Nigerian Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka expressed optimism about the future of press freedom in Nigeria during a special interview at the International Press Institute (IPI)’s 2018 World Congress in Abuja even as he warned against the danger of self-censorship.
Pinning Nigeria’s current press freedom level as “55 percent positive”, Soyinka said his country could achieve 70 percent “in a couple of years, if we don’t count the grey areas” involving “submission to pressure of which the public is not aware”.
Soyinka described Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari, who opened the World Congress earlier in the week, as a “born again democrat”. Buhari previously led Nigeria from 1983 to 1985 following a military coup.
Noting that “not along ago” Buhari had expressed an intent to “tamper with press freedom”, Soyinka said the president, who plans to run for re-election next year, “is now attempting, mostly successfully, to respect freedom of expression”.
Soyinka, who received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature and became one of Nigeria’s most celebrated defenders of human rights and democracy, made his remarks to an audience of nearly 300 leading editors and journalists from around the world gathered in Abuja for IPI’s first World Congress in West Africa.
Interviewed by IPI Executive Board Vice Chair Woosuk Kenneth Choi, Soyinka also offered a rousing defence of press freedom and free speech, blasting the “arrogance and presumption” of those who sought to control “the right of individuals to freedom of speech”.
He used the example of a fatwa issued several years earlier calling for the death of a female Nigerian journalist for offending religious sensibilities to illustrate what he described as the threat to press freedom emerging from “quasi-state” entities.
“The (Nigerian) government (at the time) did nothing to protect her”, he said. “That is the way fascism arises, in the most unexpected places.”
Soyinka offered a nuanced view of the role of social media in the information ecosystem. While conceding social media’s disruptive potential, he emphasized that the Internet had been “responsible for some very valuable changes” and had offered “new channels where people can propose alternatives” to the political, social and economic status quo.
The Nobel laureate also expressed concern over attempts to criminalize hate speech in Nigeria and elsewhere without defining the term. President Buhari had previously singled out hate speech as a key challenge in Nigeria in his opening remarks to the Congress. “In a world where the borderline between hate speech and free speech has become blurred, good journalism matters”, he said, in reference to the World Congress’s theme, “Why Good Journalism Matters”.
A longtime victim of persecution and harassment by various Nigerian governments, Soyinka was asked by an audience member for his views on forgiving those who attack journalists and others exercising their freedom of expression.
“Those who commit (such) crimes have to forgive themselves”, he answered. “We go on doing our business.”