HUMAN RIGHTS: Pushback over arrests of journalists, free speech

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Following what appears like increasing arrests of journalists in Nigeria, concerns are mounting over human rights, especially free speech in the country.

This anxiety, which has left many disturbed, is spreading beyond traditional, new media and the country.

 

The situation has not only evoked memories of the past when Nigerian journalists were hounded, it has also led to questions on whether the nation is speedily returning to that era.

 

For a country with a history of repression of press freedom occasioned by frequent monitoring, arrests and attacks on journalists, recent developments are sending negative signals about free speech and fundamental human rights.

Besides, for an administration that came into office with a promise to respect human rights, the situation seems to have raised disturbing questions.

President Bola Tinubu had said his administration would always uphold media freedom and respect opinions, whether they are adversarial or complimentary to his government.

But findings by Sunday Vanguard indicated that between, 2023 and 2024, rights to freedom of expression and media freedom have been routinely violated, with security forces threatening, arresting and detaining journalists, bloggers and human rights activists just for doing their work.

Their arrests or better still abductions, often done in Gestapo manners, are reminiscent of the dark days of the military, which left pains and confusion in their trail for families and colleagues of victims.

 

Within this period, checks showed that no fewer than 11 journalists had been detained.

In October last year, a Bayelsa-based owner of Niaja Live TV, Saint Onitsha, was arrested for alleged cyber stalking against a government official.

He was subsequently charged with cyberstalking under Section 24 of Nigeria’s Cybercrimes Act and defamation under the criminal code.

His ordeal was said to be connected to a report he published, titled: ‘Tension in Niger Delta Region as Amnesty Office Allegedly Strangle Ex-Agitator to Stupor.’

He was released after spending four months in detention.

 

On February 22, Kasarachi Aniagolu, a journalist with Abuja-based Whistler Newspapers, was arrested by the police.

 

She was picked by the anti-violence crime unit of the Nigerian Police Force,NPF, while covering a raid on bureau de Change, BDC, operators in the Wuse Zone 4 area of Abuja.

 

After eight hours in detention, Aniagolu was released, making the newspaper say it was “deeply troubled by the circumstances leading to her arrest and detention while doing her job as a journalist.”

The police, in February, arrested the Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of Informant 247 website, Adisa-Jaji Azeez and Salihu Ayatollah, for publishing reports this year and in 2023 about alleged corruption in Kwara State Polytechnic.

 

The duo were detained after reporting to Kwara State Police headquarters, Ilorin, on the request of the police.

 

They were charged to court and later released on bail irrespective of police request to detain them for another 21 days.

The police, in February, arrested the Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of Informant 247 website, Adisa-Jaji Azeez and Salihu Ayatollah, for publishing reports this year and in 2023 about alleged corruption in Kwara State Polytechnic.

 

The duo were detained after reporting to Kwara State Police headquarters, Ilorin, on the request of the police.

 

They were charged to court and later released on bail irrespective of police request to detain them for another 21 days.

There was also the case of Precious Eze, an online publisher, who was arrested on December 12, 2023, at his residence in Gbagada, Lagos, by security agents.

Those who arrested him claimed to be men of the Special Police Task Force, Abuja.

 

Another incident was the arrest of First News Editor, Segun Olatunji, who was taken from his Lagos residence on March 15, 2024.

Olatunji’s case, once again, demonstrated the increasing dangers pressmen face in the discharge of their duties.

According to the newspaper, Olatunji was abducted by 10 armed men “two of them in military uniforms” from his home in the Iyana Odo, Abule Egba area in Lagos.

He was released on March 28 by the Defence Intelligence Agency, DIA, following a nationwide outrage.

 

Amed men were said to have arrived at Olatunji’s residence at 6:00 pm and forcefully took him away without any explanation.

 

On the heels of that was the recent detention of Daniel Ojukwu, a reporter with the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, FIJ.

 

He was abducted by the police in Lagos on May 1 and released after 10 days following a protest held at the force headquarters.

Ojukwu’s detention was also linked to an investigative report he had done, revealing alleged corrupt practices by government officials.

Meanwhile, the police, through Force Public Relations Officer, ACP Olumuyiwa Adejobi, said Ojukwu’s arrest and investigation by the police were justifiable under the law.

 

“Mr. Ojukwu was lawfully apprehended and detained pursuant to a valid remand warrant issued by a competent court of justice on May 2, 2024. His initial detention in Lagos and subsequent transfer to Abuja by the FCID-National Cybercrime Centre aligns with standard investigative procedures undertaken by police,” the police image maker said.

Similarly, in December 2023, Marcus Fatunmole, an investigative journalist and News Editor at the International Centre for Investigative Reporting ,ICIR, was harassed by security agents at the Eagle Square car park in Abuja while investigating the FCT mass transportation scheme.

He was reportedly assaulted, hit with a gun, forced to delete images on his phone and handcuffed for an hour.

 

Hamisu Dangiba, a reporter with Voice of Nigeria, VON, in Zamfara, was found dead in a soak away in September last year.

These cases do not exist in isolation as the Media Rights Agenda, MRA, said 45 attacks on journalists have taken place since 2023.

 

Executive Director of the body, Edetaen Ojo, who said this, noted that security agencies were responsible for 62 percent of the 45 cases of attacks documented, while hoodlums perpetrated 16. He added that unidentified persons such as kidnappers, armed individuals, and others were responsible for 15 per cent.

