The only indicator on which Nigeria did not improve was the Social indicator where it was ranked 88th in 2023 as against 84th in 2022. And for the Security indicator, Nigeria ranked 147th in 2023 as against 154th in 2022.
It was the summation of the country’s performance in all of these indicators that it got ranked 123rd out of a total of 180 countries in a league of the countries with the best press freedom environments.
The government should start by scrapping the archaic criminal libel law. Such a primitive law should have no place in the affairs of a modern state. Specific laws should also be passed to prohibit Governors from dictating the arrest of journalists given Nigeria has a fully functioning law enforcement machinery.
The Nigerian government should also put in place mechanisms that ensure that persons who attack journalists face the law.
The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) should evolve from the hair-trigger attitude of suspending licence of media houses which fail to pay broadcasting fees. The revocation of licence, if it should ever be applied as a punitive measure, must be the last resort.
The Nigerian Union of Journalists should also forge mutual ties with the Police to ensure peaceful coexistence.