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On 25 February, Punch Newspaper journalist Gbenga Oloniniran stood near the Governor of Rivers State’s residence in Southern Nigeria, covering the recent presidential election. As policemen gathered and arrested young people at a polling station, Oloniniran brought out his camera, taking snapshots of the incident. Instantly, the policemen left the youths, pounced on Oloniniran, snatched his camera, and bundled him away in a van. They denied him the right to cover the elections.
This was not an isolated incident. At least 14 journalists and media workers covering the presidential election were detained, intimidated or attacked by security forces, political groups or citizens. During the state elections held on 18 and 19 March, at least 28 more journalists suffered the same treatment, with many more cases likely going unreported.
“They threatened me, and that was under the rain, and I was shivering,” Bolanle Olabimtan, a journalist at The Cable, told Index after she was attacked in Delta State. She was punched, and had the photos deleted from her phone.
Haruna Mohammed Salisu, CEO of WikkiTimes, was arrested while covering a protest during the presidential elections. He was detained and charged with inciting disturbance of public peace. He claims he had his phone taken, was interrogated by security personnel and was then assaulted by violent supporters of the governor.
“My experience in detention serves as a stark reminder of how vulnerable journalists are in Nigeria,” he wrote in WikkiTimes.
On March 18 unidentified men attacked an Arise TV crew consisting of reporter Oba Adeoye, cameraman Opeyemi Adenihun and driver Yusuf Hassan. Adenihun suffered facial injuries and their drone was seized. Meanwhile in Ogun State, Adejoke Adeleye, a News Agency of Nigeria reporter, was attacked by a mob when filming at a voting station. Five people, including one masked person wielding an axe, chased the group of journalists that included Adeleye, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In Lagos, 10 people hit reporter Amarachi Amushie and camera operator Aliu Adeshina from the privately-owned broadcaster Africa Independent Television, as they reported at a polling station. Security agencies issued threats. They harassed Adesola Ikulajolu, a freelance investigative reporter, deleting the image folder in his phone.
Nigeria is ranked at 129 out of 180 nations in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, with this latest assault on press freedom demonstrating part of the reason for the ranking.
After the attacks, Dupe Fehintola, Chairman of a branch of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, made a statement saying: “We condemn these attacks on journalists.”
During the elections, members of the Nigerian media investigated potential links between political parties and violent attackers, who threatened voters unless they proved they were casting their ballots in favour of the ruling All Progressives Party.
Adebola Ajayi, a journalist at People’s Gazette, experienced that violence first hand, saying: “I was attacked by political thugs at a polling unit in Orile-Oshodi ward in Lagos.”
This violence may have contributed to the fact that 71% of voters abstained from the elections. The election winner, APC’s Ahmed Tinubu, received only 8.8 million votes, while challengers Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party gathered 6.9 million and Peter Obi of the Labour Party received 6.1 million, in a country of 93 million registered voters and a population of over 200 million.
Evidence gathered by the media – including assaults on electoral officials and an incident where attackers destroyed ballot boxes with axes – showed that violence marked the elections. The pressure on journalists as they faced this violence themselves prevented them from covering the elections fairly.
Nearly two weeks after the end of the state and presidential elections, the media remains shaken.
“We strongly condemn these unacceptable attacks, which constitutes both the violation of fundamental human rights of the affected journalists and media worker and a major assault on press freedom,” Melody Akinjiyan, the spokesman of the International Press Center, Lagos, told Index.
Since Tuesday 3 November 2015, the fourth part of the Bettencourt case is being judged in a Bordeaux court. This time the accused is Pascal Bonnefoy, former butler of Liliane Bettencourt. Bonnefoy is accused of privacy violations in conjunction with media outlets Le Point and Mediapart, which reproduced excerpts of recordings Bonnefoy had made. The tapes allowed the French justice system to condemn several people for abuse of a vulnerable person — the L’Oréal heiress — and spawned investigations into alleged corruption.
Following a court decision that became effective on Monday 22 July 2013, independent French news website Mediapart has had to withdraw the infamous Bettencourt “butler tapes” from its website, as well as 72 articles including quotes from the recordings, prompting a campaign of solidarity in the French and international media.
