Free State Free Press: The State And The Media

By Oniye

This article discusses the relationship between the State and a free press under Nigeria's Second Junta.


he relationship between a government’s administration and the press has always been a conundrum across different countries, and Nigeria is no exception. Though, in comparison to other African countries1, it has historically enjoyed relatively freer press activity, this has not been without fault and flaws. As a republic, Nigeria has had eight military Heads of State and three stints of constitutional democracies. Tenure after tenure, the dilemma as to what level of access - if any - to grant to free press and accurate reporting ensued.

Post-independence, the Nigerian press actively evolved; with newspapers and radio broadcasts as popular sources of information and, over time, TV and magazines. Though at infantry stages of national freedom, the country and its people, as guided by Section 24(i) of the 1960 Independence Constitution, enjoyed an entitlement to the freedom of expression. When the military, however, seized power and yanked the roots of democracy, this sense of freedom started to wean under strict regulations.

Most notably, under the leadership of the Second Junta, the importance of effective social institutions such as a free and an active press was barely recognised. Freedom — between 1983 and 1998 — came with a level of subjectivity. Consequently, when Abacha died in 1998, Nigerians erupted with celebrations; his death, for many, was seen as a step closer to democratic freedom. It was an opportunity to rebuild and strengthena the connection between the State and the press, and in turn, the State and the populace.


Patronage Or Protection?

These leaders, particularly the Second Junta, understood the impact and reach that journalists had in educating the masses on issues across the country. Thus, needing to quell the press, each one employed a number of repressive tactics; enforcing differing levels of State control. Of them all, however, most crucial were General Ibrahim Babangida’s actions which set the tone for his successor - General Sani Abacha.

General Ibrahim Babangida - popularly known as IBB - came into power on August 27, 1985. In a bloodless coup, he ousted the previous Head of State, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, on the claims that he was “too rigid and uncompromising in his attitude to issues of national significance.” 2 On this note, Babangida promised to be a leader committed to human rights and restoring freedom of expression in Nigeria. To seal his intentions, he repealed the Decree 4 - Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree - created by Buhari’s administration.3 Notorious for saddling media houses and journalists against publicly expressing opposing views to the government, this decree also sanctioned, with arrests, those who criticised the administration.

As Babangida took such steps, his popularity began to increase and his image as a progressive leader was carefully painted. Emblematic of Nigerian politics, Babangida tactically formed alliances extending a hand of patronage to a few members of the press who had been vocal critics of previous administrations; offering public office positions to them. Most notable of those he converted were Duro Onabule and Nduka Irabor - editors at The Concord and The Guardian newspapers, respectively - as the Chief Press Secretary and the Press Secretary to the Vice-President.


Press Ownership: Public or Private

Though Decree 4 had been repealed, new decrees relating to press and media action were created; making it difficult for newspaper publications and journalists to produce, distribute and publish news. The first notable decree under Babangida’s rule was the Decree 59 of 1988 which created the Nigerian Media Council and authorised it to set entry qualifications for journalists and monitor their actions. Similarly, the Treason and Treasonable Offences Decree 29, popularly referred to as the Death Decree, was created.

The latter decree granted the presiding administration the power to seize copies of publications5 if they were considered against national interest. These actions were further legitimised by the Offensive Publications (Proscription) Decree 35 of 1993 which made any newspapers and magazine that reported any form of news deemed unfavourable by the government liable to proscription. Without surprise, by 1993, sixteen media houses - The Reporter, The News, Tell, Daily Sketch, Sunday Sketch, Newsday, The Observer, amongst others - had reportedly6 been closed down by the government.

These countless seizures, proscriptions and detention of journalists increasingly stifled the Nigerian Press in their fight to accurately report the events unfolding in the country. Further exacerbating this situation, the Newspaper Decree 45 was effected; making it compulsory for all newspapers to be registered lest they face a fine of approximately7 10,000 US Dollars. Journalists, in addition, were mandated to submit information of all owners, publishers and printers.


