A man uses his mobile phone to read headline news on Twitter in Lagos, Nigeria, on June 7, 2021. Two Nigerian journalists talked to CPJ about the government's ongoing Twitter ban. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Two Nigerian journalists respond to the government’s ongoing Twitter ban

More than a month after Nigeria’s federal government suspended access to Twitter, CPJ’s review of local accounts found at least some run by media outlets have gone silent.

Twitter was inaccessible when CPJ tried to visit it from Nigeria in mid-July. However, after the ban, Nigerian outlet The Guardian reported a huge spike in searches for virtual private network services, which help people access blocked websites. On June 6, two days after the government’s announcement, VPN provider ExpressVPN told a local website the service had seen an increase of over 250% in visits from Nigeria.

Other news outlets – along with celebrities, the main opposition party, at least one state governor, and pastors – have continued to post.

Yet as CPJ has noted with concern, Nigerian officials have explicitly warned that journalists and news outlets may face prosecution if they continue to tweet, although none have been charged to date.

“Some news outlets may fear losing their government-issued licenses for continuing to use Twitter,” Gbénga Ṣẹ̀san, the executive director of the Lagos-based digital rights organization Paradigm Initiative, told CPJ in a recent phone interview. “It’s like Catch-22…If the outlets are not tweeting, no one is reading them, and if they do tweet, they would be worried.” 

CPJ interviewed two journalists about the impact of the ban on their work and on the climate for press freedom in Nigeria. QueenEsther Iroanusi is an Abuja-based senior political reporter for the privately owned Premium Times news website. David Hundeyin, an award-winning journalist focused on West and Central Africa, freelances for local news website NewswireNGR. The interviews, which were conducted via calls and digital messages, have been edited for length and clarity.

CPJ approached Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s minister of information and culture, by messaging app for comment on the ban and the journalists’ remarks. His spokesperson Segun Adeyemi responded. “[A] ban is permanent. A suspension is temporary,” he said. “This federal government will not do anything to stifle the press.”

When CPJ requested comment from Twitter via email, a spokesperson for the company pointed to a tweet stating the company’s willingness to meet with the Nigerian government to “address mutual concerns.”

QueenEsther Iroanusi (Photo: QueenEsther Iroanusi)

QueenEsther Iroanusi:                         

The reason I continue to tweet is because the ban is one of the many attempts of the Nigerian government to gag the media, no matter how you want to see it. As an advocate for free press and freedom of speech, I can’t just succumb to that – especially when we do not have a defined law backing the government’s decision to just ban Twitter. The ban is meant to limit the way the people [share] their views.

For all I know, the government decided to impose this draconian order because its ego was pricked. I am saying this because [it happened] after the president’s tweet was deleted for violating Twitter rules. Even though government officials have denied [it], I just feel that this is too much to call it a coincidence. [Editor’s note: The government’s ban on Twitter came days after it deleted a tweet from the account of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, according to news reports.]

A screenshot of the deleted tweet from the account of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. (Twitter)

The minister of information accused Jack [Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter] of helping Nigerians during the #EndSARS protests last year. This is a demonstration that went global. And it was basically Nigerians asking for something better: An end to police brutality, total police reform. Twitter was really one [of the things] that helped that demonstration go viral. You [would] hear people saying things like, “If you are not [present] physically, make sure you are tweeting.”

[Editor’s note: Segun Adeyemi, the government spokesperson, told CPJ that Twitter was not banned because Buhari’s tweet was deleted, but said that “Twitter played an ignominious role during the [2020] EndSARS [protests].”]

Twitter has also been an amazing source of story ideas. The app helps you connect with millions of Nigerians who have always wanted to report something. When there is an issue, especially involving security agents, you will see people [reacting on Twitter]. You see reports like, “Police react after viral tweet.”

Many great fact checks have been done by journalists [on Twitter], especially with regards to misinformation. Among other things, journalists have had to act as watchdogs for misinformation that has been shared on the app.

In Nigeria, Twitter has been the voice of the people, and the Nigerian media has been amplifying that voice. Nigerian youth use the app to share their opinions, call out the government, and hold them accountable.

Press freedom is the bedrock of a democracy, so once it is gone, you don’t really have much left. They call us the Fourth Estate of the realm for a reason.

Since there is no defined law to back this ban, the government is trying to amend an act. There were previous bills, like the social media bill and the hate speech bill, which were intended to clamp down on the media. It is funny that this government that is trying now to regulate the media actually used it to come into power.

This is not just a threat to democracy. It affects everybody, even those who are agitating for this will one day be affected by it.

David Hundeyin (Photo: David Hundeyin)

David Hundeyin:

I kept tweeting because the ban is illegal and unconstitutional. Without an act of parliament, a law cannot be promulgated in Nigeria. Merely sending out a press release from the Attorney General or the Minister of Information does not establish a law. Nigerians must learn to push back against state-sanctioned illegalities or else they will continue and get worse.

Twitter is a very important distribution channel for journalism and news content. NewswireNGR for example, which I have a working relationship with, sees up to 60 percent of [social media traffic] coming from Twitter alone. In addition to distribution, it is also an extremely important resource for discovering, aggregating and communicating with story sources.

The government simply hates the absolute freedom of information that exists on Twitter. Unlike Facebook, Twitter allows for much wider and far-reaching social connections alongside a real-time stream-of-consciousness functionality which basically makes it the world’s most powerful information sharing resource by a very wide margin. The Nigerian government of Muhammadu Buhari fancies Juche, [a] North Korean-style [ideological concept which underpins] Kim Jong-Un’s level of control over information and public opinion. [Editor’s note: Segun Adeyemi did not respond to CPJ’s request to comment on this comparison or Hundeyin’s other remarks about the government.]

It definitely worries me as a journalist because if successful, my entire existential basis as a professional will disappear overnight. Journalism is only useful where there is a marketplace for information.

I am one of four journalists and five civil society [organizations] who filed a lawsuit against the government demanding that it should be restrained from prosecuting Nigerians for using Twitter, and from any further such actions against any social media platforms in Nigeria. The main purpose of this suit is to establish some pushback against the [federal government’s] aggressive campaign of civil rights violations and open illegalities. The suit is supposed to establish open and unapologetic opposition to the Buhari regime’s anti-freedom antics.

What I would like to see next is an extensive public and judicial rebellion against this illegality. Every Nigerian who can access Twitter, perhaps using a VPN, should do so very pointedly. The judiciary and the national assembly also need to step in to ensure that the [federal government’s] runaway campaign to recreate Nigeria in the image of North Korea is stopped dead in its tracks.

Nigerians must knowingly and consciously refuse to subject themselves to illegality.

Ahmed Zidan reported from New York; Evelyn Okakwu from Abuja. CPJ Senior Africa Researcher Jonathan Rozen contributed reporting from New York.