On October 21, two journalists from The Punch Newspapers, Segun Odunayo and Femi Dawodu, were assaulted by the police who also seized their phones while they were covering live on Facebook #EndSars protests at the Alausa area in Lagos.
“They seized our cameras and smartphones and stripped us of our clothes to see if we had hidden cameras on our bodies,” the journalists narrated. The police officers also threatened to shoot at them when they showed their identification cards.
The above incident demonstrates a fear of journalists’ cameras by the police as well as an attitude of prejudice or hostility against the media. Unfortunately, it is not an isolated incident. Between August 2020 and February 28, 2021, the MFWA has documented assaults on journalists and media workers in Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria by security officers for filming their activities, with at least 20 journalists involved. In some cases, security agents or political party thugs have unleashed violence on journalists in a gratuitous manner that smacks of prejudice or vendetta.
In Nigeria, several journalists were subjected to violence, and their camera’s seized by security forces anxious to censor coverage of their brutalities against protesters, especially during the #Endsars protests.
On October 11, some police officers assaulted Francis Ogbonna and Ferdinand Duruoha, cameraman and reporter respectively of Arise Television, while they were covering protests in Abuja. In a video published on Twitter, Duruoha is seen narrating how he and his colleague were attacked by policemen while interviewing protesters live on Twitter. In the process, Ogbonna’s camera was seized and broken. Clearly, the police feared their violent crowd control operations had been filmed.
On November 28, a group of soldiers in Rivers State, arrested and detained Grace Alheri Abdu, Voice of America(VOA) correspondent for five hours. The journalist had gone to Oyigbo Local Government Area (LGA) to report on riots and was taking pictures of properties destroyed in the riots when the military officers on patrol in the zone accosted her and took her into detention. The soldiers accused her of running a live broadcast of their operations without authorisation.
On January 6, officers of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) harassed three photojournalists – Olatunji Obasa of The Punch, Olu Aremo of Leadership, and Mudashiru Atanda of The Sun – and seized Obasa’s camera. The journalists were filming police brutality against a woman at the headquarters of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) Abuja where hundreds had gathered to register their SIM cards with their national identification numbers (NIN).
“One of the officers threatened to destroy my camera, which he did. He forcefully collected and broke it,” Obasa told MFWA.
In Ghana, a soldier, identified only as Lieutenant Frimpong, assaulted Stanley Nii Blewu, a cameraman with TV3, for taking pictures of a clean-up exercise at the Tema Station in Accra on August 12, 2020. The military officer, who was supervising the clean-up exercise, first seized the phone of Blewu’s colleague and reporter, Joseph Armstrong. Subsequently, he assaulted Blewu who had defied his orders to surrender his camera, seized his phone and camera before deleting all recordings from the gadgets.
On October 7, 2020, the police seized the mobile phone of the correspondent of Accra-based online newspaper Whatsup News and forced him to delete pictures he had taken of their raid on the newspaper’s offices to arrest the Editor-in-Chief, David Tamakloe, over a critical story.
In another case of police phobia for the cameras, a police officer, on January 14, 2021, arrested Selorm Gborbidzi, a reporter of the Accra-based The Finder newspaper for filming a scuffle between him and a driver of a commercial vehicle. The reporter was bundled into a police vehicle and taken to the University of Ghana Police Station where he was locked up for four hours and released only after he handed over his phone for the recordings to be deleted.
On January 15, 2021, a group of private guards assaulted a news crew from Kumasi-based LUV FM at a suspected illegal mining site at Manso in the mineral-rich Ashanti region of Ghana. On the orders of the operator of the site, some military personnel suspected to have been privately engaged by the miner seized the camera and personal phones of the journalists and deleted all the recordings.
In Senegal, the police rounded up a group of journalists and forced them to delete pictures of their (police) assault on Adja Ndiaye, a camerawoman from the online news portal Dakaractu. She had joined other media personnel to follow-up on the case of a popular activist Dj Malick who had been summoned by the cybercrime brigade on September 28 in Dakar.
Sometimes, security officers and other groups or individuals who feel offended by reports or comments published about them decide to avenge themselves on every journalist who comes their way.
