Public Officials on Rampage against Journalists in Nigeria

A widely circulated video in which a former Minister of Aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode is seen insulting and threatening a journalist during a press briefing in Calabar, Cross River State, on August 2020 marked a new low in the deteriorating press freedom situation in Nigeria in recent times, with public officials as the leading perpetrators.

In a fit of rage, the ex-minister rebuked Daily Trust reporter Eyo Charles for asking a “stupid question” and added a threat; “Don’t try that with me; I will hit you hard.”

The reporter’s only crime was asking to know who was “bankrolling” the former minister’s tour of the Southern states to inspect government projects in an t undisclosed capacity.

The verbal attack on Eyo Charles revives memories of a threat on two journalists by Dave Umahi, the governor of Ebonyi State who, on April 22, 2020, “banned for life” two journalists from the Government House and also from all government facilities in the state. Accusing Chijioke Agwu of The Sun and Peter Okutu of Vanguard newspapers of unfavourable reporting, the governor threatened; If you think you have the pen, we have the “koboko [local word for horsewhip.]”  Governor Umahi did not end it there; he proceeded to incite the public against the media; “Ebonyi people are very angry with the press and let me warn that I won’t be able to control them.

In another case of assault by a public official, a legislator ordered his guards to beat Ike-Jacobs Nwosu of the Eastern Lead Express newspaper on June 15, 2020. Uche Ogbuagu, a lawmaker in Imo State, confronted Nwosu at the premises of the state assembly building in the capital Owerri, over a publication that allegedly misquoted him (Ogbuagu).

After appearing to accept the journalist’s explanation that the publication in question was authored by a different reporter, Ogbuagu invited the journalist to his office within the state assembly premises, only to get him beaten. On the lawmaker’s orders, some four men assaulted the journalist and seized his phone.

Upon the complaint of a State Minister, police officers stormed the office of the Nigeria Union of Journalists in Warri, Delta State on May 26 and assaulted Mathew Omonigho, a reporter for the Daily Post newspaper. The officers, led by one Detective Rueben Noah, went straight after Omonigho and asked him to disclose the whereabouts of Cletus Opukeme, publisher of the Daily Watch news website.

The officers tore Omonigho’s trousers, cut his belt, and bundled him into a vehicle, when he said he did not know Opukeme’s whereabouts. He was taken to the police station where he was further interrogated and intimidated to reveal Opukeme’s location. The MFWA later learned that Opukeme was being hunted down in relation to his story in the Daily Watch that linked the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, to alleged corrupt activities.

Four other journalists who went to the police station later that day to follow up on Omonigho’s arrest were also detained. They were Edeki Igafe of the News Agency of Nigeria, Onyekachukwu Meluwa, (Punch newspaper), Christopher Odamah (Delta Trumpet) and Francis Sadhere (Business Day). All the five were released without charge around midnight, after the police tried unsuccessfully to extract from them information about Opukeme.

Meanwhile, a High Court in Otor-Udu, Delta State, on August 27, 2020, ordered the leadership of the Nigerian police including the Inspector-General of Police, to pay a total of 350,000 naira (about $900) in damages to DAILY POST’s Delta State correspondent Matthew Omonigho and Onyekachukwu Meluwa of PUNCH and Christopher Odamah of Delta Trumpet for the unlawful arrest and detention of the three journalists.

The court decided that “the actions of the respondents were calculated, and did breach the fundamental rights of the applicants, and they are entitled to compensation.” It also ordered the respondents to render a published apology to the journalists who filed separate suits to recover their rights.

“The above court victory is not geared towards disparaging the police as same is geared towards deepening our democracy and human rights culture and respect for the constitutional role of the Press in our present day polity,” counsel for the journalists, Oghenejabor Ikimi, told the MFWA via WhatsApp.

The persecution of journalists by public officials continued with the detention and ongoing prosecution of Kufre Carter, a presenter with the privately-owned XL 106.9 FM radio station.  Carter was detained on April 27, 2020 after he responded to a summon from the Department of State Services. He was accused of leaking an audio containing a private conversation between two people in which the Akwa Ibom State Health Commissioner, Dominic Ukpong was heavily criticised over his handling of the COVID-19 crisis in the state. On April 29, a local court charged Carter with conspiracy and defamation and remanded him in custody without access to his lawyer and relatives for one month.

In what appears to be a deliberate psychological warfare against the journalist, the Akwa Ibom State, which is the complainant in the case, has always failed to show up in court, resulting in three adjournments since June 1, 2020. Carter told the MFWA that the audio he is accused of leaking “has never been tendered in court because they’ve not shown up in court yet.”

When the case was last called on August 28, Carter and his lawyer were told the Magistrate was on leave and the hearing was again adjourned to September 28, 2020. The delay in deciding the case is a drain on the journalist’s time and resources and, therefore, constitutes a major distraction. Carter lamented in an interview with the MFWA; “It costs me a lot financially.”

On August 3, 2020, a group of police officers assaulted Obarayese, a correspondent for the Daily Post newspaper, on the alleged orders of the Osun State Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Prince Adebayo Adeleke.

The journalist had photographed officers brutalising people who had been rounded up in a business district of the State capital, Oshogbo for not wearing face masks to protect themselves and the public against the COVID-19, as directed by the government.  The attack on Abarayese was widely reported in the media with pictures of the journalist spotting injuries and bruises on various parts of his body. The journalist was subsequently treated at the State Specialist Hospital at Asubiaro, Osogbo. However, Commissioner Adebayo Adeleke has denied that any journalist was assaulted, much less on his orders.

“Truly I led the enforcement, but there is nowhere that I know of where anybody was beaten up during the enforcement of the guideline,” the Commissioner, said a reaction published by the news web site newsindicater.com.ng.

Meanwhile, Osun State Police Spokesperson, Opalola Yemisi Olawoyin, told the MFWA in a telephone interview that she has invited Obarayese to her office to give her first-hand account of the incident, but the journalist was yet to respond.

The above violations over the past five months reflect the deteriorating press freedom environment in Nigeria. The trend confirms the observation in the 2019 World Press Freedom Report about thecountry which said that “Journalists are often threatened, subjected to physical violence or denied access to information by government officials, police and sometimes the public itself.”

This onslaught against journalists reflects an entrenched consensus of hostility among public officials towards the media and its accountability role. State institutions in Nigeria are weak and are deliberately weakened by powerful, self-serving public officials bent on cementing their “strongman” control. Human rights lawyer, Oghenejabor Ikimi, shared this view in an interview with the MFWA.

“Many public officials engage in the act of manipulating our security agencies to harass journalist to settle personal scores in our polity because our institutions are weak. We have strong men and weak institutions.”

The media has thus emerged as the most powerful anti-corruption institution that remains standing and the biggest threat to the institutionalised greed that has hampered public service delivery in Nigeria. It is within this context that public officials are waging a war against the media.  The attacks on journalists are simply being perpetrated precisely to intimidate the media from carrying out its role of checking corruption and abuse of power.

The ongoing persecutions is a betrayal of Chapter 2, Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria which states that, the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.

The Media Foundation for west Africa therefore condemns the siege on journalists in Nigeria and calls on President Muhammadu Buhari to personally issue an order to public officers in particular and to all Nigerians, to respect the constitutional mandate of the media and desist from violating press freedom. The MFWA further urges the media in Nigeria to show solidarity among themselves in these trying times and to remain steadfast in their pursuit of social justice and accountability.

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