When citizen’s right to free speech is at risk




The Nigeria media have had to contend with the wrath of political office holders and other influential members of the society when views perceived to be contrary to theirs is published. However, with the advancement in information technology and advent of citizen’s journalism more Nigerians are sharing this experience.  ELEOJO IDACHABA xrays some political office holders row with vocal individuals for daring to speak against their policies and administration

Free speech is a fundamental right of every individual as guaranteed by the constitution; therefore, when there is an attempt to impede on or take away this right from the citizens it leads to conflict.

However, in the recent times there right seems to be a gradual and sustained effort by political office holders to infringe on citizen’s right to free speech of some vocal Nigerians, especially those who have been critical of governments at the state levels.

Previously, it was the traditional media that suffered under the weight of being regulated and gagged; the table appears to have turned. Not a few Nigerians, who are not journalists, have been known to have been harassed and in some cases arrested by agents of the state on the ground that their utterances were contrary to the views of the government of the day.

This development is reminiscent of the military era when Decree 4 on the protection of public officers against false accusation and the state security detention of persons Decree No 2 to muzzle free speech and expression held sway.

The attack on free speech, according to a major online medium, is worrisome especially in a country where insecurity is demonstrably on the increase, and the indices of human progress are on a steep decline.

It noted that without a contest of ideas fuelled by dissent, Nigeria will grow more ignorant, timid, and ultimately, impoverished. “There is a worrying rise in violence by the state and procured protests by non-state actors paid for by state agents.

Members of the secret police barging into people’s houses in the dead of night or kidnapping men in front of their families in the early evening, all without proper arrest warrants speaks to a repressive state. Sponsored protests against organisations with a track record of holding various governments to account are proof that things are truly bad,” the medium stated.

Antecedents

Over the years, many citizens have been arrested and even dragged to court by some state governors for their temerity to raise objections against some of their policies. In 2017, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Chocolate City Audu Maikori came under the hammer of the governor of Kaduna state Mallam Nasir El-Rufai for reportedly peddling rumour capable of unsettling the state.

Maikori’s arrest was said to have been ordered by El-rufai because the former posted online news about the unrealistic number of students of Kaduna State College of Education, Gidan Waya, who were supposedly killed by attackers.

The lawyer-turned music promoter was arrested in Lagos by agents of the state government in a commando style and incarcerated for days without trial until human rights advocates intervened.

He was, however, re-arrested after he was released from on bail and on his way out of the court. This conceded with the governor’s presentation at the 2017 social media week, where he said the music mogul would face the full brunt of the law for publishing fake stories and pictures. This action was widely condemned.

Also in Kaduna, but for the intervention of some eminent Nigerians, El-rufai would have extended his power of arrest to an Abuja pastor Dr Paul Enenche for daring to speak against the killings in Kaduna, especially over the death of a Southern Kaduna king, who was kidnapped and murdered in 2018.

Speaking when the minister of information Lai Mohammed visited him, El-rufai in has anger said, “There is a clip going round about a pastor in Abuja that said I was the one that arranged the abduction and murder of the Agom of Kachia. I have filed a complaint to the Inspector General of Police. We intend to bring him to Kaduna to try him.

“The clip was circulated in Kaduna and he is in Abuja; we will get him. We know the agents of this kind of careless statements and what is most unfortunate is that the guiltiest are people that we assume should be responsible, pastors, imams and very important people in the society.”

…In Kogi too

In 2017, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) spokesperson in Kogi state Austin Okai was picked at Abacha Road Abuja in a bizarre manner by policemen said to have been sent by Kogi state government. Okai, was said to have been vocal against the administration of Governor Yahaya Bello.

He was reportedly taken to Lokoja to face trial and was confined to illegal detention for days without trial on the order of the state governor.

Speaking on the matter, the national publicity secretary of the party, Kola Ologbodiyan said, “PDP cautions that the continued stay in captivity of Kogi state party leader can spark off crisis in the state.