This was the case of Ebuka Onyeji, a reporter with the Premium Times online newspaper, who was gratuitously assaulted by police officers while he was covering protests in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, on October 11, 2020. According to a report by the online newspaper, one of the officers cursed in anger “God punish you, journalists,” when Onyeji identified himself as a journalist.
In an apparent case of transferred aggression, some police officers in Rivers State assaulted Andortan Romeo, the circulation officer of The Guardian newspaper in the state, alongside his counterparts from THISDAY newspaper, Abel Jumbo and News Telegraph, Joe Etim, while the three were carrying out their official duties on October 26, 2020. The online portal of The Guardian newspaper, guardian.ng, quoted the officers as saying that the security agents of the Eagle Crack Unit of the police in Port Harcourt, accosted them and got infuriated when they showed their cards to prove that they were media workers.
“We showed them our identity cards and they got infuriated, started beating and torturing us. They asked us to kneel down and later took Etim to their station to cut grass,” Romeo reportedly told the newspaper.
On February 28, some police officers attacked Daniel Eniola, a reporter with the privately-owned newspaper, The Guardian, after he photographed their demolition of makeshift buildings in Apapa, Lagos.
According to a report by The Guardian, one officer cursed “You are a bastard,” as soon as Eniola identified himself as a journalist, before other officers joined to assault the journalist.
The MFWA also reported a number of attacks on journalists motivated by prejudice during Ghana’s general elections held on December 7, 2020. On December 9, two journalists from Ghanaweb.com, Laud Adu-Asare, and Sandra Obiribea, were assaulted by supporters of the opposition National Democratic Congres (NDC) party. They were covering a press conference by NDC executives at the party’s headquarters in Accra. The assailants said the media house the journalists work for was biased against their party. Adu-Asare emerged from the attack with a bruised left arm, with his shirt and media jacket shredded.
On the same day (December 9), Osei Kwadwo Ambassador, a reporter with Pure FM was attacked by some angry supporters of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) in Kumasi. The assailants accused the Angel Broadcasting Network (ABN), of which Pure FM is a subsidiary, of biased coverage of the elections. The reporter’s mobile phone was also seized by the thugs.
The MFWA finds this trend of police officers attacking journalists and deleting their recordings quite disturbing. In the first place, journalists have the right to cover all public operations of the security services. The officers are authorized to restrict media access to their public operations only when necessary to protect public safety or to prevent interference with their work. In none of the cases cited above did the aggressive security officers claim that the journalists involved had transgressed any limits on reporting or filming and thus interfered with security operations or undermined public safety.
Police officers carrying out their legitimate duties in public and doing so professionally should not panic over the filming of their activities even by non-journalist citizens. If police officers who are filmed are convinced that the filming breaks any law, we expect them to follow due process and not resort to the arbitrary use of force.
Journalists have sensitive material on their phones, including possibly, details about their sources. It is therefore an invasion of their privacy to seize and search their phones. activities. We, therefore, urge the police to negotiate with the journalists when such filming occurs rather than abuse their authority. We also call on the leadership of the defense and security services in West Africa to call to order their agents who attack journalists and seize or destroy their equipment. They must publicly prohibit all security and defense forces from arbitrarily seizing or destroying the equipment of journalists.
Apart from the fear of being filmed while they are using excessive force to overpower civilians, especially during riot control or crackdown on demonstrations or being caught in an unguarded moment, security forces often bear grudges against journalists and the media generally when critical reports are made about them. Consequently, they take advantage of every opportunity to vent their spleen on media practitioners who come their way.
It is the same with political party affiliates who assault journalists. The assailants of the Pure FM and Ghanaweb.com journalists during Ghana’s December 2020 elections accused the media houses for which their victims work of being biased against their political party.
In view of this, the MFWA urges political parties to educate their supporters on the role of the media and the importance of its work, and the need for them to desist from attacking the media. More importantly, political parties must demonstrate their abhorrence of all hostilities against the media by condemning their supporters or members who attack journalists and cooperate with the authorities to prosecute such culprits.