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In July 2022, BBC Africa Eye released a documentary on gang activity in northwestern Nigeria. The programme, The Bandit Warlords of Zamfara, examined the raids on villages, abductions and murders that have plagued swaths of the country. Notably, it included interviews with so-called bandits, who described their violent actions and laid out their grievances.
The Nigerian government responded furiously to the documentary’s airing. The minister of information, Lai Mohamed, called it “a naked glorification of terrorism and banditry”. The National Broadcasting Commission, which regulates broadcasting, said it “undermines national security in Nigeria”.
The commission slapped fines of ₦5 million (about US$11,922) each on MultiChoice Nigeria Limited, NTA-Startimes Limited and TelCom Satellite Limited Trust Television Network for airing the programme.
The documentary, and the Nigerian government’s response to it, sparked a fierce debate over the limits of media freedoms. Some justified the fines, saying the BBC’s reporting was “becoming a tool for terrorists”. Others condemned the reporting as “whitewashing” reality to serve the government and as undercutting the public’s right to learn.
The debate gets to the heart of a question facing all democracies: when, if ever, should the government impose limits on media?
In 2021, I joined a team of researchers from Afrobarometer on a project to understand how citizens think about media freedom. Afrobarometer is an independent, pan-African research organisation dedicated to the study of public opinion. In over a year, we focused on four countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda.
We found that citizens in these countries cannot be simply characterised as either for or against media freedom. People who supported democracy were more supportive of protecting the media from government interference. But this group swung behind the need for censorship when it came to hate speech and false information.
Thorny questions about media freedoms and democracy face other African countries too. On the one hand, empowering governments to limit media might undermine fragile democracies by allowing incumbents to squelch investigative reporting and opposition voices.
Our project sought to provide insights into how people from various African countries weigh these potential reasons for and against limiting media freedom. Are citizens more supportive of limits to particular kinds of content than others? And how do characteristics of individuals, such as their support for democracy, shape their attitudes about media?
These questions are important in light of recent declines in support for media freedom across Africa, even as attacks on those freedoms by governments increase. For example, in 2022, dozens of journalists were arrested in Ethiopia, and more than 120 attacks on media houses and practitioners were documented in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And new laws in countries like Tanzania target foreign and independent media, often in the name of addressing misinformation and divisive messages.
Limiting freedoms to protect democracy?
To answer our questions, we conducted interviews with experts on media, using nationally representative phone surveys and focus groups. We also analysed data from nationally representative surveys Afrobarometer conducted in the four counties in 2019 and 2020.
Attitudes about democracy affected how citizens felt about the media. Those who thought positively about democracy and rejected non-democratic alternatives were more likely to agree with the statement:
The media should have the right to publish any views and ideas without government control.
Democracy sceptics were more likely to agree with the alternate statement:
The government should have the right to prevent the media from publishing things that it disapproves of.
We delved deeper by providing different types of potentially problematic media content and measuring support for government censorship of each one.
Those who supported democracy were more likely to oppose the censorship of messages that a government disapproved of. In other words, supporting democracy again meant supporting media’s rights to share content that might upset those in power.
However, we found very different results when it came to two other kinds of content: hate speech and false information.
In these cases, people who were the most committed to democracy were the most likely to support censorship. Supporting democracy meant supporting restrictions on what the media could say.
Justifying censorship for democratic ends
We normally associate censorship with authoritarianism. What then explains why people who were most supportive of democracy were also most supportive of certain kinds of censorship?
We posit that Africans in the countries we studied actually found limiting certain content as necessary for defending democracy. Sixty per cent of our phone survey respondents told us that media spread too much hate speech. Such language can harm the public good by generating violence and disorder. But it can also lead to discrimination and other violations of individual rights central to democracy.
As one focus group participant in Lagos told us:
The pen is created for writing. But I can also use it to stab somebody. So, if it is misused, it becomes bad.
Our study participants had similar concerns about false information. Just over 60% called it a problem. As a Ugandan from Rwampara district told us, media nowadays are
all about the business, so much so that they have been known to report un-researched facts, and in other cases lied outright.
Democracy requires an informed citizenry, which false information undercuts. It is easy to see how many committed democrats might see censorship as a necessary step.
Complicated paths forward
Many of our study participants did see the dangers of empowering governments to censor media. Most who supported democracy erred on the side of supporting media’s right to produce content without serious limits. As a Kenyan participant put it:
If we are not careful about this, the steady erosion of media freedoms will continue and will end up in a bad place.
It is clear to most that democracy cannot survive without free media. The challenge is that, in many citizens’ eyes, democracy cannot survive with it, either. Finding the right balance between freedom and limits remains one of the greatest challenges modern democracies face.