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Nigerian Journalists Facing Threats Amid Environmental Crisis in Nigeria

As Nigeria grapples with pressing environmental challenges, including deforestation, wildlife poaching, pollution, oil spills in the Niger Delta region, and climate change, the role of journalism in raising awareness and driving meaningful action cannot be overstated. 

Environmental journalists in Nigeria play a crucial role in informing the public, holding decision-makers accountable, and advocating for sustainable solutions to environmental issues.

On May 3, 2024, Nigeria joins the global community in commemorating World Press Freedom Day, a pivotal occasion to honour and uphold the fundamental principles of press freedom. As the world celebrates this year’s theme, “A Press for the Planet: Journalism in the Face of the Environmental Crisis”, Nigeria stands at the forefront of advocating for press freedom and environmental journalism within its borders.

The 31st World Press Freedom Day Conference hosted by the Government of Chile and UNESCO in Santiago provides an opportunity for Nigerian policymakers, media stakeholders, and civil society organisations to engage in discussions, debates, and the exchange of ideas on the state of press freedom in the country and around the world.

The Declaration of Windhoek, which led to the proclamation of World Press Freedom Day by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, remains as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. In Nigeria, the anniversary of this declaration serves as a reminder of the enduring importance of press freedom in ensuring public access to information and promoting government respect for freedom of expression.

Rita Adeyemi, a media consultant, notes, “World Press Freedom Day 2024 is not only a time for reflection but also a call to action for Nigeria to strengthen its commitment to press freedom and environmental journalism.” She further affirmed that “by upholding the principles of press freedom, Nigeria can ensure that journalists can fulfil their duty to inform and enlighten the public, contributing to a more informed and empowered society.”

State of press freedom and environmental challenges in Nigeria

In the 2024 report by RSF (Reporters without Borders), Nigeria is ranked 112th out of 180 in the 2024 World Press Freedom Index, where nearly 20 reporters were attacked in early 2023, indicating that “Nigeria is one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are regularly monitored, attacked and arbitrarily arrested, as was the case during the 2023 elections.” 

“In recent years, most of West Africa’s violent attacks, arbitrary detentions, and shooting deaths of journalists have taken place in Nigeria, especially during the country’s electoral periods. Nearly 20 journalists and media outlets were attacked during the general elections in February and March 2023.

“Crimes committed against journalists continue to go unpunished, even when the perpetrators are known or apprehended. There is almost no state mechanism for protection. In fact, the authorities keep journalists under close surveillance and do not hesitate to threaten them,” the report added. 

Ngozi Emeka, an environmental journalist based in the Niger Delta region, highlighted the difficulties she faces. 

“Accessing accurate information from the government is a significant hurdle. When reporting on oil pollution, for instance, the data provided by officials often contradicts the reality on the ground.” 

She also noted the danger of reporting in these areas, where threats from both corporate entities and local militias are common.

John Ovie, another journalist who has covered the oil spills in the Niger Delta, highlighted the dual threats of government and corporate pressures, saying, “There’s a thin line between reporting facts and offending powerful stakeholders in industries such as oil and gas. While the freedom to report is protected on paper, the reality on the ground can be quite different.”

He added that , “This day reminds us of the critical need for press protections as a cornerstone of democracy. Especially in environmental reporting, journalists not only inform the public but also hold those responsible for environmental degradation accountable.” 

Nigeria’s commitment to press freedom is tested regularly, with journalists facing hurdles ranging from legal restrictions to threats of violence despite constitutional guarantees of press freedom. The role of the media in environmental conservation is particularly challenging, with many journalists facing specific risks when reporting on sensitive issues like illegal oil bunkering or land grabs. 

Different incidents highlight the precarious state of press freedom in Nigeria. Numerous cases of censorship by governmental authorities have stifled the free flow of information. Journalists face intimidation, harassment, and even violence in their pursuit of truth and accountability.

The Press Attack Tracker (PAT) by  the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID), in the first quarter of 2023 tracked and verified 45 cases of harassment and infringements against journalists in Nigeria.  According to PAT “Q1 2023 press attack number marked an alarming increase as it surpassed the total for the whole of 2022 when 37 cases were reported. Between January and August, 74 press attacks were recorded, a record high that overtakes the 2019 record of 72.”

In another report by CJID, on the gubernatorial elections, they recorded that INEC staff denied journalists access to media coverage at polling units. INEC officials prohibited journalists from filming the electoral process at the polling unit in Ijaiye and Ojokoro. It was confirmed that journalists from Independent Newspaper and Africa Independent Television (AIT) were prevented from photographing and recording videos.

The report added that political thugs disrupted the election process in Abeokuta, Ogun State, at Ward 13 Polling Unit 22 of Itori Ado. According to reports, the trouble started when a party agent confronted a journalist for taking photographs. It quickly escalated when journalists and some INEC officials were attacked by political thugs and had to flee for their safety. Similarly, Abiodun Jamiu, a CJID election observer, was also physically attacked by locals while covering the voting process at Polling Unit 11, Garba-Garba, in Sokoto State.

As Nigeria looks to the future, the role of environmental journalism remains pivotal. With increasing global attention on climate change and environmental degradation, the need for a free press that can report effectively on these issues remains more pressing.

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