One case which will always remain Nigeria’s most prominent and controversial attack on press freedom is the murder of one of Nigeria’s iconic journalists and the founding editor-in-chief of Newswatch Magazine, Dele Giwa, at 39, through a parcel bomb on October 19, 1986. This incident has remained a huge loss for the practice of investigative journalism in Nigeria as the legendary journalist’s murder is still a mystery, with security agencies and government yet to bring the culprits behind the murder to book. That incident has remained unique as the first and only case of letter bomb in Nigeria. No other person in Nigeria is known to have been murdered in that gruesome manner.
Several other cases of attack on press freedom have taken place since the Dele Giwa instance. This makes it difficult to give an outright pass mark to meaningful respect of press freedom in Nigeria. The 2019 Global Press Freedom Index also ranks Nigeria low, further confirming the bleak outlook for press freedom in the country. An analysis of he state of press freedom in Africa by Lahal Sambona of Inter Press Service also shows Nigeria is among the countries in the region with disturbing trend of harassment of journalists.
Press freedom in Nigeria is not entirely reliable. Though there is no perfect society where freedom of the press is absolutely total, there are unfortunate extremes that are simply unacceptable in modern times. The atmosphere within which the press operate in Nigeria may not be the worst but growing incidents of brutality and harassment of journalists and media houses creating a disturbing picture of freedom of the press in Nigeria. With the spate of arrests, harassment and inexplicable detentions, one troubled analyst posited that that the infamous quote of former military ruler of Uganda, Idi Amin “There is freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee freedom after speech” is now a reality in Nigeria. Though this may not be entirely correct, the fact is that there is no certainty of freedom for journalists in Nigeria especially after reporting on subjects that are deemed sensitive, depending on who is angered by such report. Section 22 of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution provides that, “the press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people”.
This is practically the major legal guarantee of press freedom in Nigeria. But in Nigeria you could see what looks like a crackdown on press freedom against online and offline media organizations, both mainstream and social media. The most dangerous states to operate as a journalist in Nigeria are the troubled states in the North where terrorism incidents still exist, including some states in Southern Nigeria where fight between opposition politicians is most fierce.
A report released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) captured the difficulty experienced by journalists working in Nigeria. “In Nigeria, it is difficult to cover stories involving politics, terrorism, and financial embezzlement by the powerful. Journalists are often threatened, subjected to physical violence, or denied access to information by government officials, police, and sometimes the public itself…. The all-powerful regional governors are often the media’s most determined persecutors and act with complete impunity,” the report said.
Check out this timeline documented by an analyst on incidents of press brutality between August 2015 when the present Nigeria’s administration came into power and March 2018; On 8 August, 2016, Abubakar Sidiq Usman, blogger was arrested by the anti-corruption agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), over an unfavourable publication about EFCC acting chairman Ibrahim Magu 9. On September 5, 2016, Ahmad Salkida, a journalist was arrested by the DSS over accusation that he was concealing information about the whereabouts of the Chibok girls. On April 9, 2017, Austin Okai, blogger was arrested in Abuja by security operatives believed to be from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS over alleged criticisms of the government of Kogi state.
On September 6, 2016, Emenike Iroegbu, who publishes Abia Facts Newspaper, was arrested in front of his family by men suspected to be attached to the State Security Service (SSS) field office in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, taking him away on allegations of criminal defamation and blackmail. He was subsequently driven to the SSS field office in Umuahia, the Abia State capital, where he was interrogated about a story he had published on his platform which detailed alleged diabolical and sharp practices by the state governor. On April 19, 2017, Midat Joseph, a journalist with Leadership Newspaper, was arrested and detained on April 19, 2017 over a comment he had made in a WhatsApp chat. A Magistrate court in Kaduna later dismissed a suit filed against Mr.Joseph on this issue.
