State Actors on Rampage: 64 days of Physical Attacks, Censorship and Detention

Over a period of two months (July 12-September 16, 2017), state actors in Nigeria have subjected the media to a blitz of violations, including physical attacks, arrests and detentions and censorship in what is becoming a vicious cycle that has the potential to induce widespread self-censorship among the media in the country.

The most recent incident was recorded on September 16 when the Governor of Imo State, Chief Rochas Okorocha, banned Amby Uneze of THISDAY and Chidi Nkwopara of the Vanguard newspaper from covering activities at the State House, the seat of government. Describing the two as “enemies of government”, Chief Okorocha said the two were fond of writing unfavourable reports about his administration.

The above act of censorship by the governor came four days after some 20 soldiers stormed the Abia State Secretariat of the Nigerian Union of Journalists in Umuahia, on September 12 and assaulted journalists there, smashing and seizing their smartphones and ipads. The soldiers accused the journalists of unauthorized coverage of their parade dubbed “Operation Python Dance.’’

There was another incident of physical attack on September 11 when some members of the Department of State Services, (DSS), a paramilitary group, brutalized Toba Adedeji, a reporter of the Osun Defender newspaper and Timothy Agbor, a correspondent of The Point newspaper. Agbor’s mobile phone was also destroyed by his assailants. The journalists’ only ‘crime’ was that they were covering a protest over poor working conditions by the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees in the state capital, Osogbo.

Ten days earlier, on September 1, security aides attached to the Kogi State Government House assaulted Segun Salami, a reporter working with Channels Television. About six policemen beat up the journalist whom they accused of showing disrespect by being on the phone while the national flag was being lowered. Other accounts say one of the police officers accused Salami of taunting him.

In a startling revelation that could have a chilling effect on the online media and abuse the rights of individuals online, the Director of Defence Information of the Nigerian Army, Major-General John Enenche, said on Channels Television on August 23, 2017 that the military is monitoring social media for “troubling activities and misinformation.”

“We have our strategic media centres that monitor the social media to be able to sieve out and react to all the ones that will be anti-government, be anti-military, (and) be anti-security”, Enenche said.

Earlier on July 30, a cameraman from Liberty Television was wounded and his video camera broken in an assault on journalists and participants at a press conference organized by the opposition All Peoples’ Congress. The assailants were thugs reportedly led by a Divisional Police Officer, CSP Abdullahi.

The onslaught by state actors began on July 16 with Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai arraigning Luka Binniyat, a journalist with the Vanguard newspaper before a High Court. Binniyat was charged with “breach of public peace” and false reporting in connection with an article he wrote on January 24, 2017 in which he alleged that some herdsmen had killed five students of the State Ccollege of Education.

Although Binniyat was recovering from an accident and arrived in court on clutches, the Judge ordered him to be remanded in custody until July 20. On the adjourned date, the trial judge, Alhaji Bashir Sukola set impossible bail conditions of N10 million (US$28,000) with two sureties, a bank bond in same amount and the surrender of the sureties’ passport. Unable to meet the conditions, Binniyat was again remanded in prison.

The above violations have grave implications for freedom of expression and access to information in Nigeria because they have the potential to weaken the morale of the media which is the interface between the citizens and the government.

These acts of hostility against journalists infringe directly on section 22 of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution, (as amended) which imposes on the media the obligation to scrutinise the activities of the government and to hold the government accountable to the people

The prevalence of physical attacks is dreadful. But even more appalling is the fact that the perpetrators in all the above cases are governors and security officers – state actors who are otherwise expected to play a leading role in preventing and addressing violations against press freedom.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) condemns the culture of machismo being displayed by state actors against the press in Nigeria. We urge the Committee on Information and National Orientation and the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters of the Nigerian Senate to take up these violations with the relevant authorities within the Executive and to work together with the media towards ending the siege on the media by state actors.

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