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Nigeria Twitter ban in hurting broadcasters

Nigeria Twitter ban in hurting broadcasters
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A sign on the newsroom wall at the Nigerian broadcaster News Central spells out the channel's motto: No to mediocrity and disinformation.

For News Central's dozens of journalists, most of them young reporters under 40, that part of the job just got more difficult after the government suspended Twitter.

Inside the channel in Lagos financial district, the newsroom is humming with journalists busy editing news and presenters finishing make-up for the studio.

Launched just three years ago and now accessible via satellite, News Central has plans to become the largest pan-African chain for continuous news broadcasts.

But last week's decision by President Muhammadu Buhari's government to ban Twitter in Africa's most populous country, was a blow to News Central's big ambitions.

The United Nations, foreign capitals from Washington to London and rights groups have all condemned the ban as an threat to freedom of expression.

On Monday, Nigeria's broadcast regulator took a step further, ordering television and radio channels to suspend their Twitter accounts and stop using the social media giant for news, branding its use as "unpatriotic."

Even using a VPN to access the platform would lead to investigation and possible suspension of broadcast licenses.

For a young channel like News Central, expanding but still fighting for its place in the market, the Twitter ban is a setback.

"We largely depend on the referrals we get from Twitter to attract to our YouTube Channel, and to our channel on the satellite StarTimes," Oladayo Martins, head of digital for News Central told AFP.

"The last report shows a drop of 40 percent of our viewers in the past five days. We are a pan-African channel, but driven mostly by the Nigerian youth."

Army of the young

In Africa's largest economy, three quarters of the population of 200 million are younger than 24 -- a generation that is also hyper-connected to social media.

Young activists turned to Twitter last year to organise the #EndSARS protests against police brutality that eventually grew into the largest demonstrations in Nigeria's modern history before they were repressed.

For broadcasters, social media is more than an essential tool.

"We show our lives on Facebook, we show our lives on Instagram, but when we want to have a conversation or when we want to debate social issues, we use Twitter," said Tolulope Adeleru-Balogun, the head of programming.

One of the chain's flagship programmes, NC Trendz, discusses hot topics on the Web with its trends and hashtags to give a pulse of society.

"We used to talk about gender-based issues, in Uganda we followed the opponent Bobi Wine house arrest, we used it in South Africa also during the lockdown," she said.

"It is an important barometer for us to understand and know what a big proportion of people say in their country. Africa is not a (single) country, but a lot of our problems, as young Africans, are similar. And Twitter brings the continent together."

Stability a priority

Buhari's government has defended the decision, saying that Twitter had become a platform for activities threatening the country's stability, particularly for an outlawed separatist group in the southeast.

Information Minister Lai Mohammed this week dismissed worries about freedom of expression saying Nigeria's stability was a priority. He said social media companies would now have to register and license locally in Nigeria.

But rights groups question the legality of the decision. Nigeria parliament has not passed legislation regarding to the ministry's move against Twitter.

One broadcaster has already decided to take the government to court.

"Criminalizing the use of Twitter is also excessive and unlawful, there's no provision within our laws that support such draconian policies and practices," Osai Ojigho, country director for Amnesty International in Abuja.

The ban has provoked some calls for protests online or on the street, but for the moment Nigerian broadcasters are following the ministry's orders.

At Arise News, a private channel popular with Nigerian youth, social media remains an essential tool for growth.

The broadcaster's YouTube channel grew from 40,000 subscribers last year to 145,000 this year. Arise's Twitter account leapt from 39,000 subscribers in 2020 to more than 292,000 now.

In Arise's offices in a glass office tower in Lagos' chic Ikoyi district, journalists have disconnected the VPNs. But Arise tweets still flow from their offices in London and Washington.

"Fortunately, we still have a lot of engagement coming from the diaspora in the UK, in the US,... and a lot of young Nigerians use VPN," said Agharim Irabor-Omoruyi, social media manager.

On Thursday morning, #AriseNews was the most shared trend for Nigerian web users, despite the ban.

On the same day the channel got a visit from President Buhari, 78, for his first interview since the start of his second term two years ago.

Asked the question that everyone was waiting to know, when and if Twitter was going to be restored, the head of state smiled and replied that he was keeping the answer to himself.

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