On March 30, 2019, Jones Abiri, the editor and publisher of the Weekly Source newspaper based in the Bayelsa State capital, Yenagoa, was reportedly arrested a second time by the Department of State Services (DSS). He was reportedly re-arrested at Ayabowei Plaza in Yenagoa while having a meeting with his colleagues. Abiri’s case drew local and international outrage given that he had been previously arrested by the DSS in 2016 and held for two years after he was accused of being the leader of the joint revolutionary council of the separatist group, Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force. Abiri was also accused of threatening oil companies and demanding money from them. He was granted bail in August 2018 when an Abuja magistrate court struck out a suit against him after being held in detention for two years.
Abiri’s case was described as a violation of the journalist’s right which was a troubling development to journalism practice in Nigeria. On this issue, Angel Quintal, Programme Coordinator of Committee to Protect Journalist’s Africa said: “Given that Jones Abiri was previously detained by intelligence officers without access to a lawyer or his family for two years, we are deeply worried that he has once again been arrested and that his whereabouts are not known,” said Angela Quintal, Committee to Protect Journalist’s Africa program coordinator…. We call on federal and state authorities in Nigeria to disclose where Abiri is being detained and the reasons for his arrest, and urge that they ensure that his rights are not violated yet again and that due process is respected.” Abiri was released on Monday, April 1.
Looking at the World Press Freedom Index, you could argue that Nigeria might have improved in terms of freedom accorded the press in the line of duty. Nigeria moved up in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index but Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed concerns over the growing difficulties Nigerian journalists encountered when covering subjects with national security ramifications. The index, published annually by RSF since 2002, measures the level of media freedom in 180 countries, including the level of pluralism, media independence, and respect for the safety and freedom of journalists. The 2018 ranking was premised on violations (or absence of them) that took place between January 1st and December 31st 2017. The report released one week before the 2018 World Press Freedom Day, placed Nigeria 119th on the global ranking, sandwiched between Afghanistan and Maldives on 118th and 120th positions respectively. Nigeria was ranked 122 in 2017. Now this looks like an improvement but when you consider the fact that three African countries were ranked among the first 30 countries, you would understand how gloomy the situation is in Nigeria. Ghana was 23rd, Namibia 26th and South Africa 28th.
The most disturbing disregard of press freedom by security operatives happened during the 2019 general elections in Nigeria. In one unbelievable incident, five journalists in Anambra state, Southeastern part of the country, covering the Presidential election were harassed by police men in the most disturbing manner, even when they showed their identity cards, provided documents showing they were accredited to cover the election, and were even wearing aprons given to journalists by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the body that organizes elections in the country. The journalists – Messrs Onu Nwanosike, The Nation; Geoffrey Anyanwu, Daily Sun; Vincent Ujumadu, Vanguard; Tony Okafor, Punch; and David-Chyddy Eleke of Thisday – were allegedly molested and demobilised after their car keys were forcibly taken away by the policemen in Agulu, Anambra state, near the home of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) vice-presidential candidate, Mr. Peter Obi, while carrying out their lawful duties. They were all in one mini bus when the incident happened. The big question is, if this could happen to journalists working for some of the biggest newspapers in the country, who were wearing apron of INEC showing they were accredited to cover the elections, what could have happened if only two of the reporters were in a private vehicle and were not wearing any apron?
Press freedom in now could also be described as seasonal in Nigeria, especially on issues as specific as election reporting. What this means is that in there are terms journalists enjoy freedom to do their work while there are times such rights cannot be guaranteed by even people in government, especially politicians who might not have direct control of what their ‘supporters’ do in the field. In some states where there is little or no issue of terrorism, especially the in Southern part of the country, journalists seize to enjoy press freedom during election periods. In the ‘season’ of elections, a journalist operates like a car parked at owner’s risk. You could end up in a cross fire between opposition parties or opposing thugs likely sponsored by powerful politicians.
