Press Freedom: Nigeria ended 2023 on a repressive spree

Recent events in Nigeria have revealed a concerning pattern of challenges to press freedom and the safety of journalists. As 2023 drew to a close, the authorities, particularly the security agencies and state officials, ramped up the repression with a series of arrests, detentions and assaults against journalists.

On December 19, 2023, Godwin Tsa, a journalist working for the Sun newspaper, was forcibly arrested by security officers from the Department of Development Control at the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA). Tsa was on assignment, covering a peaceful protest led by mechanics and spare parts dealers in Abuja, who were rallying against the demolition of more than 50 shops. Following the arrest, he was taken to a local police station, where he was detained in a cell for several hours. The security officers also seized his mobile phone, and upon its return, Tsa was coerced into deleting all evidence of the protest. The Council of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) had to intervene to secure Tsa’s release.

On December 12, 2023, a Special Task Force of the Nigeria Police from Abuja arrested Precious Eze, an online publisher and journalist. Mr. Eze was held incommunicado and his laptop and electronic devices were confiscated. The journalist’s whereabouts are unknown to his relatives and colleagues, who are concerned about his hypertensive condition.

Journalist Precious Eze was held incommunicado and working equipment seized |Photo: Eze’s Linked Account

Similarly, on December 4, 2023, Security operatives, including a police officer from Abuja Property Development Company (APDC), detained Marcus Fatunmole, News Editor at the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), for about six hours. The journalist was arrested in Abuja while investigating a viral video of luxury buses allegedly being renovated for mass transit. The security operatives seized his phone and accessed his Google account. The perpetrators asked their victim to produce a letter authorising him to take pictures.

In another incident on December 2, 2023, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) operatives physically assaulted Izunna Okafor, a reporter with 247ureports. The assault occurred while Okafor was returning to Awka from the Soludo Ambassadors’ Anambra South Rally in Nnewi, sharing a vehicle with NSCDC officers. When exiting the NSCDC vehicle, Okafor noticed that his phone had fallen from his pocket in the vehicle.

In an attempt to inform the driver and request to retrieve his phone, one NSCDC operative ordered the driver to speed off, intentionally slamming the door on Okafor’s hand. The journalist managed to take a commercial vehicle to reach the vehicle at a bus stop. Upon arrival, Okafor sought an explanation from the officer who injured him. The officer responded aggressively, raising his voice and cocking his gun, while colleagues joined in assaulting Okafor.

On November 29, 2023, an Asaba Magistrate Court remanded in prison custody two journalists, Joe Ogbodu, Managing Editor of Bigpen Nigeria, and Prince Amour Udemude, over an alleged defamatory report in 2019. The journalists pleaded not guilty to the defamation charge, and their counsels applied for bail. Subsequently, the presiding Magistrate, B.N Anumadu, sentenced them, ordering an unreserved apology to the plaintiff. Although the journalists duly complied, Prince Amour had alleged, during an earlier court appearance on October 12, 2022, that the police prosecutor Ms. Theresa Okpor had coerced them to write a dictated statement to incriminate themselves.

On November 24, 2023, the Niger State Commissioner of Homeland Security, Major General Bello Mohammed Abdullahi, assaulted journalist Mustapha Batsari, who reports for Voice of America (VOA). The incident occurred when the reporter approached the Commissioner at the Government House in Minna for details regarding a crisis in Beji, Bosso Local Government Area.

The state official passed the baton of repression on the security forces once again with a journalist again at the receiving end. On November 13, 2023, the police arrested Achadu Gabriel Idibia, the head of Daybreak newspapers, and subsequently charged the journalist over a report on the Kaduna Hajj camp. Achadu was arraigned two days later on charges of defamation of character, intimidation, and incitement of contempt for religion. He was granted bail and released on November 16, 2023. This incident marked the second arrest for Achadu, who had previously been detained on September 24, 2023, immediately after the publication of the news report.

Journalist Achadu Gabriel Idibia was arrested and charged for a story he did about the Kaduna Hajj camp

Taking a cue from the rampaging security agents and public officials, a group of political thugs assaulted Chinagorom Ugwu of Premium Times at a polling unit in Imo State on November 11, 2023. The journalist was covering an off-season governorship election. The thugs initially ordered him to leave, claiming he had seen enough. The reporter was threatened, pushed away, and prevented from covering the election.

Hoodlums struck again on October 31, 2023, when a four-man mob attacked Harmony 103.5 FM, a radio station affiliated with the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) in Kwara State. The assailants, who arrived at the radio premises on two motorbikes, assaulted the station’s guard, confiscated staff members’ phones, and proceeded to damage facilities and loot equipment. The incident forced the temporary suspension of the station’s operations.

On October 10, 2023, journalist Saint Mienpamo Onitsa, Managing Director of NAIJA Live TV, was arrested in Bayelsa and then transferred to Abuja. The journalist was arraigned on October 17, 2023, before an Abuja High Court on charges of cyberstalking, defamation, and publication of defamatory material based on reports about a September 2023 alleged killing outside the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) offices. On November 2, 2023, the Federal High Court charged him with willful libel, threats, causing danger, and insult against the PAP interim administrator. Despite a bail application, the presiding Judge ordered his remand until December 4, 2023.

Mr Gabriel Idibia, the head of the Daybreak Nigeria newspaper bureau in Kaduna, revealed that he had to flee and go into hiding after being falsely accused of blasphemy. The accusation stemmed from his sharing of a viral video featuring Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a prominent figure in Hamas, Palestine addressing religious intolerance. Gabriel was removed from the Kaduna journalists’ WhatsApp group on October 13, 2023, followed by a flurry of angry criticism, hate comments and threats. This situation echoes a tragic event in May 2022 when Deborah Samuel Yakubu, a Christian college student in Sokoto, faced blasphemy accusations in a WhatsApp group chat, leading to her brutal murder with no one held accountable.

The distressing incidents that have unfolded in the latter part of 2023 demand attention as they reveal real and immediate threats journalists face, even within the confines of their homes.

It is unfortunate that state actors, particularly security agents and public officials stand as the leading perpetrators of the above violations. The other significant type of perpetrators, incidentally, are thugs often acting at the instigation or in the service of important public figures, particularly, politicians. To make matters worse, the judiciary has displayed a woeful attitude of complicity in this repression. In almost all cases, the prosecutors get their wish to get the accused journalists detained or remanded, given the victims no appeal against their persecutors.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) calls on the Nigerian government to protect journalists and ensure their safety and freedom to operate without fear of persecution. The government must prioritize safeguarding press freedom, upholding the rule of law, and fostering an environment where the media can thrive and serve as a vital pillar of democracy.

To this end, the government must call on security agents and state officials to put an end to the wanton attacks and arbitrary arrests of journalists. Nigeria must establish a national safety of journalists mechanism through a multi-stakeholder process, as part of a national commitment to uphold the right to free expression as a cornerstone of its democracy.

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