In the balance between freedom to inform and right to privacy, the court ruled that it was more important to protect the right to privacy. Reporters Without Borders published the censored content on Wefightcensorship.org, a website that has until now published content from countries more commonly associated with abuses of press freedom, such as Turkmenistan, China and Belarus.
Between 2009 and 2010, Pascal Bonnefoy, the butler of L’Oréal heiress, 87 year-old Liliane Bettencourt, secretly recorded conversations between his boss and Patrice de Maistre, her wealth manager, as well as other advisers. As Bonnefoy explained in a recent interview with French Vanity Fair, he did this because he thought Bettencourt was being manipulated by a close circle of advisers and friends. Apalled by the conversations he had intercepted, he gave the recordings to Bettencourt’s daughter who gave them to representatives of the justice system.
A 21 hour-long copy of the tape also came in possession of Mediapart and Le Point magazine. Journalists at the two publications edited down the content to one hour, getting rid of references to Liliane Bettencourt’s private life. What they kept was damning: the excerpts published in June 2010, contained, among other things, evidence of tax evasion and influence peddling, they raised suspicions of illegal political funding and interference in justice proceedings by a French presidential adviser.
The butler tapes have been at the centre of a lengthy investigation, as the Bettencourt case gradually unfolded, turning into the Bettencourt-Woerth case (when it appeared that Eric Woerth, successively budget and labour minister during Sarkozy’s presidential term, was involved) and the Sarkozy case, when France’s ex-president was placed under investigation over allegations that he had accepted illegal donations. The recordings were recognised as evidence by the criminal chamber of the appeal court in January 2012 and will be at the centre of a trial in Bordeaux, which date is still to be announced.
Meanwhile, following a complaint by Bettencourt’s legal guardian and by her former wealth manager, the Versailles appeal court ruled on 4 July that Mediapart and Le Point had to take down the recordings and all direct quotes from it or face significant financial penalties (10,000 euros per day per infraction). They will also have to pay 20,000 euros of damages to Bettencourt if her representatives claim the fee.
“What’s the balance between the freedom to inform and the right to privacy? This is the question raised by this ruling”, says Antoine Héry, head of the World Press Freedom Index at Reporters Without Borders. For him, the excerpts of the recordings used by Mediapart and Le Point are of public interest. “Erasing this content means erasing a part of this country’s collective memory”, he says. “Mediapart has written a lot about the case, which marks an important moment of French Fifth Republic’s history, and possibly one of the greatest scandal it has known,” he adds. The ruling might have a chilling effect – and make it more difficult for journalists to break stories in the future, for fear of costly court proceedings and fees. It will also make it complicated for Mediapart to write about the upcoming Bordeaux court case, as its journalists won’t be able to quote from the recordings, which constitute a very central piece of evidence.
“This decision”, says Edwy Plenel, a former Le Monde editor, who co-founded Mediapart in 2008 with other former print journalists, “is incredibly backwards, and recalls the very reactionary decisions taken by the judiciary system during the Second Empire, which showed an increasing tension towards the growing modernity of the publishing world and journalism.” For Plenel, the verdict can only be read as a reaction to changes prompted by the Internet – which allows a free circulation of information. It is part of a greater debate which has been taking place around the Snowden and Wikileaks case, and the Condamin-Gerbier case in Switzerland, where national security, banking secrecy and protection of privacy are opposed to the right to inform. Mediapart will appeal to the decision in France and take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if needs be.
The solidarity campaign which immediately followed the Versailles court decision has shown that such a verdict was absurd in the era of internet. After three years, the Bettencourt file has entered the public domain and has been copied everywhere: it’s easy to find on BitTorrent or Reflets.info. Following the verdict, several publications immediately offered to host the content that Mediapart was obliged to censor as a sign of protest. Among them, Belgian national newspaper Le Soir, French publications such as rue89 website, Les Inrockuptibles magazine or Arrêt sur Images website. Media organisations, NGOs and unions launched an appeal entitled “We have the right to know” supported by 53,000 signatures, which said: “When it comes to public affairs, openness should be the rule and secrecy the exception.”