The general election period constituted a moment of horror Nigerian journalists. Harassment were witnessed nation-wide during the Presidential and Gubernatorial elections in the country. Journalists covering the elections told Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) they were detained and harassed by security services or other armed individuals, denied access to report on polling stations, forced to delete photographs, and assaulted. The experiences of journalists during the elections which they narrated to CPJ were frightening. Check out a few of them: Nonso Isiguzo, a news editor with the privately owned Nigeria Info radio station, told CPJ that he was traveling on election day between polling stations to report on elections in the Ahoada West local government area in Rivers state when armed men, some wearing camouflage uniforms, stopped their Nigeria Info-branded car, told Isiguzo and his driver, Sunday Isiitu, to get out, and took their car keys. Shortly afterwards, a second car carrying five others whom Isiguzo identified as journalists with accredited press tags was also stopped at the same point on the road, he said. The men released Messrs Isiguzo, Isiitu, and the other journalists after holding them on the side of the road for two hours, after which Isiguzo did not continue reporting in the area, he told CPJ.
In Kaduna State, a group of more than 20 men attacked Shinzong Bala, a reporter with the publicly funded Radio Nigeria station, and Amos Tauna, a reporter with the privately owned Daily Post newspaper, while they were investigating alleged election-related arrests and burning cars around the town of Zonkwa’s police station, Messrs Bala and Tauna told CPJ. The men attacked the journalists with stones and wooden sticks, took Bala’s phone, recorder, and car keys, as well as Tauna’s press pass, the journalists said. Mr Bala managed to retrieve his belongings after paying the men, but said his clothes were ripped and his body was bruised in the attack. Mr Tauna said his pass was not returned.
Collin Ossai, a broadcast reporter with the privately owned Channels TV station, told CPJ that he, his cameraperson, and a radio journalist with Speed FM were blocked from reporting at a polling station in the Esan Central local government area in Edo state. In Damatuzu, a local government area in Nigeria’s northeastern Yobe state, members of the Nigerian military detained for over an hour journalists Musa Mingyi, with the privately owned Blueprint newspaper, and Hamisu Kabir Matazu, of the privately owned Daily Trust newspaper, according to Mingyi and the Daily Trust. Also on election day, Segun Adewale, a local politician known as “Aeroland” and a member of the Peoples Democratic Party, hit and shoved BBC reporter Ajoke Ulohotse in Nigeria’s southwestern Lagos-Abeokuta area, according to a report by BBC Pidgin, which included video of the incident, and a BBC statement emailed to CPJ.
Inadequate laws have also been cited as part of the problem that has led to unbridled abuse of press freedom in Nigeria. Ayode Longe, the programme manager, Media Rights Agenda, said unlike Nigeria, article 162 of the Ghanaian constitution specifically provides media freedom, “there it says that the media shall be free and shall not be censored and that parliament cannot make laws that will censor the media.” Mr. Longe observed that there exists a gap in the laws guiding media freedom in Nigeria. “What we have is the criminal defamation laws. Our laws are more or less negative and work against the media… In the world, the movement is towards civil defamation but in Nigeria, we still have criminal defamation which should not be. What we also found out is that the state goes ahead to prosecute cases that are meant to be handled by individuals,” he said.
Government at all levels ought to do more to ensure press freedom in Nigeria. However, journalists should ensure that they uphold the ethical and professional tenets of their profession in order not to be seen to be abusing the freedom to do their job. In search of solutions to attack on press freedom, the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, PTCIJ, had launched a Press Attack tracker as part of its strategic vision of ensuring freedom of expression and its fight against press gagging. The tracker seeks to document and track threats and attacks on journalists nationwide. However, putting an end to press freedom attack in Nigeria goes beyond developing a computer-based tracker to re-orientation of news sources and the entire nation on the essential role of the press in the society. People need to truly understand that without freedom of the press, journalists cannot do their work effectively, and without effective and responsive journalism premised on press freedom, the it might be difficult for the society to operate smoothly.