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Fears linger around Buhari’s commitment to a free press

Journalists jailed by Muhammadu Buhari’s regime in the 1980s are ready to forgive, but others are skeptical

When Muhammadu Buhari hit the campaign trail in Nigeria earlier this year, he got help from an unlikely source: Tunde Thompson. As a reporter for the Lagos-based Guardian newspaper in the 1980s, Thompson was one of two journalists jailed under the repressive military regime led by Buhari.

Thompson was a casualty of Decree 4, a draconian piece of legislation that allowed the government to imprison any journalist who embarrassed the country’s military leaders — a nebulous charge that was frequently invoked to muzzle the press and civil society during the 18 months of Buhari’s rule. After Thompson and his colleague Nduka Irabor published a report on diplomatic postings that involved top military brass, the two were arrested in February 1984 and held for eight months.

Three decades after his ordeal, Thompson said that “time is a healer of certain wounds,” and he came out in support of Buhari in his campaign against incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan.

“People should learn to be charitable. They should learn to forgive and let bygones be bygones,” Thompson told the online Premium Times newspaper. Saying that Buhari wasn’t personally responsible for his 1984 arrest, Thompson added that he “bear[s] no grudge against him.”

Buhari defeated Jonathan in the March 28 election, and as Nigeria prepares to peacefully hand power to a man who 30 years ago seized it by force, forgiveness is on the minds of many. Even those who suffered during Buhari’s brief reign hope that the notoriously hard-nosed disciplinarian can stem the corruption and the growing tide of insecurity that undid his predecessor. For journalists too, there is guarded optimism that Buhari, now a professed “converted democrat,” has turned over a new leaf in his transition from military strongman to civilian leader.

“What happened during the military regime of Gen. Buhari cannot happen in [a] democracy,” said Mohammed Garba, president of the Nigerian Union of Journalists. “I think we are going to see a different Buhari.”

Skeptics question how long the commitment to democracy will last for Muhammadu Buhari, a former military man who showed little tolerance for dissenting voices the last time he was in power.

Buhari’s ascent to power in December 1983 ushered in a period of crackdowns on civil liberties and freedom of speech, with the arrests of Thompson and Irabor part of a broader effort to muzzle the country’s once vibrant press. Journalists and editors were regularly detained on trivial offenses, and self-censorship became the norm, with newspapers fearful of publishing stories that could incur stiff fines and jail sentences. By the time Buhari was overthrown in a coup in August 1985, a commentator in The Concord newspaper reported that the local press was in a “comatose condition.”

Since the return of democracy in 1999, though, the industry has managed to make slow but steady gains. With dozens of publicly and privately owned newspapers and TV and radio stations, Nigeria now has one of the most diverse and boisterous media climates on the continent, although the industry faces a rash of challenges. Buhari tried to offer assurances on the campaign trail that he would uphold those freedoms once in office, promising “to promote the consolidation of democracy … by guaranteeing that the media’s freedom is not compromised in any way.”

“Without a robust and thriving media, the masses would have no voice,” he added.

Yet skeptics question how long the commitment to democracy will last for Buhari, a former military man who showed little tolerance for dissenting voices the last time he was in power.

“You think that you’re going to have all the time to continue [the media’s] goodwill,” said Jahman Anikulapo, a former editor of The Sunday Guardian, referring to the honeymoon period Buhari is enjoying. But if he struggles to deliver on some of his campaign promises, “there’s going to be a lot of criticism. And that’s when you will see how democratic he is.”

Nigeria is one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists last year ranked the nation 12th on its list of deadliest countries, citing “a steady rise in unsolved murders in recent years.” It was the second year in a row that Nigeria appeared on the list, with group noting that the country’s “press freedom record is on the decline.”

The broader unrest in Nigeria has taken its toll on journalists, who struggle to operate freely in much of the country. With the continuing threat posed by armed group Boko Haram in the north, kidnappings in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, rampant criminal and politically sponsored violence and a general culture of impunity, Dapo Olorunyomi, the editor-in-chief of The Premium Times, suggested in a 2013 op-ed that this is “perhaps the most dismal period” for the profession in its 150-year history in the region.

The run-up to this year’s presidential polls was especially troubling, according to the Lagos-based International Press Centre, which documented 32 attacks against journalists in Nigeria from November to February. On Monday the military released two Al Jazeera journalists it had detained for nearly two weeks, underscoring the IPC’s findings that “police and other security agencies have continued to be the principal perpetrators of attacks,” a fact that it called “particularly alarming.”

Citing the broader culture of impunity in Nigeria, Garba noted, “We are yet to see a serious case against either the state security forces or individuals that have committed crimes against journalists.”

Still, within the industry, there is hope that Buhari “has a chance of cleaning up” that culture, according to Femi Adesina, the president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. Despite his heavy-handed time as a military ruler, Buhari entered the campaign season with a no-nonsense reputation that enamored him to the many voters who had grown weary of the rampant corruption and waywardness of the Jonathan era. Yet Adesina cautioned it “remains to be seen” how Buhari would manage to push reform while abiding by the country’s democratic institutions, as opposed to ruling by decree, as he did 30 years ago.

Perhaps the greater threat to Nigeria’s press stems from powerful controlling interests in a country where, according to Mohammed Garba, president of the Nigerian Union of Journalists, roughly 70 percent of media companies are owned by politicians.

Perhaps the greater threat to Nigeria’s press stems from powerful controlling interests in a country where, according to Garba, roughly 70 percent of media companies are owned by politicians and the dire financial straits of most organizations leave them particularly susceptible to outside influence.

The issue was brought to bear during the bitterly divisive campaign season, when the press was routinely criticized for failing to maintain its objectivity, publishing slanderous attack ads and promoting hate speech. Last month a Lagos high court issued an injunction against several broadcasters — including the state-owned Nigerian Television Authority — for running a negative and specious documentary against Buhari’s running mate, Yemi Osinbajo. The broadcasters reportedly received roughly $50 million to produce and air the program, which was bankrolled by Jonathan’s ruling party.

The lapses in ethics throughout the campaign season, said Anikulapo, reflect the broader struggle by media in recent years to live up to their mandate as watchdog in a country hobbled by corruption. He pointed to the Freedom of Information Act, signed into law by Jonathan in 2011, which mandates that institutions receiving public money disclose their operations and spending and that citizens have the right to access information about those groups’ activities. At the time, the act was hailed as a victory for transparency and accountability, but it has only sporadically been used by the press since, and Ankikulapo cited it as an example of the media’s failure to “engage with power … and raise the necessary questions,” even with legal tools at its disposal.

That failure, he said, raises doubts about whether the media can “wake up from that slumber all of a sudden and start to tackle a former general.”

“Now that you’ve dined with the devil,” he asked, “how do you extricate yourself from it?”

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