Friend, Foe Or Frenemy

The actions of this administration, thus, increasingly made it unpopular. Over time, it became evident that the repeal of Decree 4 and the free press promised in 1985 came with unwritten conditions. On one hand, IBB’s administration had appointed some of its greatest critics in several political roles. On another hand, his administration was cracking down on dissenters. By the end of Babangida’s rule in 1993, over 30 journalists had been arrested, detained or attacked. Different magazines, newspapers and radio stations likewise ceased functionality.

Notably, investigative journalist, Dele Giwa, was mysteriously murdered by a parcel bomb in his house on October 19, 1986. Pro-democracy activists such as Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and Femi Falana - both of whom were members of the Campaign for Democracy - were detained in Abuja for their outcry against the government and its lack of transparency8 in transitioning to civilian rule. Ken Saro Wiwa, as with other journalists and activists9, was also arrested and detained on three different occasions.


Free Press: At What Cost?

The enforcement of these several decrees and restrictions increasingly made the fight for free press catastrophic. By 1993, there were 31 daily newspapers, 60 regularly published magazines, 50 State owned television stations and 40 State-owned radio stations in Nigeria.10 Free press had, paradoxically, been proven to come at a price. In some cases, it had a monetary value; in other cases, its asking price was a life, assault rendered or political imprisonment.

Notwithstanding, Nigeria was gearing up to be Africa’s press giant. In an attempt at civilian rule, democratic elections were held on June 12b that year, and later followed by an annulment. An interim civilian leader - Ernest Shonekan - was subsequently appointed by Babangida, and later ousted by General Sani Abacha in the same year. Under Abacha’s rule, Nigeria witnessed more arrests of journalists, the killing of the Ogoni Nine and a ban on all political meetings and associations.

About a score years later, though Nigeria may have since adopted a Third Republic constitution under civilian rule, the struggle to attain freedom of expression persists. The country continues to tow the line between censorship and freedom, with a score of 39.7 (0 = best, 100 = worst) on the Press Freedom Index. Press freedom remains volatile and the impactsc of various decrees created to suppress independent reporting and media are still abound.

Thanks to the proliferation of social media in recent times, however, civic engagement has spiked an uproar; with journalists and everyday citizens sharing their opinions and voice on government activities and public policy and demanding accountability. Even at this, freedom is still relative and threatened, as is evidenced by the attempt to create a Social Media Bill. Journalists are still attacked and intimidated; information is still partial and incomplete, and media is largely unindependent. So, how free is free?



1 Agbaje A., (1993), "Beyond the State: Civil Society And The Nigerian Press Under Military Rule." Media, Culture And Society, Vol. 15 (3), pp. 455-472.

2 Text Of General Ibrahim Babangida’s Coup Speech. August 27, 1985. Retrieved from Scan News.

3 Obotetukudo S. W., The Inaugural Addresses and Ascension Speeches of Nigerian Elected and Non-Elected Presidents and Prime Minister, 1960-2010. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc.

4 Newswatch Newspaper, (1992), “Our Desperate Ways” An Address To The Meeting Of National Council Of States By Olusegun Obasanjo in Newswatch, 23 November 1992, pp. 36-37.

5 UNESCO, Summary Of Media Laws In Nigeria 1903-Date.

6 Africa Watch, (1993), Africa Watch 1993 Reports, The Punch (Lagos), 20 May 1993.

7 U.S. Department of State, Nigeria Human Rights Practices, 1993.

8 Human Rights Watch Nigeria, (1993), Democracy Derailed, Hundreds Arrested and Press Muzzled in Aftermath of Election Annulment, August 27, 1993.

9 U.S. Department of State, (1993), Nigeria Human Rights Practices.

10 Adeyemi A., (1995), The Nigerian Press Under The Military: Persecution, Resilience, And Political Crisis, 1983-1993, Joan Shorenstein Center, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.


a This gives one an insight to how much a government is willing to protect the rights of its citizens.

b A bibiliography on the June 12th Elections and its winner, M. K. O. Abiola, compiled by The Book Banque.

c Political and civil unrest also play a huge role in the volatility of press freedom. In 2012, under President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria had Press Freedom score of 56.4 and then witnessed a sharp decrease in the following year - the year in which Occupy Nigeria protests and the bombing of the UN building in Abuja occured.