Safety of Journalists and the Culture Of Impunity in Africa: Perspectives of a Renowned African Human Rights Lawyer

One of Africa’s renowned human rights lawyer and press freedom advocate, Femi Falana, speaks about the important issues of safety of journalists and the culture of impunity in Africa. Mr. Falana, Nigeria’s foremost human rights lawyer, talks about the activities of Boko Haram in Nigeria, the disregard for human rights judgements  of regional and international Courts by governments, among other critical issues affecting the safety of journalists in Africa. Mr. Falana represented the Media Foundation for West Africa and two Gambian journalists on separate cases of torture  and disappearance of a journalist and won both cases. Below is a paper he delivered at a colloquium organised by the Lagos State Chapter of the Nigerian Union of Journalists  and the Dele Giwa Foundation to mark the 30th anniversary of the assassination of one of Africa’s iconic journalists, Nigeria’s Dele Giwa.

Safety Of Journalists And The Culture Of Impunity In Africa By Femi Falana


1. I thank the Nigerian Union of Journalists and the Dele Giwa Foundation for inviting me to deliver an address at the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Dele Giwa, a frontline journalist and founding editor-in-chief of the defunct Newswatch magazine. Unlike the Nigeria Police Force which has conveniently closed the chapter on the investigation of the suspected killers of the journalist the organisers of this annual event have continued to remind the Nigerian people of the bizarre circumstances surrounding the gruesome assassination.  Since the African continent has continued to witness the cold murder and harassment of journalists, I have been asked to speak on the “Safety of journalists and the culture of impunity in Africa.” Having worked with the Nigerian Union of Journalists and the Media Foundation for West Africa in defending  the rights of journalists I am going to dwell on lack of safety and security for media men and women in Africa.

2. Permit me to begin this address by commending the Bring Back Our Girls campaigners for the limited success recorded by the Muhammadu Buhari administration in the rescue of 21 out of the abducted Chibok girls. But for the audacity, consistency and sacrifice of the BBOG in demanding for the release of the girls through pubic protests staged on the streets of Abuja, on a daily basis, the government and people of Nigeria would have forgotten about such assault on our collective humanity and sense of justice. While urging the Buhari administration to secure the release of all the other girls in the illegal custody of the satanic Boko Haram sect we must not fail to realise that with commitment and perseverance we can always win the struggle for human rights, political freedom and economic development.

3. Unlike the Nigeria Union of Journalists, which has limited its search for the killers of Dele Giwa by holding anniversary lectures, other associations of journalists in other parts of Africa have embarked on political and legal measures to investigate the killing of journalists and bring the perpetrators to book. In the case of Ebrima Manneh v. Republic of Gambia (2008), the Media Foundation for West Africa filed a suit at the Ecowas court to secure the release of the applicant, a journalist, from unlawful custody. As the defendant could not justify the arrest and detention of the journalist the Court ordered his immediate release and awarded him  damages of one hundred thousand . It was at the stage of executing the judgment that the defendant informed the court that it could not locate the journalist in any of its detention centres. Since this is a clear case of disappearance the Media Foundation has given our  law firm a fresh instruction to sue the government of The Gambia to inquire into the murder of Mr. Manneh and pay exemplary damages to his bereaved family.

4. In the case of Deyda Hydara & Others v. The Gambia (2013), the Ecowas court held that the failure of the defendant to conduct an inquiry into the killing of Deyda Hydara, publisher of The Point newspaper by gunmen, in Banjul in December 2004 constituted a violation of the right to life of the deceased. The court ordered the defendant to investigate the unlawful killing of the journalist and payment of reparation of fifty thousand dollars to the applicants. Similarly, the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights has ordered the Burkinabe government to inquire into the killing of Norbert Zongo, a journalist, and three others in December 1998 and awarded damages of one million dollars to the families of the deceased. In addition, the defendant was ordered to take measures to prevent further reoccurrence of such killings.

5. In spite of the demand of the Nigerian Union of Journalists and the human rights community, the Babangida junta refused to allow any independent investigation into the gruesome assassination of Dele Giwa on October 19, 1986. Police investigation was abandoned while the gallant efforts of the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, to prosecute two security chiefs, suspected by him to have perpetrated the dastardly act, were frustrated by a compromised judiciary. However, the bombing of Bagauda Kaltho in 1996 was investigated by the Oputa Commission of Inquiry. During the proceedings of the panel, the State Security Service and the police could not exonerate the Sani Abacha junta from the brutal murder of the journalist. The recommendation of the panel that the case may be reopened for investigation by the police was not carried out by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration on the grounds that the Supreme Court had declared the setting up of the panel illegal and unconstitutional. Since President Mohammadu Buhari has ordered the police to reopen investigation into the killing of Chief Bola Ige and other unresolved politically motivated murders, the Nigerian Union of Journalists should collaborate with the Police in exposing the assassins who terminated the lives of Dele Giwa and Bagauda Kaltho.