 

According to Ojo, 37 of the incidents were male journalists, representing 82 per cent while four were female, representing nine per cent.

Analysts believe the development, apart from constituting a threat to the civic space, negates the provisions of Sections 22 and 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999,as amended, which guarantees freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

 

This observation is hinged on the axiom that free press and public participation are fundamental pillars of democracy.

Another trend found disturbing is the reliance on Cybercrimes Act of 2015 to carry out these acts many described as constituting human rights violations.

The law, according to Templars, a leading African law firm, “was enacted to provide a unified legal, regulatory and institutional framework for the prohibition, prevention, detection, investigation, and prosecution of cybercrimes in Nigeria.”

 

Sadly, security agents are believed to be interpreting it wrongly to clamp down on print and digital journalists, thereby making the media space uncertain for practitioners.

 

This is evident in the reasons adduced by the police for the arrest of those earlier mentioned.

All these, Sunday Vanguard learnt, combined to suggest that the civic space is increasingly shrinking, thereby projecting the country as one where rights of journalists are abused.

 

Such a situation may have contributed to Nigeria having an uneviable position on the World Press Freedom Index.

The global media right body, championed by Reporters Without Borders, RSF, in its 2024 report, categorised Nigeria among the most challenging countries for journalists in West Africa.

 

The country was ranked 112th position out of 180 countries, which was, however, an improvement from the 123rd it was ranked in 2023.

In explaining the reasons for the ranking, it was noted that “journalists face frequent abductions, arrests and prosecution, usually after reporting on chronic corruption and bad governance plaguing the oil-rich country.’’

 

Meanwhile, apart from the seemingly human rights abuses faced by journalists, it is believed that others have also suffered one form of abuse or the other.

One such is the Okuama scenario where the military has been widely accused of abusing the rights of indigenes following the killing of 17 soldiers in Okuama community, Ughelli South Local Government Area of Delta State.

 

A human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, had corroborated claims of human rights infractions in the community recently.

Falana, in a letter to the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister for Justice, Lateef Fagbemi, called for an immediate end to what he describes as “egregious violations” of the human rights of innocent members of the Okuama community in Delta State.

 

He said: “We are disturbed to learn that the people of Okuama in Delta State and Igbomotoru in Bayelsa State have been subjected to horrendous human rights abuse over the action of a gang of criminal elements who killed the 16 soldiers.

 

Hence, we are compelled to call on the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice to halt the egregious human rights abuse of innocent people in both communities by addressing the following complaints.”

In view of the foregoing, observers believe President Tinubu owes it a duty to halt what was generally described as a quick descent into the past when Nigeria was notorious for trampling on the fundamental rights of persons.

They argued that the reliance on the Cybercrimes Act to clamp down on journalists is a threat to democracy and freedom of expression.

The situation has also drawn attention to the shrinking civic space in Nigeria, with many calling for urgent action to protect journalists and human rights defenders.

 

Speaking on the trend, a human rights activist and Director of Citizens Constituency, Dr. Akpo Kamene, told Sunday Vanguard that it was high time the human rights community rose against the situation.

He said the failure to nip the occurrences in the bud, would encourage security agencies to abuse the rights of persons on behalf of those in government.

According to him, “the least Nigeria deserves now is human rights abuses. We have been on that route before and had the worst human rights record. I am surprised President Tinubu’s appointees would be this irritated about free speech. The President can’t claim not to be aware of all these. What we have seen since last year is happening too early in the life of this administration.

“I expect government to denounce any abuse of the inalienable rights of individual Nigerians who suffered so much in the hands of the military in the past. Democracy guarantees freedom of expression and freedom to live your life without suppression. If we continue like this, we may end up having a police state.”

On his part, Country Director of ActionAid, Andrew Mamedu, said: “When the arrests and detentions of journalists and media practitioners do not align with the rule of law, or clearly infringe on press freedom and human rights, it poses a significant threat to the democratic principles that Nigeria upholds. ActionAid will join forces with allies and movements to resist any attempt to silence journalists and suppress freedom of expression.”

Lamenting the situation, President Coalition for Defence of Freedom, CDC, Mr. Baranzan Yani, called on Nigerians to rise against what he called the intolerance of political appointees.

“At CSF, we have carefully followed the developments and realised that if citizens do not take action, we may have the worst human rights record under this administration. “The outcomes of our daily trackers do not indicate that government officials are ready to tolerate dissenting opinions. What that means is that we are headed for a regimented state. Therefore, the onus is on the populace to resist the growing attacks on the civic space. It is saddening that security agencies have made themselves tools in the hands of these politicians, who care less about the welfare of Nigerians. “

Speaking on the matter, a senior journalist and Director of International Press Centre, IPC, Mr. Lanre Arogundade, said such a situation appears as if journalists are back to the military era.

His words: “They were actually kidnapped with their abductors initially denying they were holding them. One of them was blindfolded and chained. The feeling: we are back in the military era. We always advise journalists to adhere to ethics and professionalism. But whoever believes there is a breach should follow due process and not indulge in self-help.

 

“It is embarrassing. In a democracy, the military is bound by the constitution.

I think the response from the media has been impressive but there should be more solidarity. An injury to one should be an injury to all.

 

We have to be careful of excessive regulation. State and self-regulatory mechanisms currently exist.’’

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