36 years ago, on October 19, 1986, a messenger delivered a mail package to a residence in Ikeja, Lagos State. The guard at the gate passed the parcel to Billy Giwa who then passed it on to the recipient named on the package, Dele Giwa, a journalist and co-founder of Newswatch.
When Dele Giwa opened the package, it exploded and he died shortly after.
[Image source: Guardian]
Giwa’s unfortunate assassination — still unresolved — has become a rallying point for press freedom in Nigeria, but we first have to understand his impact.
Who was Dele Giwa?
Dele Giwa was born in Ile-Ife, Osun State, on March 16, 1947. He earned an English degree at Brooklyn College in 1977 and a Master’s in Public Communication from Fordham University. In 1980, Giwa joined ‘The Sunday Concord’.
[Image source: Biographical Legacy and Research Foundation]
Giwa was imprisoned for two weeks in 1983 for his work as the editor of ‘The Sunday Concord’ newspaper. In 1984, with other journalists interested in pursuing a high standard of journalism in Nigeria, he founded ‘Newswatch’ and became the magazine’s first editor-in-chief. The magazine redefined investigative journalism in Nigeria and grew to have a circulation of around 50,000 readers.
By 1986, ‘Newswatch’ had begun criticising the military administration of General Ibrahim Babangida. When Dele Giwa was assassinated on October 19, 1986, he had just recently written an article on the second-tier foreign exchange market (SFEM), a Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) policy introduced at the time. In the piece, Giwa said if SFEM failed, the people would stone “their leaders in the streets.” Two days before his assassination, he was questioned by officials of the State Security Services (SSS) on the article, and he replied by saying that nothing about his article was offensive. The rest, they say, is history.
What’s the state of press freedom in Nigeria after 36 years?
It’s sad to note that not much has changed about press freedom in Nigeria since Giwa’s death. In 2021, the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) reported that at least 120 journalists had been detained in the country and that many others had fled abroad to avoid harassment, threats, and death.
The events that played out during the EndSARS protests of 2020 showed how much behind Nigeria is still suffering from a lack of press freedom.
[Image source: Stephen Tayo]
On October 24, 2020, police officers shot Pelumi Onifade, a 20-year-old journalist, while he was covering a protest. Despite wearing a professional jacket, the officials arrested the injured journalist and he died in custody.
Ope Adetayo, a journalist who covered the 2021 EndSARS memorial for Al Jazeera, told The Republic of the threats he continued to face days after the event. Adetayo’s report claimed that many young Nigerians were still subjected to police brutality despite the 2020 #EndSARS protests and that the protesters’ demands for reforms had not been met.
After publishing the story, the journalist received his first hate mail from an unknown sender who copied several editors of Al Jazeera and warned him against painting Nigeria in a bad light. Although he ignored the email, Adetayo said he was scared and spent time after “constantly looking over his shoulders.”
Nigeria ranked 129 out of 180 countries in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a decline from 120 and 115 in 2021 and 2020 respectively. RSF also named Nigeria one of “West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult” countries for journalists to work in.
Predictably, the Nigerian government publicly criticised this index, claiming that the Nigerian press is both empowered and free. This is a claim that many journalists in Nigeria have disputed, pointing to several recent examples of the government attempting to clamp down on the media and press.
[Image source: Daily Post Nigeria]
Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
The key to enjoying full press freedom in Nigeria is a government that’s not tyrannical and a press that’ll fight for its rights. Nigeria needs more policies that would protect journalists from harassment in their line of duty.
As the Vice President of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Ronke Samo, rightly said “While we urge our colleagues to be discreet and professional in performing their duties so as to avoid possible pitfalls and banana peels, we equally urge the state to urgently formulate policies and put in place frameworks that would protect the press from this emerging threat from advancement in digital technology. This should be done in a most patriotic manner because of the fact that a truly free press will bring progress, fairness, justice, and true freedom to our society.”