In what appears a clampdown on journalists by security operatives ahead of the 2019 elections, not a few journalists have been either assaulted, arrested or detained, even in the face of challenges posed by the proposed bill on hate speech to practitioners. TOPE SUNDAY here raises posers on the safety of journalists as the general elections draw nearer.
Less than 12 months to the 2019 general elections, the atmosphere for journalists to discharge their professional duties is becoming too tensed with increasing cases of assault, arrest and detention by the security agencies. This development, is viewed in some quarters as an attempt to gag journalists ahead of the elections, while some people also view it as test run of what is to come in event the present administration’s campaign against hate speech gets legal backing through the proposed bill to curtail perceived hate speech. This school of thought see these assaults, arrests and detention as part of a grand ploy to deny journalists’ constitutional rights of freedom of expression.
Assualts , arrests and detention
In a space of three months, no fewer than six journalists have been either assaulted, arrested or detained by the security agencies in the line of duty.
On New Year’s Day, the Police in Anambra state arrested United Kingdom based Lawyer and Publisher of Elombah.com, Mr. Daniel Elombah. The publisher, who is also the General Secretary of the Online Publishers Association (OPAN), was arrested alongside his brothers, from their family house in Edoji-Uruagu, Nnewi, in the wee hours of the day.
The officers who stormed the compound in a commando-styled operation refused to give reasons why the journalist was arrested as his wife, two kids and aged mother watched in horror.
Almost three months after his arrest and release, the police authority had no adduced reason for his arrest, but it was gathered that Daniel was nabbed for a report he published which was cynical of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s government.
Three days after, officers of the Nigerian police denied at least 10 journalists access to the public commissioning of a dry port in Kaduna state, and in the process assaulted at least two of the reporters: Enemaku Ojochigbe of AIT and Taye Adeni of Daily Trust Newspapers.
The Police reportedly claimed there was not enough seats at the event in which President Muhammadu Buhari was due to attend, and would not listen to explanation by the journalists that did not require seats, rather they were shoved and threaten with guns and tear gas.
On February 16, 2018, Vanguard Online Editor, Mr Adekunle Aliyu, was assaulted, maltreated and arrested by the Police in Lagos in the line of duty. He lost his iPad in the process.
Though, Aliyu was released on the same day, he declared: “I was arrested for doing my job as a journalist. They caught me taking snap shots and video clips of both the officers and Okada riders respectively.”
Also, on February 28, 2018, the Bureau Chief of Daily Independence Newspaper, Abuja Bureau, Mr. Tony Ezimakor, was arrested by the Department Security Service (DSS) for reportedly publishing a story on the alleged payment of $2 million to the Boko Haram Sect for the release of some of the abducted Chibok girls.
Ezimakor, had alongside another colleague gone to the headquarters of the service to honour and invitation from DSS operatives, however, both were detained from 10am till 3pm when the other negotiated his release since had not been invited.
Despite calls by the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) and other Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) for the journalist’s release, the DSS held him for seven days.
The paper said the DSS released its reporter unconditionally after trying unsuccessfully to compel his to reveal the source of the story.
Yet another episode
Barely a week after the DSS released Ezimakor without official explanation on why he was detained, the Nigeria Police arrested another journalist on March 13. Musa Abdullahi Krishi, the National Assembly Correspondent of the Daily Trust Newspapers, was reportedly arrested at the NASS Complex by Police officers from the Jigawa State Police Command.
The organisation in press statement by its Editor-in-Chief, Mannir Dan-Ali, said the paper had received complaints from Jigawa state Governor, Muhammad Badaru, over an advertorial, but had since published a retraction as demanded by the governor, amongst other entreaties. He said the case was being treated as an abduction.
As at the time of going to press, neither the Force Public Relations Office, ACP Jimoh Moshood; nor Assistant Inspector-General in charge of Zone 1, Kano, AIG Kayode Aderanti; denied or confirmed police involvement, however, Commissioner of Police (CP) in charge of Jigawa, said Bala Senchi; and his counterpart in Kano state, Rabi’u Yusuf; denied having ordered the reporter’s arrest.
Guilty or vilified?
One question, practitioners and others outside the profession have continued to ask is why none of the journalists were charged to court, even as the government agencies did not provide official reason for manhandling these journalists. This has drawn attention to the issue of safety of journalists in the country.
Though, Aliyu of Vanguard newspapers could be said to have been lucky for being released on the same day of his arrest, the duo of Elombah and Ezimakor were not that lucky, even as Krishi is yet to be located.
Speaking during a thank you visit to NUJ, Abuja Council, Ezimakor decried the fact that journalists have become an endangered species, even as he raised concern over his personal safety.
He said though the media has overwhelming power, it does not reflect in their lives and made case for media practitioners’ welfare to be addressed.