“We urge the Inspector General of Police to immediately step into the matter to forestall a breakdown of law and order. This is because if Mr Austin Okai and others are not immediately released, it would send a very wrong signal to the already agitated youths in the state and lead to a resort to self-help.”

 Okai may be out of detention to face trial but that trial, according to analysts, should have been the first step to have been taken by the governor in the first place instead of resorting to gangsterism as was done earlier.

 Journalists still not spared

Recently, the police in Cross River state arrested the publisher of Cross River Watch Mr Agba Jalingo for having the temerity to question Governor Ben Ayade over N500 million allegedly diverted to the state government’s micro finance bank.

Jalingo said that despite the huge amount, the micro-finance bank had been rendered non-functional as money earmarked to start its operation was not released to the bank despite appropriation.

 He was subsequently invited by the police on the matter; however, he was arrested by the security agents before the date he was given and charged for treason. This sparked reactions across the country as lawyers and activists questioned the rationale behind the law enforcement agents, who are paid with tax-payers funds paid to protect the people, allowing themselves to be used to hound citizens into illegal detentions.

Why abuse thrives

Such development, according to legal experts, is an abuse of the constitution which the governors and those in high places swore to uphold.

According to a constitutional lawyer Mr Dotun Momoh, “No governor has a right to order the arrest of any citizen, but we operate a near-law less society because of the fragrant abuse of the tenets of the constitution, otherwise there is no reason why a chief executive of a state would order state-paid security agents against its citizens.

“Take a look at what happened to Audu Maikori in Kaduna under Mallam Nasir El-Rufai and Austin Okai under Yahaya Bello in Kogi state and now Agba Jalingo under Ayade in Cross River state. It’s a long list.

“The most unfortunate is the role of the police in the whole thing. Instead of mitigating in line with its constitutional role as enshrined in the police act, they rather resorted to the use of force to pick any citizen considered an enemy of the state government. Are state governors now police commanders? It is detestable in law.

“I wonder why some of these state governors do not emulate the president who has not brazenly come out to order the arrest of anyone based on sheer differences. If there is anyone that has suffered the worst abuse and insult in the present dispensation, it is President Muhammadu Buhari. “Many of his known critics using the social media have brazenly castigated and abused him, but it’s on record that the president has never ordered the secret police to go after anyone. You think he does not have the power? I think some governors are just immature and less-busy that is why they pick hole in every comment by the people about them.”

It negates Court of Appeal ruling

Also, Mr Femi Falana, a foremost constitutional lawyer on his part took a swipe at police brutality by which they are being used by the governors to harass the citizens perceived as enemies of the state despite the Court of Appeal ruling that a public officer, who has been defamed, cannot use the machineries of the state to harass citizens.

According to him, “A Nigerian cannot be charged with any criminal offence for criticising a governor or any other public officers in Nigeria. In Nwankwo v State (1985) NCLR 247, the Court of Appeal held that any public officer who feels defamed by any publication or slander should sue for libel as it is illegal to use the machinery of the state to harass political opponents in Nigeria.

“But in utter disregard of the judgment of the Court of Appeal in Nwankwo’s case, the Nigeria Police Force has just changed. Look at the case of Mr Agba Jalingo who was ridiculously charged with terrorism for criticising Governor Ayade of Cross River state. This is an example of abuse of the law, not ignorance of the law because the matter is public knowledge.”

Everyone should be free to express their convictions

Also, speaking on this development president of PEN Nigeria Centre Tade Ipadeola said, “For there to be a meaningful dialogue, everyone should be free to express his or her thoughts and convictions. It is this ambience that fosters constructive dissent, significant collaboration and even social and technical innovation.

“Since the return of democratic rule in 1999, the country has been making slow and painful progress along the pathway of respect for human rights. But I’m afraid the country is suffering a relapse into a monologic, monocultural framework. We have a statist president at the moment and he has been shuttling to countries where the dominant ideology is for the cat to catch the mouse, whatever colour the cat is.”




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