Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed by the Nigeria government’s decision to suspend Twitter throughout the country after the social media platform deleted one of the president’s tweets, and by the attacks and threats it poses to the media according to journalists interviewed by RSF.
Nigerian media outlets are shocked by Twitter’s suspension for an indefinite period that the government announced on 4 June. “It’s a big blow,” said Jide Oyekunle, a reporter for the Daily Independent newspaper. With 40 million Nigerian users (five times as many as in France), “Twitter is an excellent source of trending topics to not go dry as a journalist,” Oyekunle added.
“We don’t know what is happening, what is being said on issues,” said Lizzy Chikpi, a reporter for Order Paper, a news site that specialises in covering legislative matters.
Ironically, it was on Twitter that the information ministry announced the ban. On 7 June, the National Broadcasting Commission, the broadcast media regulator, went further and ordered radio and TV stations to delete their Twitter accounts, warning them that continuing to use Twitter would be regarded as “unpatriotic.” Neither the ministry nor the regulator had deleted their own accounts at the time of writing.
Some of the journalists contacted by RSF voiced caution about continuing to use Twitter but most said they would keep trying to use it despite the threat of sanctions. “I had to rush to install a VPN and be able to access Twitter again,” said a journalist with Premium Times, one of Nigeria’s leading privately-owned newspapers.
But will use of virtual private networks suffice to circumvent the government’s growing interest in controlling online freedom of expression more closely, especially online?
“Other regulators in the country like in the banking or medical sector did not ban their members from using Twitter, only the media regulator did so,” noticed Samuel Ogundipe, the editor of Peoples Gazette, an investigative news site that had to change its domain name after being blocked by the authorities, as RSF reported in February. “This decision is not spontaneous,” he added. “It’s a campaign to control the media and social networks that has been waged for years.”
Lure of the Chinese “model”
A report by the Foundation for Investigative Journalism has added to the concerns, According to this Nigerian journalists’ collective, members of the Nigerian president’s office met with representatives of the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Chinese Internet regulator on 5 June, less than 24 hours after the Twitter ban was announced. And the FIJ says they discussed the possibility for building an Internet firewall in Nigeria like the one the Chinese authorities use to filter and censor online content – a nightmarish scenario but apparently not a science fiction one.
In an appearance before the House of Representatives committee on information last October, information minister Lai Mohammed noted : “When we went to China, we could not get Google, Facebook, and Instagram. You could not even use your email in China because they made sure it is censored and well regulated.”
Neither the information minister nor the minister of communications and digital economy responded to RSF’s requests for comments on this subject.
Nigeria fell five places in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 120th out of 180 countries.