Speaking on its general secretary’s ordeal in the hands of security agents OPAN described Elombah’s arrest as part of the federal government’s plan to suppress the freedom of press. In a statement by its President, Austyn Ogannah, the association said the use of security agencies to harass journalists must stop and called on the government to respect free speech and protect the fundamental rights of citizens.
“OPAN views the assault of elombah.com as part of a sustained plot by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration to intimidate and suppress press freedom.
“We wish to remind this administration that we are in a democratic dispensation. The practice of using security agencies to harass journalists, especially those operating in digital media must stop.
“We implore this administration to respect free speech and protect the fundamental rights of citizens, whilst also urging the judicial arm of government not to allow its judges and courts become a tool in the hands of dictators and oppressors, to legitimise their abuse and violation of human rights”, the association warned.”
Also, the NUJ while demanding for the release of Ezimakor, called on President Buhari to permit journalists to operate without fear of arrest. It is worth noting that the service is yet to acknowledge the union’s demand for apology from the DSS over the illegal detention of its member.
Reacting to Ezimakor’s arrest, Rights Lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), said his arrest, “is a sad reminder of the case of Messrs Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, who were tried, convicted and jailed by the Buhari/Idiagbon junta in 1984, over their refusal to disclose their source of information pertaining to a story published in The Guardian Newspaper.”
Falana in a press statement further stated that: “Regrettably, the DSS is yet to appreciate that a journalist cannot be forced to disclose his source of information under the current democratic dispensation. It is high time the attention of the State Security Service was drawn to Section 35 (2) of the Constitution which provides that “any person who is arrested or detained shall have the right to remain silent or avoid answering any question until after consultation with a legal practitioner or any other person of his own choice.”
Similarly, front-line Lawyer, Mr. Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, said: “If you have arrested a journalist and you think that the story or the information he has published is wrong, you can file a case against him for libel, for him to come and prove the veracity of his story in court.
“But it is wrong for government to seek to intimidate the media especially given the cooperation the current government enjoyed from the media while it was in opposition. There is no reason at all, under our laws, to keep him in custody beyond 24 hours”.
Taming hate speech or silencing journalists?
There are growing concerns over the proposed hate speech bill as sponsored by the Chairman, Senate Committee on Information, Senator Sabi Abdullahi. The bill, which has passed second reading, prescribes death by hanging for any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person.
Since the introduction of the bill, concerned Nigerians have raised doubts on its intention and argued that the bill was intended to hunt down critics of the government.
Among those who have kicked against the bill is the former Minister of Aviation, Mr. Femi Fani-Kayode, who accused the president of intolerance. According to him, “Now they want to pass a law that prescribes the death penalty for calling a demon a demon. They call it ‘hate speech’ because they hate it when we call a spade a spade; tell them what they are and expose their barbarity. Buhari wants Nigeria to be like North Korea. He hates free speech.”
The NUJ has also frowned at some sections of the bill, which seems to be targeted at its members, and cautioned against prescribing death penalty. NUJ, National Secretary, Shuaibu Leman, in a statement on the bill said: “It is instructive to note that citizens are entitled to free speech even if they hold offensive and hurtful opinions.
“We also cannot forget that people have the right to be biased, even offensive in their speech even if journalism is different and we have to be aware of this. It is therefore, our considered opinion that it is pertinent to avoid such pitfalls in our bid to come up with legislation to curtail the excesses of citizens.”
2019 and safety of media practitioners
As the general elections approach one of the most discussed issues among journalists is their safety, even as they insist that if something not done, urgently too, to protect their fundamental rights, then they may be side-tracked and denied opportunity to perform their constitutional roles before, during and after the elections.
Echoing the fear of some Journalists ahead of the next year’s election, an Abuja-based journalist, Mr. Nicholas Uwerunonye, said the proposed bill and other antics of government to frustrate journalists in discharging their duties are pointers to what would obtain during the elections.
He said: “Journalists, by extension the media, are in grave danger in our country. All you need to see to be convinced of this fact is to check the attempts at introducing draconian laws to cow the media.
“First there was the bill to strongly regulate social media at the senate. Now, we have the bill that pretentiously proposes to curb hate speech. These are overt attempts at muzzling free speech which forms the basis of our work as journalists.
“Perhaps, the bigger threats come from the security agencies. We are all leaving witnesses to the arrest and detention of Tony Ezimakor for seven days. Were it not for the public outcry, the man would still be languishing in incarceration. As a matter of fact, agencies of government now device means of intimidating reporters on the beats.”
Speaking further he said, “They either complain to their superiors or deny them vital stories so that the reporter is made to look incompetent. Some agencies, go as far as asking that reporters be removed from the beat. It is that bad.”
He expressed fear that the situation might get worse because no government agency and agent involved in manhandling of journalists has been sanctioned giving the impression they have backing of the governmen