It’s about 60 days since the Federal Government of Nigeria banned Twitter in the country. In this article, MFWA’s correspondent in Nigeria examines the ban’s impact on journalists and their work. The article also explores the possibility of a restoration of the microblogging platform in the country.
It’s been over two months since Nigeria joined the league of countries like China, Iran, North Korea and Turkmenistan that banned the operations of social networking giant, Twitter, claiming the microblogging platform’s activities are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.
The government blocked Twitter access on June 4, two days after the social media platform deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari for violating the company’s policies.
Buhari’s tweet referenced the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70, during which more than one million people reportedly died when secessionists from the country’s southeast region sought to create an independent Biafra nation for the Igbo ethnic people.
Buhari’s tweet mentioned that he would deal with current secessionists in “the language they will understand.” The tweet’s genocidal tone caused a wave of protest on Twitter, prompting the social media platform to delete it. In retaliation, the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed, announced in a statement that the government would be indefinitely suspending the site’s operations.
Twitter has played a key role for journalists and activists in Nigeria with hashtags like #EndSARS bringing to global attention the brutality suffered by many citizens, especially youths, in the hands of the police.
Hence, since the suspension of the social media platform, several journalists who spoke with the Media Foundation for West Africa’s correspondent in Nigeria shared how it had affected their work.
Mr Innocent Duru, a journalist with The Nation Newspaper in Lagos, said he used to explore Twitter to source for story tips, noting that this avenue had been blocked since the ban on the social media platform.
“Information and contacts that one would have easily accessed on Twitter became difficult to get as a result of the ban,” he told MFWA.
“Twitter gave me the opportunity to get in touch with those who share information on the platform to do a follow-up. This has not been possible following the ban. Also, I previously used to get people to interview on Twitter. This has not been possible again,” he added.
Furthermore, Duru said he always shares the links to his stories on Twitter, enabling him to get public feedback. However, this has not been possible again.
Also, Ms Elfredah Kevin, a journalist with the online news outlet PeoplesGazetteNGR.com in Abuja, said the Twitter ban had really affected her work.
“As a journalist who most times source information from Twitter or sometimes see certain threads that are newsworthy and explore stories from them, today, all these seem not to be working well for me,” she said.
Many Nigerians still tweeting use the Virtual Private Network (NPN) to bypass censorship, but Kevin said the problem was that VPN slows down her device, making it difficult to access any information she needs on Twitter quickly.
“VPN usually slows down the network and this is a big challenge for me. Most times, whenever I turn on VPN to access Twitter, the network drastically goes down and it takes time to load, and when it eventually loads, it is difficult to have the needed and timely information,” she said.
Mr Tobi Aworinde of The Punch Newspaper in Lagos said he now uses free VPN on his smartphone to access Twitter but said he had been unable to find a free VPN for his laptop, the device that he most times uses for work.
So, having to look up tweets for story tips when using the laptop has been a major constraint for him ever since the ban.
“I have had to resort to using my phone for tasks such as online searches on Twitter and reaching newsmakers and sources via the app,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Mayowa Tijani, a fact-checking reporter with AFP and business editor at TheCable in Lagos, said the ban on Twitter had affected his work both positively and negatively.
“On the negative side, we have seen a general reduction in engagement from Nigerians who cannot or are not willing to join Twitter conversations using VPN. This also means journalists’ stories are reaching fewer people and having a perhaps lesser impact on the general public,” he said.
However, on the positive side, Tijani said he noticed the ban had reduced the spread and frequency of government-driven propaganda and misinformation in Nigeria.
Mr Sikiru Obarayese, a reporter with the Daily Post in Osogbo, the capital of Osun state in southwestern Nigeria, also said because of the Twitter ban, he had been unable to connect with sources typically found on the platform.
“Not everyone knows there is a way of accessing Twitter despite the ban, hence this has greatly reduced engagement with audience on the application, thereby making it hard to get feedback on reports,” he told MFWA.
A freelance journalist based in Sokoto, the capital city of Sokoto state in northwestern Nigeria, Mr Olokooba Abdulwasiu, succinctly put it that “denying me access to Twitter is like taking away my food.”
Hope on the horizon?
The Twitter ban has continued to generate backlash from both local and international communities, who aver that the Nigerian government’s action stifles press freedom and freedom of expression, contrary to the provisions of the Nigerian constitution and African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.
On August 4, the United States Consul General in Lagos, Ms Claire Pierangelo, did not mince words in saying the Twitter ban was a threat to human rights.
She further described the Nigerian government’s threat to prosecute those who use VPN to tweet as an encroachment on press freedom, freedom of expression, and civic space.
“History is full of cautionary tales showing that when governments try to limit citizens’ right to talk about certain topics, important conversations are pushed into the shadows. Rigorous debate promotes transparency and social stability,” Pierangelo said at an event in Lagos.
Despite the Twitter ban, the US diplomat urged reporters, editors, media executives, and civil society organisations to remain vigilant to protect the right to freedom of expression and press freedom.
Nigerian media analyst and lawyer based in the United States, Dr Kunle Ibrahim, told MFWA on the phone that the Twitter ban was a sign that the government was intolerant to criticisms.
“Governments that decide to shut platforms like Twitter don’t want the citizens to criticise them; they are afraid of their corrupt deeds to be exposed. That is the meaning I can read to the Twitter ban,” he said.
However, the Nigerian government has hinted that it may lift the Twitter ban soon based on some understanding reached with the social media company.
Local news outlets reported that Mr Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture, on August 11, told journalists that progress had been made in resolving the disagreement between the parties following series of meetings.
Mohammed claimed that most of the conditions given to Twitter had been accepted by the company, but said the remaining condition was that the social media giant must register and open an office in Nigeria.
The minister assured that “everything will be ironed out with Twitter within a matter of days or weeks.”
In Twitter’s response seen by MFWA, the company did not mention reaching an agreement with the Nigerian government but said it was anticipating that Nigerians could start using the platform soon.
“Our aim is to chart a path forward to the restoration of Twitter for everyone in Nigeria. We look forward to ongoing discussions with the Nigerian government and seeing the service restored very soon,” Twitter’s notice read.
The MFWA remains deeply worried by the Twitter ban in Nigeria because this amounts to a clampdown on press freedom and freedom of speech, which are both guaranteed in sections 22 and 39 of the Nigerian constitution, respectively.
We urge the government to quickly reverse the ban for the citizens to continue expressing their opinions guaranteed under Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Nigeria is a signatory to.