Following the Streisand effect, the Versailles verdict seems to have backfired. Never have so many people listened to the Bettencourt tapes, nor read about the story, nor be interested in Mediapart, an investigative journalism website which has proven its ability to set the news agenda in France, and created a new business model as French printed press sunk deeper into crisis – Mediapart charges readers for access and doesn’t carry any advertisement.
Le Monde, France’s most well-known newspaper, abstained from the solidarity campaign, as well as conservative newspaper Le Figaro, a decision seen by many as disappointing, given that Le Monde was associated with Wikileaks and Offshore Leaks earlier this year.
“For me”, says Plenel, “this can be explained by a certain illiberal tradition within the French press, the fact that in this country journalism is often too close to political power, and also by a certain fear of the changes that Internet is causing in the media – embodied by Mediapart.” This distrust of new media associated with the Internet could explain the smear campaign endured by Mediapart by a good part of the traditional and conservative press from December last year, when the website broke the Cahuzac scandal (also prompted by a tape) which caused France’s budget minister to resign in April, finally admitting that he had a secret offshore account. France’s traditional written press seems to have become extremely cautious, and unable to break scandals, a task which was filled for a long time by the satirical weekly publication Le Canard Enchaîné, and now is also filled by Mediapart.
How does France rank on the Press Freedom Index?
“It’s only 37”, says Héry. A mediocre rank explained by the mediocrity of the law framing the protection of sources for journalists, and by reforms passed during Sarkozy’ presidency which streightened governmental control over France Télévisions, the French public national television broadcaster – allowing France’s president to name its CEO. Hollande’s government is expected to work on these issues – and new laws on the protection of sources for journalists, the status of whistleblower, and the nomination of the head of France Television should be passed. On Friday, the appeal launched in solidarity with Mediapart was handed to Aurélie Fillippetti, minister of culture and communication of the Hollande government, as well as the whole Bettencourt file.
Interestingly, the Versailles verdict took place on the same day France refused to grant asylum to Edward Snowden – a strong reminder that France could do a lot better to protect the right to inform and to be informed.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published its ninth annual World Press Freedom Index today, with a mixed bag of what secretary-general Jean François Julliard calls “welcome surprises” and “sombre realities”.
Six countries, all in Europe, share the top spot this year — Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland — described as the “engines of press freedom”. But over half of the European Union’s member states lie outside the top 20, with some significantly lower entries, such as Romania in 52nd place and Greece and Bulgaria tied at 70th. The report expresses grave concerns that the EU will lose its status as world leader on human rights issues if so many of its members continue to fall down the rankings.
The edges of Europe fared particularly badly this year; Ukraine (131st) and Turkey (138th) have fallen to “historically low” rankings, and despite a rise of 13 places, Russia remains in the worst 25 per cent of countries at 140th. It ranks lower than Zimbabwe, which continues to make steady — albeit fragile — progress, rising to 123rd.
At the very bottom of the table lie Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan, as they have done since the index first began in 2002. Along with Yemen, China, Sudan, Syria, Burma and Iran, they makes up the group of worst offenders, characterised by “persecution of the media” and a “complete lack of news and information”. RSF says it is getting harder and harder to distinguish between these lowest ten countries, who continue to deteriorate. There are particular fears about the situation for journalists in Burma ahead of next month’s parliamentary election.
Another country creating cause for concern in the run-up to elections is Azerbaijan, falling six places to 152nd. Index on Censorship recently joined other organisations in a visit to Baku to assess the health of the country’s media. You can read about their findings in a joint mission report, ‘Free Expression under Attack: Azerbaijan’s Deteriorating Media Environment’, launching this Thursday, 28 October, 6.30 pm, at the Free Word Centre. Belarus, another country on which Index is campaigning, languishes at 154th.
It is worth noting, though, that relative press freedom rankings can only tell so much. Cuba, for example, has risen out of the bottom 20 countries for the first time, partly thanks to its release of 14 journalists and 22 activists this summer, but journalists still face censorship and repression “on a daily basis”. Similarly, countries such as South Korea and Gabon have climbed more than 20 places, only to return to the position they held before a particularly bad 2009. It seems, then, that the struggle for press freedom across the world must continue to be a “battle of vigilance”.