On February 25, the day of the presidential election in Nigeria, Haruna Mohammed Salisu, the publisher of WikkiTimes, an online investigative platform based in the northeastern State of Bauchi, was arrested by the security details of Governor Bala Mohammed while he was covering the exercise.
Salisu’s ‘offence’ was filming a group of women protesting against the governor at the polling centre, a protest the governor claimed was to undermine his re-election bid.
The governor also claimed that Salisu was hired by the opposition in the state to report negatively about him and ruin his chances at the poll. Though these claims were not proven, the governor would go ahead to get the journalist arrested, detained and charged with a one-count charge of inciting disturbance of public peace bordering on Section 114 of the Penal Code.
The court will hold the trial on April 19, Salisu told the Media Foundation for West Africa.
Before election day, Salisu had relocated from Bauchi state due to the persistent attacks he was facing at the hands of the state government as a publisher. His ‘sin’ was that his platform had done and is still doing lots of investigative reports exposing corruption among public officials in the State.
Salisu said he decided to return to the State to help his team cover the general elections after they held a series of editorial meetings where it was agreed that they would need all hands on deck to give the election proper coverage.
“Upon my return to the State, I decided to join a team of journalists and not go solo because of safety concerns. So, on election day, February 25, I drove my car to the office of the Nigeria Union of Journalists and parked it there, then I joined other journalists in a bus, and we drove to Duguri, the governor’s hometown in Alkaleri local government area,” Salisu said.
By the time the journalists got to Duguri, the governor had voted and wanted to leave, but they quickly got to him and requested an interview, which he granted. Salisu said after the interview with the governor, the journalists dispersed to do some on-the-ground reporting.
In the course of this, Salisu said he ran into a group of women protesting against the governor. When they saw him and noticed that he was a journalist, they approached him and said they were against the governor because he did not provide them employment as he had promised.
“They said they would not vote for the governor again because he broke his promise and I filmed them. But as soon as I finished, some thugs approached me and asked why I attended to the protesters, whether I wanted to embarrass the governor in his hometown, blah, blah, blah. They attempted to seize my phone.
“As I perceived they could harm me, I told them I was part of the governor’s crew and that I would not do anything to undermine him. So they let me be. After the encounter, I moved towards the governor’s direction,” Salisu recounted.
Assault, arrest, detention
“Suddenly, one of the governor’s security details forcefully grabbed me,” Salisu said. “He asked me to unlock my phone, which I did. He played the video of the protesting women that I did and lambasted me for wanting to disgrace the governor. He said I instigated the protesters.”
Salisu told MFWA that as the security detail dragged him to the governor, the thugs who initially interrogated him pounced on him and started beating him, hitting him with various weapons until he was later whisked by some police officers to a nearby police station.
A few hours later, Salisu said the governor’s chief security officer and some security details arrived at the police station and drove him to the police headquarters in Bauchi City, where he was detained.
“I was in police detention for three days and then I was taken to court, which ordered my remand in a correctional facility until two days later when I was granted bail. I learnt the governor was furious that the court granted me bail,” the journalist said.
“The case is ongoing and I’m to appear in court on April 19. They said my offence is that I instigated public disturbance,” Salisu added.
Threats to life, family
Asked if he was hopeful the court would grant him freedom, Salisu said yes “because I know justice will take its natural course.”
However, the journalist said his major worry right now was that he learnt from some sources that the state government is making “extrajudicial plans to deal with me.”
“I have sources in government who gave me this information,” he said.
Even before now, Salisu said before the elections, his father told him he received many threatening calls from some anonymous persons, telling the old man that they knew where his son was living.
“They told my father that it does not matter if I don’t live in Bauchi anymore, that if they wanted to get me, they surely would. They told my father to tell me to stop publishing ‘nonsense’ and that was the only guarantee that I would have peace,” Salisu said.
He said he was lucky his parents understand the kind of work he is doing and how critical it is for humanity.
“Of course, they are terrified, particularly because of the events of recent times. For instance, when I was in detention, they cried and cried. In fact, my wife and mother fell sick. When I was released, I felt worried for my family.”
Relocation from Bauchi State
Salisu says the WikkiTimes office has closed for some time, following persistent threats and harassment by the authorities. The staff have been working from home and management is contemplating a relocation from the hostile Bauchi State.
“My work is attracting sorrow to my family and I worry about them. WikkiTimes journalists have also not been spared and up till now, they have not gone to work at our office. Bauchi State is becoming more toxic for us journalists,” said Salisu who is currently residing outside of the State.
Driving force amidst intimidation, attacks
Despite the attacks and threats, Salisu said he is not going to back down. From the very beginning when he resolved to do accountability journalism, he said he knew there would be dire consequences as the custom is all over the world for investigative journalists.
“If you do reports that hold people in power to account, they would attack back. But if you look at the bigger picture and world history, you would notice that all modern societies that we admire today got to where they are because some people stood up and challenged people in authority and insisted that the right thing must be done.
“Nigeria is struggling today because we have toxic leaders that try to evade accountability and steal our common wealth. Journalists are to hold them to account, and that is my duty, no matter what,” Salisu said.
He added that what gives him comfort most times doing the work he is doing is the impact that comes from it, saying, “At WikkiTimes, we have done plenty of investigative reports that made almost immediate impacts. This is what keeps us going as a platform.”
Still, due to safety concerns, Salisu said the platform is considering relocating from Bauchi State.
“We have several sources in the State, so it wouldn’t affect our on-the-ground reporting. Our safety is the main priority now,” he said.
Bauchi state government has not responded to enquiries by MFWA.