Speaking Freely: Obioma Okonkwo

Deeplinks 2024-04-23


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.*

Obioma Okonkwo is a lawyer and human rights advocate. She is currently the Head of Legal at Media Rights Agenda (MRA), a non-governmental organization based in Nigeria whose focus is to promote and defend freedom of expression, press freedom, digital rights and access to information within Nigeria and across Africa. She is passionate about advancing freedom of expression, media freedom, access to information, and digital rights. She also has extensive experience in litigating, researching, advocating and training around these issues. Obioma is an alumnus of the Open Internet for Democracy Leaders Programme, a fellow of the African School of Internet Governance, and a Media Viability Ambassador with the Deutsche Welle Akademie.

 York: What does free speech or free expression mean to you?

In my view, free speech is an intrinsic right that allows citizens, journalists and individuals to express themselves freely without repressive restriction. It is also the ability to speak, be heard, and participate in social life as well as political discussion, and this includes the right to disseminate information and the right to know. Considering my work around press freedom and media rights, I would also say that free speech is when the media can gather and disseminate information to the public without restrictions.

 York: Can you tell me about an experience in your life that helped shape your views on free speech?

 An experience that shaped my views on free speech happened in 2013, while I was in University. Some of my schoolmates were involved in a ghastly car accident—as a result of a bad road—which resulted in their death. This led the students to start an online campaign demanding that the government should repair the road and compensate the victims’ families. Due to this campaign, the road was repaired and the victims’ families were compensated.  Another instance is the #End SARS protest, a protest against police brutality and corrupt practices in Nigeria. People were freely expressing their opinions both offline and online on this issue and demanding for a reform of the Nigerian Police Force. These incidents have helped shape my views on how important the right to free speech is in any given society considering that it gives everyone an avenue to hold the government accountable, demand for justice, as well as share their views about how they feel about certain issues that affect them as an individual or group.  

 York: I know you work a bit on press freedom in Nigeria and across Africa. Can you tell me a bit about the situation for press freedom in the context in which you’re working?

 The situation for press freedom in Africa—and particularly Nigeria—is currently an eye sore. The legal and political environment is becoming repressive against press freedom and freedom of expression as governments across the region are now posing themselves as authoritarian. And they have been making several efforts to gag the media by enacting draconian laws, arresting and arbitrarily detaining journalists, imposing fines, and closing media outlets, amongst many other actions.

In my country, Nigeria, the government has resorted to using laws like the Cybercrime Act of 2015 and the Criminal Code Act, among other laws, to silence journalists who are either exposing their corrupt practices, sharing dissenting views, or holding them accountable to the people. For instance, journalists like Agba Jalingo, Ayodele Samuel, Emmanuel Ojo and Dare Akogun – just to mention a few who have been arrested, detained, or charged to court under these laws. In the case of Agba Jalingo, he was arrested and detained for over 100 days after he exposed the c



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Jillian C. York

Date tagged:

04/23/2024, 21:12

Date published:

04/23/2024, 15:05