6. No doubt, the federal government has recorded remarkable progress in the counter insurgency operations in the north east region. To a large extent, life has begun to return to the liberated zone as many displaced citizens have returned to their homes. Regrettably, there have been undenied reports of the mismanagement and diversion of funds by some officials in charge of the IDP camps. The federal government ought to call such wicked and heartless criminally minded elements to order without any further delay. However, it is high time that the government carried out the recommendation of the Ambassador Usman Gilmatari panel to prosecute the sponsors of the Boko Haram sect. The panel had found that the sect was established and sponsored by politicians in Borno state who used members of the sect to win the 2003 governorship election. After the elections, the politicians abandoned them. As if that was not enough, the police command in the state was instigated to wipe out the leaders of the group. It was at that stage that the sect declared a war on the Nigerian people. It is a war that  has claimed the lives of over 30,000 people and the  displacement of two million others. Some journalists who covered the war were harassed by the Nigerian Army. For instance, when the Aljazeera News Agency could not secure the release of two journalists detailed to cover an election in the war torn area in 2014, our law firm was briefed to approach the court to seek legal  redress. Both journalists were however released as soon as  the court processes were filed and served on the army authorities.

7. Last month, the army declared three people wanted including a journalist on the suspicion that they are maintaining contacts with the Boko Haram sect in contravention of the Terrorism and Prevention Act. Following my public statement that the army lacks the power to declare civilians wanted the matter was transferred to the State Security Service. The journalist, Mr. Ahmed Salkida, who is actually living in the United Arab Emirates, rushed home and was arrested by the SSS operatives at the airport upon his arrival in the country. He was later interrogated and released on bail. Apart from the harassment of individual journalists the federal government has accused the media of supporting the terrorists based on the coverage of the war on terror. In particular, the army was not happy with the media for reporting that Shekau, the recognised leader of the Boko Haram sect remains alive since he has been killed so many times! The high command of the armed forces was also not pleased over reports that the army lacked equipment to fight the war on terror. Even though the reports were usually denied by the army headquarters  some of the military officers who engaged in the  criminal diversion of the sum of  $2.1 billion earmarked for the procurement of arms and ammunition to prosecute the war have been charged to court by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

8. However, while the reconstruction of the several communities in the north east region ravaged by the war is in progress the media should expose the move by the Kaduna state government to provoke another religious war in the north west region. The media should not hesitate to draw the attention of the nation to the ongoing moves by  Governor Nasiru El Rufai to drive the members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria underground with dire consequences on the peace and security of the nation.

9. According to the report of the Ambassador Usman Gilmatari panel the Boko Haram sect sponsored and funded by a section of the political class in Borno state. The members of the sect were recruited and used for the 2003 governorship election. After the election they were dumped and abandoned with the weapons bought for them by their sponsors. Following sharp disagreements with the state government the leaders of the sect were extrajudicially eliminated by the police. It was at that stage that the sect declared a war on the Nigerian State. During his visit to Borno state in 2014, former President Goodluck Jonathan traced the genesis of the war on terror in Nigeria to the cold murder of the  leader of the sect, Mohammed Yussuf. In his speech at a meeting with Borno elders the then  head of state referred to the slain Boko Haram leader  as “Governor Sheriff’s friend.”

10. When the army killed three of the children of Sheik Ibraheem Elzakzaky the leader of the Shiites in 2014 Mr. Nasiru El Rufai paid a condolence visit to him in his residence in Zaria. He also visited the house to seek the support of the Shiites during the campaign for the governorship election in 2015. And when he won the election Mr. El Rufai sent his sister to thank the Sheik. But following the military attack on the Shiites in December 2015 the kaduna state government provided logistics for the mass burial of the 348 citizens who were massacred by the armed troops. The Kaduna state government also demised the house of the Sheik  and other properties of the Shiites. Even though the government has not issued a white paper on the report of the Garba Judicial Commission of Inquiry which probed the military attack Governor El Rufai has announced the  proscription of the Islamic movement in Nigeria. Scores of people were killed last week by the army and the policy under the pretext of enforcing the proscription. With the assistance of the rampaging  troops youths are reported to have set fire on  the properties of the many members of the movement. In justifying the ban of the movement the Kaduna state government is said to have relied on the provision of Section 45 of the Constitution.  With respect, a state government has no power to proscribe any society in Nigeria. In Peace Corps v Inspector-General of Police  (2012) the federal high court held that the proscription of the plaintiff without a court order could not be justified in law. Therefore, the purported ban of the movement without a court order is illegal and unconstitutional. It is hoped that the federal government will restrain  the Kaduna state from plunging the country to another religious war.

