Nigerian journalists have come under renewed assault from the security agencies. Free speech and the right to publish are all under serious threat in Nigeria’s supposed democracy. In some states, the security agencies seem to have entered into an unholy alliance to curtail the right of journalists to practise their profession. But as John Adams, United States second president, once said, “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom.”
From Abuja to Kaduna State, Cross River to Bayelsa, journalists are becoming endangered. On the one hand, the police, the State Security Service and the Nigeria Correctional Service have launched an uncommon attack on the media. In this category, an investigative journalist with Aljazeera, Fisayo Soyombo, and Jones Abiri have tasted their bitter wrath.
Amnesty International said, “In Nigeria, the civic space continues to shrink. Nigerian authorities have carried out consistent attacks on journalists and media activists through verbal and physical assault, indiscriminate arrest, torture, detention, prosecution through trumped-up charges and abuse of the Cybercrime and Terrorism laws.” On Buhari’s watch, debate and dissent are being actively and unlawfully suppressed by security agencies. In a disturbing incident that has gone viral, Soyombo has gone into hiding after publishing a three-part series in TheCable on the pervasive bribery, extortion, framing of the innocent, sodomy and perversion of the course of justice in police cells and Nigerian prisons. The publication revealed the rot in the Pedro Police Station, Somolu, in Lagos, a typical police station. It exposed the insidious bribery at every level of the system and the inhuman living conditions at the Ikoyi Prisons. Instead of the authorities looking critically into the ills bedevilling the prisons, the police and the prison authorities are reportedly asking for Soyombo’s head.
Abiri’s ordeal began in 2016. An online publisher based in Bayelsa State, the SSS arrested him on accusations of blackmail. Unconstitutionally, he was locked up in Abuja without being tried. Eventually, he was released in August 2018, but that was a brief reprieve. Nine months later, the SSS rearrested him in a gangster-like operation in Yenagoa. He is to be prosecuted for alleged acts of cybercrime, sabotage and terrorism.
On the other hand, Agba Jalingo, Steven Kefas and Segun Onibiyo are having a rough time with the Cross River and Kaduna state governments. Jalingo, an online publisher, has been in police detention since August following his story on the N500 million allegedly mismanaged by the Cross River State Governor, Ben Ayade. The story instigated the police to lock him up and he is to be tried for treasonable felony, terrorism, cultism and disturbance of public peace. On Buhari’s watch, it is curious how journalists are being charged frivolously with terrorism.
Despite a court order for his release, Kefas has spent over 145 days in a Kaduna prison for allegedly criticising the state Governor, Nasir el-Rufai. Muyiwa Adekeye, el-Rufai’s spokesman, accused Kefas of “irresponsible speech, incitement and falsehood.” As he has not been found guilty, the rule of law dictates that he should first be released. It means that there is more to it than meets the eye.
In 2018, Onibiyo came under assault from the police for alleged criticism of the Kaduna State Government following a post linked to his Facebook account. He was arrested in November and charged with incitement, defamation of character and injurious falsehood against el-Rufai. In his defence, the broadcaster stated that he had stopped using his Facebook account after it was hacked in 2015. The lower court refused him bail. This was thankfully upturned by a higher court, though he had already languished in prison for 24 days. The publisher of an online publication, Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, is standing trial on charges of treason, money laundering and harassing the president. All this smacks of intolerance and dictatorship. Democracy thrives in an environment of openness, competing opinions and activism.
Every time the government and security agencies fail in their duty, they find the ensuing media scrutiny hard to digest. In September, Owoidoho Udofia and Okodi Okodi, two journalists with the privately-owned Inspiration FM based in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, were brutally beaten up by the police for covering a protest by the Mbierebe Obio community, which demanded justice for a youth allegedly killed by police. In June, Kofi Bartels suffered the same fate in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. He was beaten viciously by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad officers for filming them while beating up a boy.
These developments are cruel reminders of the notorious Decree 4 – incidentally under Muhammadu Buhari then as the military head of state – in 1984 when Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor were imprisoned. Others like Dele Giwa and Bagauda Kaltho were bombed, ostensibly through government-sponsored assassinations. Media houses were summarily shut down. In the heady days of the Sani Abacha dictatorship, several journalists were forced to practise incognito or flee abroad. In 2013, the then president, Goodluck Jonathan, railed against Channels TV for its exposé on the shabby hostels at the Police College Ikeja, in Lagos. Instead of addressing the rot, his grouse was that it was an attempt to “embarrass” his government.
Nigeria ranked 13th out of 14 countries in the 2018 Global Impunity Index released by the Committee to Protect Journalists, making it the sixth time that Nigeria has featured in the index since 2008.
The Buhari government should reverse the ugly trend. All anti-press laws should be reviewed in line with democratic practices globally. Femi Falana, SAN, says the British Parliament that enacted such obnoxious laws, including the offences of sedition and seditious libel, defamatory libel and obscene libel has since abolished them. Again, the administration should institute sustainable mechanisms against the penchant of security agencies to disobey court orders.