11. The peaceful protests to press for the recognition of  a sovereign  state of Biafra by the members of the Independent Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) have been violently suppressed by the security forces. In the process, many of the protesters and some  members of the public have been illegally shot dead by security forces . The leader of the group, Nnamdi Kanu has been charged with treasonable felony by the federal government and remanded in prison custody by the trial court.  In view of the ongoing negotiations between the federal government and the Niger Delta Avengers the demands of the IPOB members should be addressed by the government. An administration that has entered into dialogue with the satanic Boko Haram sect for the release of the Chibok girls should not hesitate to withdraw the charges against the IPOB leaders and invite them to the negotiation table.

12. When seven judges were subjected to nocturnal arrest last week by the State Security Service a section of the media accused the Buhari administration of engaging in Gestapo tactics. The allegation of the humiliation of the judges was well canvassed in the media to the extent that a first time visitor to the country might have been led to believe that criminal suspects are treated with dignity by security forces. Before then the media had challenged the prison authorities for subjecting  an influential criminal suspect to handcuffs. On that occasion I was compelled to condemn  the hypocrisy of the media for not criticising  the police for  putting handcuffs and leg chains on petty criminal suspects. However, having regard to the anger which has greeted the treatment meted out to  the judges I am compelled to reiterate my demand for the treatment of criminal suspects in strict compliance with the provisions of the Constitution and the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015. Meanwhile, I urge the media to defend the human rights of all Nigerians including the Shiites and the IPOB members and other victims of human rights abuse in the country.

13. Notwithstanding the claim of the government that press freedom is respected in Nigeria the harassment of journalists has not ceased.  On September 29, 2016 the Committee to Protect  Journalists  (CPJ) called on the federal government to release at least 11 journalists, bloggers and media support staff who were detained by security agencies across the country.  According to the CPJ, “the impunity with which the Nigerian security forces have recently attacked the press is reminiscent of Nigeria’s darkest days of military rule.” See https:/ Apart from arrests and detention of journalists some have been charged to court for criminal libel and seditious publications.  Two journalists and the  publishers of the Leadership newspapers were charged with forgery and false publications by the Jonathan administration. The case was discontinued when it was found that the government could not secure the conviction of the defendants. Before then the same newspapers and staff were charged to court for reporting that the Late President Yaradua was indisposed. The editors of The Nation newspapers were also arrested and detained for allegedly forging the signature of former President Obasanjo even though they were not charged to court. The use of the police and the courts to intimidate journalists has continued unabated.

14. Some journalists who  were kidnapped and and  were freed upon payment of ransom. A notorious militant leader kidnapped who were in Delta state to cover an official engagement. Even though the government ensured that the abducted journalists were freed the kidnappers were not prosecuted. On account of the  economic recession in the country a number of media houses are owing  journalists and other media staff areas of salaries.  The development has undermined press freedom and exposed journalists to risk. In order to halt the killings, attacks and kidnapping of journalists the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights has appealed to the member states of the African Union to “fulfill their obligations of preventing and investigating crimes against journalists as well as bringing the perpetrators to justice.” See https:/www.Bujumbura. organic. uk/news/new-call-fir-safety-of-journalists-working-in-Africa.

15. On September 10, 2016 the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights and the United Nations Educational and Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) convened a seminar on “strengthening judicial systems and African Court to protect the safety of journalists” in Arusha, Tanzania. Seminar participants regretted the lack of enforcement of the judgments of regional tribunals and that access to the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights is restricted to the seven member states of the African Union (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’ivore, Ghana, Mali, Malawi and Tanzania)  which have made declarations accepting the jurisdictional competence of the Court pursuant to article 34 (6) of the Protocol of the Court. In concluding the seminar it was noted that “currently a decent tool-set to defend journalists is in place; a legal framework comprising both hard norms such as the various treaties and soft ones such as the UNESCO framework, solid jurisprudence from the African Court, and the eagerness of the various actors to make it work. Given the current state of play for press freedom in  Africa, what now needs to be done is to figure how these tools can be used better.” See https:/

16. Finally, even though  i do not share the optimism  of the seminar participants I am of the strong view that the provisions of local and international human rights instruments have made adequate provisions for the safety of journalists in Africa. But to ensure that the rights of journalists and other citizens are protected the culture of impunity must give way to the rule of law. In this regard,  civil society organizations should pressure the majority of the member states of the African Union to make the declaration allowing NGOs and individuals access to the African Court with a view to securing the enforcement of human rights including press freedom. While urging  the governments of Burkina Faso and The Gambia to comply with the judgments of the Ecowas Court and the African Court with respect to the killing of journalists I am compelled to call on the Nigerian Union of Journalists to ensure that the killers of Dele Giwa and Bagauda Kaltho are exposed and prosecuted without any further delay. However, if the State is unwilling to reopen the investigation the NUJ should pray the Ecowas court to compel the federal government to inquire into the reckless killings and prosecute the suspects.

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